Friday, July 25, 2014

Professor for one year (week 48): Who does profit from MOOCs?

Actually, this blog post was scheduled for the first week of March. However, the topic is still relevant even a few weeks later. Just pretend it's early March 2014 (i.e., cold and rainy) while reading.

During our visit of US higher ed institutions last year, we met James P. Honan from Harvard's Grad School of Education. We discussed various things and also touched e-learning and MOOCs. Honan told us about his experiences as a teacher and consumer of e-learning courses and contents and then some musing started about the underlying principles of MOOCs. I will briefly follow up here.

From a didactically point of view, massive open online courses (MOOCs) are old wine in new skins. I wrote about this part in an earlier post. E-Learning courses hosted on servers of universities started around 2000, and courses supported by current technology are as old as TV. The only new aspect is the "massiveness". At a university, e-learning courses are offered to the students of a particular subject at a certain point of their studies enrolled at that specific university. So there might be several hundreds of students using the materials of a course.

Going "massive" and "open", those courses skip restrictions -- everybody can take part -- but no change in didactics might be involved. Allowing more than only a few hundred users to access the material may involve changes in server architecture, maybe clustering, but not necessarily in the general technology used for user interaction and the like.

However, someone has to run those servers and someone should be paid for maintenance. The first MOOCs were developed from scratch, not just scaled e-learning courses (there will be another post on this aspect, stay tuned) -- maybe the content providers would need some payment, too. But declaring those courses as "open" doesn't only mean everybody may join, but also means nobody should pay anything for taking part. So where should the money come from to pay development and maintenance?

Honan gave a hint when he told about the fear of teaching staff at universities: Attending a course may have two main reasons. People just are curious about a certain topic (a), or people have to acquire certain knowledge (due to job demands or the like) and that involves getting a certificate (b). For a certificate, attendees would have to do some sort of exam. And this exam would have to be assessed and graded by someone. And guess who is qualified for assessing and grading student work? Right, teaching staff.

So while in the early years of e-learning instructors feared to be replaced by machines, the advent of MOOCs makes instructors fear to be used for grading only. And in the end, to be replaced by cheap grading staff -- why should you need highly qualified academics when you can have people trained to grade certain exams only. MOOCs would not result in replacing humans, but in downgrading educators.

At the one hand, this nightmare might not become true to the extend instructors might expect -- similar to the fear of teachers being replaced be educational TV shows or e-learning courses --, but on the other hand, that's probably part of the business model of companies like Coursera, edX, or Udacity. Participation in MOOCs might be free, but to get a certificate you would have to pay -- part of this money might get down to the graders, but most of it will go to the company owners. Those certificates don't have to cost a fortune. Look at prices for apps -- as long as the audience is big enough, small fees are fine.

Of course, with "certificate" a mean any piece of paper stating that you passed the exam of this course. As soon as participants actively demand official certificates of the hosting institutions, e.g., from Stanford or the MIT, another question arises: How much is such a certificate worth? As an on-campus student, you would have to pay a lot of money -- if you would ever get accepted in the first place. However, nobody would pay several thousand dollars for an on-line course offered or developed by Stanford or MIT staff.

So maybe several hundred dollars? But wouldn't that be a hard competition for those Ivy League Universities? If I could get a prestigious certificate without moving to Stanford and without enormous debts, why should I even send an application to Stanford? But here we're already touching another topic.