Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs): Disruptive Change or 21st Century Innovation?

In recent years, a global increase in access to the Internet coupled with a demand for quality and affordable higher education and a willingness on the part of faculty at some international higher education institutions (HEIs) to experiment with Web 2.0 tools and concepts has resulted in the substantial growth of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). The growth in these courses is driven primarily by issues of cost and access, as outlined by Cathy N. Davidson in her article ‘Are MOOCs Really the Future of the University?’. In parts of the developing world, in particular countries in Africa, an already-existing skills shortage is exacerbated by limited access to HEIs and the sometimes prohibitive cost of obtaining a degree. In contexts such as these, MOOCs have been proposed as a potential solution. However, the utopian vision put forward by proponents of the system – free, quality education delivered online – is countered by anxiety from some faculty members at HEIs, focused predominantly on what this would mean for the traditional university system.

What is a MOOC?

What then, differentiates MOOCs from the online learning already practiced by many HEIs in South Africa? MOOCs are ‘massive’ – some courses have enrolments of over 100,000 students – and are ‘open’ in the sense that anyone can register to attend the course (often without paying any fees). A recent webinar presented by Paul Stacey discussed ‘The Pedagogy of MOOCs’ and provided a history of the MOOC movement. Stacey explained that the cMOOCs were the first iteration of this courseware and focused on “knowledge creation and generation rather than knowledge duplication” (Stacey, 2013). These MOOCs were experiments in pedagogy as well as courses but although interesting in their own right failed to receive the enrolments and recognition that later MOOCs have.

The next phase in MOOC development was the introduction of xMOOCs, structured online courses with a “start and end at a pre-determined time, [featuring] weekly assignments, and homework that is graded” (Trucano, 2013). These MOOCs are the ones most people are familiar with and consist of core components which include concise video lectures, automated assessment and some community element. Assessment consists of automatically marked multiple-choice quizzes. Assignments and essays, when given, are assessed by other students in the course, promoting peer-to-peer learning. An active community is fostered, with discussion on course work and assessment taking place in forums and, in some cases, social media groups. This type of engagement encourages peer learning and the growth of an online network. Certificates are given for course completion and these can be used to receive credit at some institutions. Proctored exams can also be taken in some cases for official accreditation. This second phase is closely associated with the three main MOOC providers Udacity, edX and Coursera. There is a level of commercialisation associated with these providers, who are exploring various financial models to make these platforms sustainable. Currently, most MOOCs are based in Europe or the United States of America with content delivered in English.

Many MOOCs operate independently from University courses but can also form part of a blended-learning course at an HEI, with fee-paying students taking part in the MOOC alongside students who are not registered at the institution. As described by Michael Caulfield, Amy Collier, and Sherif Halawa in ‘Rethinking Online Community in MOOCs Used for Blended Learning’, this approach can also be used as a ‘flipped classroom’, with the lectures and resources provided online prior to the class, which is then devoted to discussion and/or practical exercises with the lecturer.

The quality of MOOCs

The quality of MOOCs, as with most tertiary courses, is uneven and largely dependent on the experience and expertise of the course convenor. Cindy Londeore reported in her article ‘Tales of a MOOC Dropout’ these structural differences play a part in student engagement and attrition rates. However Londeore applauded the MOOCs’ low barrier to entry, allowing for the ability to experiment and trial subjects for interest’s sake, with few repercussions for not continuing with a  course. However, the MOOC-approach is not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution. Despite the same content being presented to thousands of students simultaneously, students have different learning styles and approaches to study, which George Veletsianos discovered in ‘How Do Learners Experience Online Learning’. Some students felt their MOOC-experience was “meaningful and empowering” while others described theirs as “mundane”.

MOOC benefits to African universities?

