As the hype around MOOCs has subsided, a frequently asked question in university circles today is: Who have massive open online courses helped or hurt?
Providing free and open access to content from revered institutions is laudable. But enrollments at elite colleges’ MOOCs do not translate into revenue at the vast majority of colleges and universities, many of them already cash-strapped. And learning that fails to deliver credit that leads to a credential may not yield much for students, even if they enjoy the courses. MOOCs may have been more faddish than altruistic.
For MOOCs to be important long term, they must be more than a curiosity. A 2014 study from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education found that only 4 percent of those who had registered for a MOOC actually completed it. The curious are obviously much less likely to see a course through to completion than are serious students seeking a credential to help them advance in their lives.
Studies like the one out of Penn suggest that MOOCs may have little long-term utility for students. And for institutions, the risks of issuing credit for MOOCs could have a serious impact on their operating income. Most of those who have created MOOCs have invested a lot of sweat equity in return for relatively little, and no meaningful income for provider universities that contributed their brand and reputation to support the concept.
Higher education needs to be affordable, but it cannot be free. As aptly observed by Michael Cusumano of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the software, music, video, book publishing, newspaper, and magazine industries are “still struggling to recover from the impact of free,” and many companies within those industries never did. In fact, two-thirds of the public software product companies operating in 1998 had shuttered by 2006. While a variety of factors may have contributed to their demise, the proliferation of free products was chief among them, points out Cusumano, a fact that should be kept in mind as we evaluate the impact of MOOCs on higher education.
At a time when many colleges and universities are struggling to justify their value proposition and find financial sustainability, marking their core product to zero seems to be misguided, an observation that is gaining currency among higher educators worldwide. This practice also raises a question whether free implies little value.
Giving away education can make sense in some cases. For instance, the country of Colombia, which has offered MOOC-like courses through SENA, its agency focused on providing practical and technical educational courses to increase employment, and India, which is considering putting high-demand courses online for workforce training may prove that free and open courses online can be effective in up-skilling societies. It is important to keep in mind, however, that these initiatives are seen as a public good and, as such, are fully funded by the government and not by institutions that need to find their way to self-sufficiency.
Using technology to deliver relevant, affordable, and credential-bearing education from top universities to help more citizens progress in their lives is within the incredible potential of the Internet and can be done inexpensively and at scale, as MOOCs have demonstrated.
While the participation of top universities in the delivery of MOOCs has helped further legitimize online learning and infuse higher education with much needed innovation, it has not proven to be the anticipated game changer for either students or universities. History has shown us that giveaways are a gambler’s game and not a strategy for a sustainable future.
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