You Can Get a University Education for Free?

A MOOC is a ‘massive open online course’, characterised by their (generally) free and open nature. Would a MOOC be suitable for you?

For hundreds of years, the traditional model of higher education has persevered. Yet as technology and the internet continue to revolutionise every facet of our lives, from how we spend our free time to how we engage with products and services, and even to how we now revolt politically and socially, education has always threatened to become the next facet of society that is altered by the technological revolution.

And in many ways it has. Colleges and universities eagerly built computer labs, integrated online options into courses, allowed for seminars to be taken online, provided learning materials on the internet and so on. Yet studying at a traditional college or university will still mostly require leaving your house to sit in a library or classroom sometimes, will require the purchasing of books, rather than the downloading of PDFs, and will encourage working in a group, which will often require face-to-face time, rather than working alone at the computer.

Whereas these are adaptations of traditional models though, MOOCs attempt to completely reinvent the wheel and integrate the inherent open nature of the internet with education, with a view to making higher education more accessible. The notion of free, high-quality courses has some suggesting MOOCs are a game changer that will drive down the cost of college while driving up student learning.

What is a MOOC?

MOOCs (Massive Open Online Course) are generally quite short in length, perhaps just a few weeks long. The resources and materials required to study will be posted online and are open to anyone in the world. They are usually free of charge and often don’t have entry requirements. Interaction with your fellow students is usually key, with online forums and discussion boards forming an important part of the learning process. Video-based, they offer interaction either through peer review and group collaboration or automated feedback through objective, online assessments (including quizzes and exams).

Eager to avoid missing out, MOOCs are being offered by traditional universities alongside entrepreneurial businesses.

Some traditional universities that offer MOOCs include: University of Auckland, University of Cape Town, University of Edinburgh, Fudan University, University of Groningen, King’s College London, Monash University, University of Oslo, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Sung Kyun Kwan University, Tel Aviv UniversityTrinity College Dublin, and Yonsei University.

Start-ups such as CourseraedX and Udacity have led the charge, expanding course offerings, which are now up to nearly 13 million users and more than 1,200 courses between them, and rapidly signing up partners, from individual faculty members to prestigious institutional partners. Khan Academy, which began as a series of YouTube videos, is making online instruction a more widely used tool in classrooms around the world.

Can MOOCs truly revolutionize higher education?

The short answer is that it is too early to tell. We’re sorry if you expected something a little more substantial than that, but the data that reveals the teaching and learning implications of MOOCs is only just starting to be organised and understood. There are some interesting things to understand about MOOCs though: the students that takes MOOCs are generally well educated and motivated, but dropout rates can be exceptionally high- sometimes up to 90%. What needs more thought then, is with which students, disciplines and courses MOOCs are most effective.

The other major question is that due to the generally free nature of these online courses, do MOOCs support a powerful enough business model to affect the might of universities and colleges, which are generally well-funded and so can really support students in ways that Massive Online Open Courses perhaps cannot?

It’s possible, but again it’s not entirely clear yet. What is clear is the potential- charities and private foundations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are putting lots into funding MOOCs as well as their effects.

Such effects include: what would happen if faculty blended the best attributes of successful MOOCs into their traditional teaching, and whether or not a wider range of learners, particularly low-income students with lower levels of academic proficiency, can learn via MOOCs and potentially receive credit for doing so.

Other problems with traditional higher education that MOOCs could potentially solve include allowing faculty to spend less time preparing and giving lectures and more time interacting with students. If MOOCs allowed students to quickly, easily and cheaply master the basic foundation skills of a course, could that then mean that colleges and universities would be able to devote more time to developing critical thinking, communication and teamwork skills.

Today, MOOCs and MOOC platforms still have a long way to go to fulfil this vision, but the potential is there.

The Problems with MOOCs

So MOOCs have a lot of potential, especially in how they can integrate with more traditional forms of higher education. But as of now, they certainly are not equivalent. How so?

Well for starters, they don’t necessarily result in a formal qualification. While high-quality courses are on offer, often from some of the most renowned institutions on the planet, they may not account for much when it comes to your resume or during any job interviews. Your knowledge will increase following successful completion of course, and this in itself may give you more confidence and understanding in the workplace, but the reality is that employers want recognised qualifications from their potential hires. It may only be for their own personal satisfaction, as a qualification isn’t always necessarily evidence of knowledge, but the correlation between qualifications and understanding is certainly high enough that employers would prefer not to take the risk.