The benefits that MOOCs offer to African students are similar to those offered to students in other parts of the world. They allow students to access high-quality educational resources and courseware at little to no cost. Students can learn skills and develop knowledge to make them more employable and, as a side-affect, become more comfortable working in an online environment and communicating digitally. One of the key benefits of MOOCs, according to Henry C. Lucas in ‘Can the Current Model of Higher Education Survive MOOCs and Online Learning?’, is the flexibility they offer students who can chose when and where to study and can continue with work and family commitments, unhindered by time or geographic constraints.

However, the challenges facing African students enrolled in MOOCs are unique to students in countries in developing regions. As the general medium of instruction is English, a high proficiency in this language is required. Students need access to Internet at an affordable cost and a steady electricity supply. They also need to be digitally literate and comfortable operating in an online environment. As a part-time lecturer at the University of KwaZulu-Natal I used Moodle to deliver content to students and provide assessment. Many students, particularly early on in their University-careers, found this system difficult to due to limited digital skills. In ‘The underlying inequality of MOOCs’, Alicia Mitchell summarises these challenges, writing that potential MOOC-students need a “reliable electricity supply, frequent and uninterrupted access to a device capable of going online and playing video and sound, and a secure, unrestricted Internet connection … [and] a safe and comfortable space in which to learn.”

African HEIs, however, have the opportunity to embrace the technology and become leading players in the MOOC landscape. They can do this in a number of ways. By creating locally relevant content and courses, HEIs can turn Africans from consumers of learning content to producers. These institutions can also draw on what is available on platforms such as Coursera and edX to enhance current courses offered to students. By encouraging students to participate in MOOCs, valuable data can be generated on student engagement with learning material and issues related to throughput and attrition. MOOCs also offer a strong potential for HEIs to market themselves, creating strong international brand awareness for their key faculty members and courses offered. The MOOC approach offers an opportunity to generate third-stream income for the HEIs through proctoring of exams and providing certification. Finally, MOOCs could also be structured as a feeder or bridging course to ready students for entry into a structured degree programme.

In Tanzania, with support from the World Bank, some this is already being done. Courses from Coursera have been identified to develop a MOOC IT curriculum to provide students with market relevant skills. This is a supplement to their current studies and the project is discussed in detail in the article ‘MOOCs in Africa’ (Trucano, 2013).  Another project, Generation Rwanda, aims to start a university based entirely around MOOCs, with discussion and tutoring held on campus in Kigali and the Southern New Hampshire University providing testing and degree certification (Lucas, 2013).

If managed correctly, MOOCs have the potential to greatly benefit Africa HEIs. However, they could also threaten certain African institutions. These threats stem from the perceived value of a degree from an African university compared with some form of certification from a top-tiered United States university, via a MOOC-platform such as Coursera. This threat depends strongly on whether this certification would enable the student to enter employment. Indications suggest that technology companies, in need of skilled programmers and developers, would be willing to accept this type of skills-based learning.

Lucas correctly identifies that a “faculty member does much more than teach; he/she decides which topics are the most important in a course, structures the course, develops teaching materials, and delivers instruction” (2013). He proposes a scenario where African Universities incorporate the best that MOOCs have to offer into their current courses, supplemented this with their own learning material (Lucas, 2013). The faculty member at one of these HEIs thus plays a role in selecting what MOOC content is relevant in a local context, situating this content alongside other resources as well as their own lectures, classwork and materials. The student is exposed to lectures by renowned international academics while at the same time interacting with a global community of students and receiving guidance from their lecturer on how to relate this knowledge to their local degree programme.

African Universities have a window of opportunity to leverage the power of local, relevant content, combined with the best learning content available through MOOCs, to create a blended learning approach that enhances their offerings to students. However, moves to provide industry-recognised accreditation through MOOCs pose a very real threat to Universities, in particular those that choose to ignore the disruptive changes the Internet brings to the higher education arena. As indicated by their rapid growth, MOOCs are now part of the higher education landscape. Students, in large numbers, have also embraced this new way of learning and the benefits it brings. HEIs should too, managing the disruption MOOCs bring rather than being swept away by it.


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