Learning about massive open online courses

Over the past five years, massive open online courses (MOOCs) have become an important component of modern education disrupting many conventions and opening up a wide range of new approaches and possibilities. Now, writing in the International Journal of Learning Technology, computer scientists from the University of Warwick, Coventry, UK, explain how expectations are high for what MOOCs can achieve in terms of opening access, widening participation and cost saving. They have studied the scientific literature surrounding MOOCs and find that there is little evidence of support and that currently MOOCs do not live up to those expectations.

Jane Sinclair, Russell Boyatt, Claire Rocks and Mike Joy point out that MOOCs are very much in evidence in educational institutions, in the media and in the blogosphere. They offer the prospect of education beyond the confines of individual universities and organisations, allowing (often) free participation to large numbers of learners from any geographical location and without the need to satisfy formal entry requirements. Indeed, there are available hundreds, if not thousands, of MOOCs across almost every area of study with some enrolling tens of thousands of students, an entirely implausible idea for a conventional course. Moreover, MOOCs are gaining traction rapidly.

However, the team’s analysis of the research literature concerning MOOCs despite the current high profile of this form of education and the way in which many institutions are rushing to provide them as a teaching option, suggests that little evidence exists to indicate the efficacy of these courses in achieving desired objectives and learning goals. “This movement has happened largely without the benefit of any real analysis and understanding which might be provided by evaluation of the courses themselves,” the team says.

They add that there has not been adequate consideration of the underlying factors one might expect to be at the forefront of course development such as pedagogy and catering for diversity. Worryingly, the team found that, “Some institutions and staff do not appear to know why they are engaged in MOOC activity apart from a fear of being left behind or that they have been told to do it.” They add that economics and staffing are also problems: “Frequently, learners comment about the need for support, and staff note the large amount of time and effort required to provide even the current levels on offer,” they say. “There seems to be a discrepancy between this and the expressions of hope that MOOCs can meet the need for mass education and solve cost problems at the same time.” The authors conclude that, “Further research is needed to develop pedagogies appropriate to MOOCs and to determine the best framework for their deployment.”

Sinclair, J., Boyatt, R., Rocks, C. and Joy, M. (2015) ‘Massive open online courses: a review of usage and evaluation’, Int. J. Learning Technology, Vol. 10, No. 1, pp.71–93.

Author: David Bradley

Award-winning, freelance science writer based in Cambridge, England.