The Rise of the MOOC: The Future of Higher Education?

Higher education is a sector that has thus far embraced – but arguably has not been fundamentally altered by – the growth of the Internet. This has been rapidly changing over the last few years with the rise of MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses; a way of learning that lets students participate on their own terms via the Internet. MOOCs have been embraced in a big way by elite universities and institutions, and are beginning to have a major impact on higher education. But are MOOCs really delivering quality access to education, or are they creating huge issues for the education sector? ONLINE EDUCA BERLIN aims to explore the issue in detail.

MOOCs give students the opportunity to engage with learning in an open format via the Internet. Typically, a course has a start date and an end date, and is made up of a series of video tutorials, lectures and workshops. Exercises and exams are set, and there is usually some kind of online forum for students to connect with one another. Through the MOOC’s self-paced format, a student can engage with the material in a way that works best for him or her. MOOCs are at present more about participation and the course material itself than anything else – these courses rarely offer accompanying qualifications.

MOOCs offer a different experience from traditional university courses in several key ways. Firstly, the course is generally offered for free and its online nature means it knows no geographical bounds, making it accessible to so many more students than traditional learning formats. The format’s ability to offer learning to people in developing countries in particular has been cited as a major advantage of MOOCs.

Secondly, the format allows for the fact that people learn in vastly different ways. MOOCs offer students a way of collaborating and engaging with the course material in the way they feel most comfortable and to an extent at their own pace.

MOOCs are on the rise in a big way in the United States, with both businesses and elite universities exploring the possibilities of online courses. Coursera, a San Francisco based startup, has been one of the pioneers of the MOOC and is collaborating with institutions all over the world, from Stanford and Brown in the US to universities in Australia, Asia and the Middle East. Top US universities have also been exploring the MOOC as an extension of their own curriculum. The recently launched edX programme, a collaboration between Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, offers its free open courses to people from all over the world.

The trend is taking off in Europe as well, with Coursera offering courses through the University of Edinburgh and the Swiss Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne. The European Commission’s student exchange program Erasmus is looking at a future expansion into the medium, and Leuphana University in Germany is one of the most recent additions to the MOOC ecosystem. The Open University in the UK has had courses with an Internet component in its curriculum for at least the last decade, and now students can gain qualifications entirely online.

Of course, MOOCs are not without their issues, and critics have been quick to point out the limitations of the format. The biggest concern for educators is with the level of engagement students have with the course. The lack of community and active participation in a course can make it hard for the student to connect with the learning material and complete the course. There is also the danger that a student will sign up for a course and drop out quickly because the subject was not what they were expecting – either too hard, too easy, or simply not of interest. There are also concerns about the authenticity of a student’s work – there is no way of knowing who is taking the courses and doing the required coursework.

The other major concern is that as the medium has evolved, it has attracted the notice of big business. There is a lot of worry amongst educators about this kind of higher education getting colonised by the business sector. Who is to stop multinational companies from creating courses that are skewed toward their own agenda? Some bloggers have argued that MOOCs have become extremely content driven, and as a result have become another form of spam.

A lot of commentators have suggested that in order for the medium to continue developing and to be embraced by high calibre institutions, it needs to find a method of monetisation. MOOCs may not remain free of charge, and because of this there is also a possibility that more qualifications will be offered for course completion.

By Claire Adamson

Shortened version, first publication:, November 1st, 2012