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.
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.”