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What Will the Future Bring for MOOCs?

What Will the Future Bring for MOOCs? main image

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) have been around for a decade, with 2012 named the ‘year of the MOOC’ by the New York Times.

But with a number of online graduate education courses available – MBAs and EMBAs to name a few – there are a lot of questions surrounding the future of MOOCs, their validity, and how they can benefit the vast number of possible students on any given program.

These were some of the topics Sarah Toms, Executive Director and co-Founder of the Wharton Interactive put to the ‘Turning Promise into Reality: The Future of MOOCs’ panel at QS’ Reimagine Education Conference in London.

The panel consisted of Simon Nelson, Chief Executive of FutureLearn, Kathy Pugh, Vice-President of Services at EdX, and Prof. Neil Morris, Dean of Digital Education at the University of Leeds.

How MOOCs work

These short online university courses aim to make higher education more accessible to more people. Rather than being tied to a university physically, participants complete the course online over a set number of weeks using university materials.

As of 2019, EdX has 24 million students using its platform. Similarly, FutureLearn has 10m users. You can think of these companies as the telecoms providers for the universities.

Pugh said the relationship between companies and digital learning platforms is mutual, as both parties can contact each other. She added: “MOOCs have had a profound influence on education.”

Nelson said that driving towards B2B and B2C models is FutureLearn’s priority, as the platform has the potential to become a pathway to micro-credentials and degrees. Nelson also said FutureLearn wanted to target professional learners and build a better portfolio and marketplace.

He said: “MOOCs were front-door marketing for universities, but now we have to build courses for the users and students who will benefit the most.”

Morris took a slightly different stance. He thought MOOCs have the capacity to leave people behind, but they should provide affordable and accessible education to everyone around the world.

He said: “Some universities have approached MOOCs by targeting underprivileged students who need it.

“Universities should think about who their audience is, providing knowledge for everyone – MOOCs that transform their lives. For example, King’s College London has targeted refugees who are very much in need.”

In his words, MOOCs need to be shiny, but also inclusive. Pugh confirmed this by saying learning platforms and their partners have committed to be more inclusive and build a “sustainable” business model.

As an educator, Morris understands the difficulties surrounding a blanketed style of course, he said: “As platforms are growing their B2C, B2B, B2G, they are trying to meet different marks within the same offer. That is a real challenge.

“The biggest challenge with MOOCs is you don’t know who your learner is. There could be four different learners with different learning levels.” In his eyes, to achieve real success with a course you must write an individual code for each learner.

Nelson also said that while it is true two-thirds of people on FutureLearn already have a degree, one-third don’t. He said: “We are proud of reaching this many people.” He says the true challenge for platforms like FutureLearn is to find a balance between generating revenue, offering affordable education and achieving their mission of transforming education.

Lifelong learning

The importance of lifelong learning continues to be mentioned at a number of business schools and higher education institutions across the globe.

Two London Business School academics Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott published their book The 100-Year Life in 2016, noting that although longevity will create more infirm people, many will stay healthy much longer, and happily work well into their 70s or 80s.

So, continuing your educational development is of great importance. Nelson said: “Two thirds of people have got a degree. Since when does having a first degree mean you don’t need more learning?

“The level of disruption today means people need to learn throughout their lives. Our platform allows them to learn remotely as a lot of people don’t want to study at an institution.”

Improving MOOCs

With so much of a reach, it could be easy for you to think that the platforms providing the technology for MOOCs are only interested in the revenue, but Pugh said: “We are 110 percent bringing people along. EdX works under a partnership model and many of them are public.”

Nelson mirrors this stance, noting FutureLearn’s mission is ‘access to education.’ However, he admitted driving revenue is important for the organization to survive.

He said: “If you are reliant on handouts to achieve your mission you are going to run out eventually. We’re trying to find the right balance between revenue to sustain and to hit our mission. We are finding by B2G to promote education in overseas developments.”

Morris was very much of the opinion that platforms must think of participants above all else. He said: “We’d encourage them to keep in contact with people. I’m concerned as online platforms grow; they won’t take people with them.

“MOOCs provide everyone around the world with access to education. We urge them to remember the individual.

“We build courses for the individual learner in higher education. MOOCs have to create learning for the intended learner if they are going to create credited awards.”

As a provider, Nelson noted that FutureLearn is the platform, and universities are their partners. He said: “We want to be a partner in the digital transformation of a uni.”

Nelson’s background is in digital operations – having worked at the BBC for 15 years. He said: “Watching the transition, the BBC was uniquely funded and was able to put digital first in a way commercial competitors couldn’t.

“The media market has gone digital in major fundamental ways and I don’t see many universities putting digital first. Digital operations should be a separate department.

“I don’t see many universities looking where global demand is going. For those that do, there is huge ground to make up.

“Leeds have been one of our forward-thinking partners. Nigel and his team do a lot. I have seen very few universities putting digital first and they should when you see the opportunities available.”

Niamh Ollerton, Deputy Head of Content at QS
Written by Niamh Ollerton

Niamh is Deputy Head of Content at QS (TopMBA.com; topuniversities.com), creating and editing content for an international student audience. Having gained her journalism qualification at the Press Association, London and since written for different international publications, she's now enjoying telling the stories of students, alumni, faculty, entrepreneurs and organizations from across the globe.  

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