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Margin Notes

The massive hype of MOOCs

They’re all the rage, but are we rushing things a bit?


Massive open online courses, or MOOCs, are certainly all the rage in higher education reporting. Barely a day goes by where I don’t see a new article or opinion piece exclaiming how they will dramatically change what universities do. In this morning’s New York Times piece announcing that a dozen major research universities are joining MOOC start-up Coursera, the announcement is described variously as “a game changer,” a “tsunami” (now where have I read that before?) and one part of “a seismic shift in online learning that is reshaping higher education.” Whoa.

I remain somewhat skeptical of these declarations, but even I must admit events are moving quickly.

There is a Canadian angle to the latest announcement: the University of Toronto is one of the 12 institutions joining Coursera. According to the U of T press release, the university will initially offer five open-access, not-for-credit courses through Coursera on topics such as neural networks, mental health and Aboriginal education.

Some background: Coursera was developed by two professors at Stanford University. Earlier this year it created partnerships with four major U.S. universities and has now signed on 12 more, including U of T. The company’s game plan is to partner “with the top universities in the world to offer courses online for anyone to take, for free. We envision a future where the top universities are educating not only thousands of students, but millions.” So far, according to U of T, the Coursera platform has enabled 680,000 students from 190 countries gain access to 43 university courses.

Two other major MOOC ventures are edX, a joint venture of Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Udacity, founded by Sebastian Thrun of Stanford.

According a story in the Globe and Mail, the appeal to universities of giving their wares away for free is “part branding exercise, part international outreach and part hard business sense.”

Marketing does seem to be at least one reason for universities to join such ventures. Maxim Jean-Louis, president of the distance-education network Contact North, is quoted in the Globe piece saying Canadian schools are starting to see MOOCs as a way to “dramatically increase the visibility of their brand.”

Looking at the map here of Coursera partners, it’s easy to see the appeal for U of T to be associated with such an illustrious group of institutions.

Yet, on the downside, there isn’t any obvious business plan for how MOOCs will make money. Nor is it clear that other higher-education institutions or employers will recognize MOOC credits, where they exist. As well, the completion rates for most MOOC courses are reportedly abysmal. Even Professor Thrun, who really got the whole thing rolling by attracting 160,000 people to his free, online “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” course last year, cautions that for all their promise, MOOCs are still experimental. “I think we are rushing this a little bit,” he said in the New York Times article. “I haven’t seen a single study showing that online learning is as good as other learning.”

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Rory McGreal / July 25, 2012 at 14:11

    Recent MOOC hype does not mention that they originated in Canada, including the term. Athabasca University has been delivering massive online courses for many years and is a member of the OERuniversity, which is a consortium of 19 higher education institutions on five continents. It supports the assessment and accreditation of learners who study using open resources online.
    Professor Thrun could have done a simple google search to find hundreds of studies showing that online learning and other technologically mediated learning is as good as other learning. See for example the “no significant difference” site:

  2. Christine Smith / July 25, 2012 at 14:11

    I think you are correct to be sceptical about these MOOCs and why universities are getting in bed with eg Coursera. I guess opportunities to promote interest in the other offerings of an institution and to develop some kind of allegiance may be in part fuelling the drive to open education.
    That said, I’d want to challenge the closing quote questioning the quality of online education as there are sound studies of improved learner performance especially in engagement in substantive discussion through engagement in online reflective discussions.
    I’d also want to urge anyone interested to participate in a MOOC and try this form of learning and collaborative activity for themself – I think our best way forward with online education (which is here to stay) is to be knowledgeable ourselves and what better way than by experiencing for ourselves?
    And if anyone is interested I am starting up a wiki on open ecosystems for learning- why not join me and discuss these things further and online? I’d be delighted!

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