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Welcome to the world of MOOCs

To MOOC or not to MOOC, that is the question. Everyone seems to be going MOOC-crazy these days. The prominence of the institutions behind the courses and platforms, the huge financial investment, the popularity among users, all this has contributed to the media buzz surrounding MOOCs since 2012.

Udacity, Coursera and edX. Those are the three big names in the United States, formed by Stanford, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. EdX partners include top universities from Canada, the Netherlands, Australia and Switzerland; Coursera counts universities in Scotland, China and Japan. The UK has its very own platform: Futurelearn, highly praised by the Prime Minister. Even high schools join the movement.

For many, the question is no longer whether MOOCs are going to disrupt traditional education, but how they will disrupt it and how quickly to get involved. Is it only about lower costs and universities trying to broaden access, advertise the quality of their courses and identify potential students that would be willing to pay a fee? Or are MOOC-skeptics right and it is all just a matter of competition and marketing?

The question is difficult to answer, but looking at arguments both for and against the movement might help having a better understanding of what this whole debate really is about:


  • People around the world can attend courses of reputable universities like Harvard or MIT, regardless of their country of residence or financial background;
  • MOOCs are free, giving access to higher education to those who might not otherwise receive it;
  • MOOCs are accessible: they can be organised/attended anywhere as long as there is connectivity; barriers like time zones and physical boundaries don’t exist; students don’t need a degree to sign up for a course, only interest and willingness to learn;
  • MOOCs are diversified, offering a wide range of disciplines, languages and academic approaches;
  • There is no size limit to a course’s audience (more than 160 000 students from 190 countries signed up for Dr. Thrun’s  Stanford course on artificial intelligence);
  • Unlike today, MOOCs will reward faculties for the quality of their teaching, not only the quality of their research;
  • MOOCs might unveil new teaching methods;
  • In addition to taped lectures, courses offer homework assignments, machine-graded quizzes and final exams;
  • MOOCs are a big step towards lifelong learning
  • MOOCs demand digital literacy, access to technology and connectivity;
  • Issues of plagiarism and evaluation have still to be dealt with; 
  • Institutions have no control about who enrols in/completes the courses (name, email address and password are enough to sign up);
  • As the audience might range from high school students to industry professionals to retired people, it is difficult to target and find suitable material. It might also be difficult to focus on locally relevant issues and needs;
  • No tutoring or accompaniment: participants have to be disciplined and autonomous. They have to define themselves a learning goal;
  • Courses generally are non-credit, although Udacity offers an official ‘Statement of Accomplishment’. It is easy to see a future where certificates will be awarded for a fee. The American Council on Education (ACE) has already evaluated and recommended five Coursera MOOCs for credit;
  • The question whether MOOCs really are about widening access to elite courses, or about finding new business models and competitive advantages remains unclear. Universities are likely investing in MOOCs because they know how to identify and chase opportunities, using online courses as marketing exercise;
  • One major issue lies in quality assessment, as it usually focuses on student support and counselling, as well as on completion rates. In MOOCS, the former two are inexistent, the latter dismissal.
Whatever their reasons, top universities from around the world are joining MOOC platforms or forming their own ventures, in order not to miss out on this new fad. It might still be too soon to say whether MOOCs are going to bring fundamental changes to traditional higher learning, but whatever one may think about them, their massive popularity proves, beyond doubt, that people want more higher education, not less. Coursera edX Udacity Futurelearn