MOOC: A university qualification in 24 hours?

MOOCs have been through a dramatic cycle of media hype and criticism over the past few years. Are they bolstering or diminishing the internet's gateway to education?

Feature by Michael Shea | 25 Sep 2015

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are educational courses that are accessible via the internet, have unlimited participation and are usually free to access. They have been through a dramatic cycle of media hype and criticism over the past few years. From the New York Times declaring 2012 'The Year of the MOOC,' to the Huffington Post asking 'Are We MOOC’d Out?' less than a year later. It’s fair to say that some of the early optimism has dissipated.

Critics point to their poor completion rates, typically around 15%. However, a review of the current literature on ‘digital scholarship’ found no conclusive evidence that online learning significantly enhances or hinders student outcomes. The same research found that most students primarily use online content for review and revision rather than as a substitute for attending lectures.

As debate continues over how to structure open access courses I decided to enrol in a MOOC in order to experience one first hand. Most elite universities now offer free-to-access online courses so I decided to see what was on offer at my local university: the University of Edinburgh. Of the 23 available courses I chose the one furthest from my own background, knowledge and experience: Astrobiology and the Search for Extraterrestrial Life.

The course description promises that I will learn about the origin and evolution of life as well as the search for life beyond the Earth. It will take five weeks to complete. “I look forward to seeing you in class!” The assignments consist of multiple-choice quizzes, two for each week of the course. The main course content consists of pre-recorded mini lectures, each between 5-20 minutes in length.

Immediately after signing up I am offered the chance to purchase a certificate of completion. The 'Verified Certificate' costs $49 and is issued by Coursera, the company that administers the course, and bears the University of Edinburgh emblem.

It took less than a day to complete the course: 'Impressive work! You’ve joined a community of worldwide learners who have completed Astrobiology and the Search for Extraterrestrial Life. That was no easy task.' The afternoon included breaks for lunch, dinner, and a couple of hours playing football and doing a load of laundry. Working flat out, the course could be completed within a few hours.

The following morning I received the digital certificate and began making jokes about having become a qualified Astrobiologist. But in all seriousness what did I learn? The mini-lectures, delivered by Professor Charles Cockell, were interesting. They seemed to have been designed for a non-specialist audience and I found, in spite of myself, that by end the day I had developed an interest in Astrobiology. What is less clear is what advantage there is to posting these lectures in restricted bite size form, accessible only via the Coursera platform, rather than posting them on any public video hosting website.

A serious problem with the course is the pretence of weekly 'assignments,' which consist solely of multiple-choice questionnaires that appear immediately alongside and mirror the content of the lectures, making it near impossible to fail. You watch a short video on the History of Astrobiology followed by a quiz in which the questions appear in the order that the answers were given in the preceding video.

Beyond the lack of rigor in the design of the course, the most troubling aspect of this MOOC is Coursera itself. Most MOOCs offered by the University of Edinburgh are administered by Coursera, which along with edX and Udacity (what is it with tech companies and made-up words?) is one of the leading providers to top-tier universities.

Coursera was founded in 2012 by professors of computer science at Stanford University and now boasts over ten million users worldwide. While all courses provided through Coursera are accessible for free, it is a for-profit company, and suggested future monetisation strategies include charging a fee to administer online exams, embedding advertisements into course content and eventually charging tuition fees.

What universities have to gain by offering its intellectual content for free to a third party which seeks to monetise it, is also not clear. The naïvety of their current approach can be seen in this comment from Peter Lange, the provost of Duke University, one of Coursera’s partner institutions: “We’ll make money when Coursera makes money […] I don’t think it will be too long down the road. We don’t want to make the mistake the newspaper industry did, of giving our product away free online for too long.”

The proposal to administer online exams explains the presence of advanced keystroke biometrics in the online platform. The system, which records the user's typing pattern and uses it to authenticate their identity, is perhaps the most impressive aspect of the Coursera platform from a technological standpoint. One of the monetisation strategies that has already proved to be quite lucrative is certification.

The vast majority of the courses offered by Coursera, with a handful of notable exceptions, are not offered for credit and are not even recognised as qualifications by the universities that offer them. What the virtual certificate demonstrates, other than a waste of $49 and an afternoon spent answering multiple-choice quizzes, is not quite clear. Therefore the presence of the university logo on the certificate is quite misleading.

To offer university courses that are free to access and open to all is a commendable objective, the debatable quality of the content aside, but to charge a fee to receive a certificate of completion that is neither issued by the university nor is it recognised as an academic qualification, is nothing short of fraud. By offering courses that are near-impossible to fail and charging up front fees for worthless certificates, Coursera is simply running a high-tech version of the kind of scams that have been run by correspondence colleges for decades.

Li Yuan, a Learning Technology Advisor, who has studied MOOCs extensively, charts their development over the past few years. The main trends she identifies include the proliferation of various 'add-on' paying services, a move towards little or no open license content – a significant development for organisations created with the remit of increasing access to education – and new provisions (e.g. corporate training).

Writing in Communications of the ACM, Moshe Y. Vardi sets out a difficult to refute criticism of MOOCs: “The absence of serious pedagogy in MOOCs is rather striking, their essential feature being short, unsophisticated video chunks, interleaved with online quizzes, and accompanied by social networking.” Vardi does, however, go on to point out that a lack of interactive content and dialogue between lecturers and students is also a common problem in traditional university courses.

In a similar vein, academics in the Philosophy department at San Jose State University described their reasons for rejecting the chance to offer a MOOC as they “rely on videotaped lectures, canned exercises and automated peer grading,” and are therefore not an effective way to learn. The San Jose philosophers also describe their fear that the proliferation of MOOCs may eventually create a two-tier system whereby wealthy students receive face-to-face interaction with their professors while the less well off rely on video-taped lectures at home.

The strategy of integrated advertising in MOOCs is fast becoming a reality, as the University of Leeds announced it is teaming up with Marks and Spencer to provide free online courses in business innovation. The advertisement for the course states that the course will draw on case studies in 'successful innovation,' using materials from Marks and Spencer’s own archive. Presumably there will be a module on food porn and the contemporary imagination. The notion of integrated advertising educational materials was satirised in The Simpsons twenty years ago, as was the notion of remote video lectures as a cost-saving measure, in its Pepsi-sponsored classrooms of the future.

So, what have we learned? I might ask if this were a bite-size mini-lecture. We learned that advances in technology are allowing for radical changes in the way universities deliver educational materials. However, the way this is currently being done, by offering massive free-to-access courses with little substantial content, that anyone can pass if they have a few hours to spare, is a poor substitute for on-campus education. We’ve also learned to be suspicious of any private company that offers to administer a free public service, with the obvious conflict of interest this creates.

The real revolution in how educational content is disseminated is to be found by offering access to university resources, rather than programmes of study, to the public free of charge. There is an inherent contradiction in offering massive free-to-access courses while simultaneously cracking down on the distribution of educational materials, as many universities now strictly forbid the sharing of its intellectual property by students. To offer free-to-all bite-size qualifications while at the same time restricting access to invaluable, and traditionally public, resources such as academic journals and university libraries highlights the current failings in the battle for access to education.