Also, since there are no entry requirements for MOOCs, which is good for students, this may not reflect well from the employer’s perspective. A degree from the University of Oxford, for example, is valuable because they offer such a good education, but also since their entry requirements are so high. An Oxford degree also suggests to employers work you’ve put in to get there. Since this entry process won’t necessarily apply to MOOCs, they will always be less highly-regarded than a full university degree.

Since the education level for students embarking on a MOOC can vary wildly, this can also make them hard to teach. A ‘class’ may have newcomers, intermediate-quality students or even highly experience students looking to brush up their knowledge.

Dropout rates, as previously mentioned, are very high. This can partly be put down to their free nature: students will take an interest, study for a few hours then lose interest. And since they are free/low-cost, there’s no real punishment for giving up.

The flipside to this is that since they are flexible and can be picked up again at a later date, they can be arranged easily around work and other studies and can be practised anywhere you have a computer available. This makes them good for independent, but motivated study.

So it’s worth bearing in mind that most who sign up for a class aren’t serious students; they’re window-shoppers. Even these people that drop out might be seen as some kind of victory for MOOCs. What’s better? To sign up for a course costing thousands, to stick with it even if there is no enjoyment and perhaps eventually fail? Surely it’s better for students to see whether they’d be interested in a topic at first, even if they give up quickly.

Just like a book on a library shelf, MOOCs can be useful to a curious passer-by thumbing through a few pages - or they can be the centrepiece to a well-taught course. On their own, MOOCs are hardly more likely than textbooks to re-create a quality college education in all its dimensions.

Two further problems with MOOCs are that you need a computer (and internet connection), as well as know how to use one, and that since courses can be based worldwide, the content of the course may not necessarily match cultural elements you are familiar with, or even require. The difference with courses abroad is that in that situation, learning the culture is part of the experience, and something that is possible when located in another country. It can be tricky trying to assimilate to a different culture from your bedroom, unfortunately.

The Good News

Reports have suggested that MOOCs are generally effective at communicating difficult material, for example particular branches of mechanics, even to students who aren’t at the calibre the short course necessitates.

In fact, students who started an online course knowing the least about the subject showed the same relative improvement on tests as much stronger students. They may have started with an F and finished with an F, but there was still improvement.

Reports have also suggested that MOOCs have the potential to raise aspirations for further study as well as make the process of choosing which discipline to study and what university to attend much clearer. These short courses can give people looking to go into higher education a flavour of what different universities have to offer in terms of subjects and teaching. 

This can be especially valuable for students that are hoping to study abroad as they can sample the course they will be studying, or at least get a taste of what the style of teaching (and culture) may be like. This could prevent a lot of future heartache, as students that are more knowledgeable about their course are more likely to find a lot of success with it.

Although MOOCs don’t end in formal qualifications, that may be changing. In May 2016, Leeds University and The Open University announced that students could earn course credits towards a final degree via a MOOC.

Outside of the benefits for students, MOOCs may also well be transforming teaching methods for the better. Students’ actions can be analysed with MOOCs: where they get stuck, what takes too long, what requires more explanation and so on. Eventually, such data should yield insights about the best ways to present, sequence and assess particular subjects. 

This could also lead to making use of artificial intelligence to personalize courses according to each student’s strengths and weaknesses.

The huge number of students taking MOOCs are also indirectly causing changes and improvements to traditional education. For example, lectures that typically would have taken an entire class period can be broken up into shorter, more focused units, allowing students to spend as much time on each segment as they need, in the vein of online courses.

With the addition of more course materials online, certain courses are also allowing students to pick and choose the modules that are most of interest to them. This can improve a course as fewer students will mean better contact time with the lecturer and therefore a higher quality education.

The existence of MOOCs also means that, considering the cost of many courses, universities are waking up and working harder to justify the cost, especially compared to something free, of nearly equal quality online, again resulting in a much stronger education overall.

Are MOOCs worth it for students that want to study abroad?

What MOOCs may perhaps be best for then, is supplementing a traditional degree. Many MOOC users are in fact graduates seeking to top up their skills and competences. These short online courses can be taken prior to a full degree, to allow for a base of knowledge going into the course; during a degree or even following, to perhaps further inform one about potential jobs or job roles. Or even just out of simple interest.

MOOCs, for all their benefits, shouldn’t be taken in place of a degree. Or, at least, not until one entrepreneurial university decides that their courses will be far more effective online-only.

For better or worse, traditional methods of higher education have shown remarkable persistence as new models emerged. Yes, this time might be different. But if MOOCs do prove revolutionary, it will be because educational institutions have finally figured out how to use them.