Massive open online courses – MOOCs – are exposing many people to the educational content and academic quality of universities, with these courses forming part of increasingly diverse, flexible study options that enable a wider range of students to access quality tertiary education.
Even though most of these courses do not provide credits for qualifications, they represent a growing appetite for online course provision, says University of Cape Town (UCT) Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching course development manager Janet Small.
“To an increasing extent, MOOCs represent an extension of the range of learning opportunities provided by universities into the digital realm – from intensive undergraduate degrees to lifelong learning and professional development courses,” she explains.
MOOCs enable institutions to experiment with online learning, particularly if they have not worked much in this field before, and some of the early MOOCs in the US sought to extend the defined boundaries of how people learn in a connected world and how data from large enrolment courses can be aggregated and made meaningful, says University of Pretoria (UP) Department for Education Innovation director and UK Higher Education Academy senior fellow Professor Wendy Kilfoil.
The MOOCs commonly available on online learning platforms cover complex, cross-industry topics, such as machine learning, artificial intelligence, programming, data science, analytics techniques, algorithms and forecasting, alongside general courses covering history, philosophy, English and filmmaking, as well as technical fields such as big data statistics, Linux and Excel use, and programming.
All the international MOOC platforms, including edX, FutureLearn and Coursera, are collaborations with universities. These purpose-built platforms provide online education at a scale that enable universities to offer the courses to a global audience. The MOOCs available on these platforms are linked to specific universities, explains Kilfoil.
“High-end MOOCs are often glossy, video-intensive products that well-resourced universities can afford to produce.”
These courses often comprise recorded lectures by academics, reading material and additional material, as well as progression tests and assessment assignments that are crowd- reviewed by other participants.
Some universities use MOOCs as the content provider for a course – because they are usually content heavy – with MOOCs fulfilling the role of a textbook for certain courses, in addition to making it freely available to the public over online platforms.
“It is about experimenting with the online medium and learning lessons that can be scaled for other purposes,” she reiterates.
Universities are not able to provide MOOCs through their existing internal learning management systems because these are focused on very different sets of priorities that entail closely tracking student progress and providing focused, closed, cohort-based learning experiences.
Most MOOCs are used as a form of professional development by people who already have degrees. Academic institutions use these courses to expose a large contingent of graduates to new industry-related or academic knowledge to enable them to improve their general knowledge or careers, says Enterprises UP training solutions executive manager Hermien Dorfling.
Combinations of MOOCs, and other noncredit courses, do not yet constitute a complete academic qualification, but this could change. For example, an education quality organisation in the US has accredited three MOOCs for inclusion in degrees, and some universities offer MOOCs that provide credits on the basis of an additional, rigorous assessment, for which the student pays, says Kilfoil.
Online courses that provide credits for qualifications need to be well designed, interactive, allow for communication between students and staff, and have assessment and feedback, as well as lead to desired academic outcomes.
EDUCATION ACCESS AND CHALLENGES
It is naïve to believe that MOOCs will solve the profound challenges facing higher education and access problems facing the developing world, emphasises Small.
“The typical student in a bridging or foundation course at universities in South Africa has often lacked good teaching. They often come from socioeconomically and geographically poor areas. Research shows that such students do not cope well online. They need good, interactive teaching,” explains Kilfoil.
Underserved communities are also the least likely to have access to computers and connectivity. Therefore, MOOCs are not the way to give young people in such contexts the right start in university life, she highlights.
It was hoped that MOOCs could play a larger role in providing accessible and afford- able education for all, but they are not the right tool to achieve this, she adds.
Small states that MOOCs may have a role in supplementary and complementary education provision, but should not be seen as an alternative.
ONLINE COURSE INNOVATION
Higher education is in the throes of great change corresponding with larger economic, technological and social change in society globally and locally, says Small.
The growth in capacity for and provision of online learning are leading to new education options. For example, UCT has recently started offering ‘blended’ degrees, which makes studying for a university qualification a lot more feasible for those fully employed, says Small.
“For professionals – either individually or as part of sponsored corporate training – MOOCs and other online courses, such as online continuing professional development (CPD) or short certificate-courses, offer new possibilities. The availability and flexibility of the online mode allow working people access to appropriate skills and knowledge as and when they need it.”
“Knowledge transfer can take place in various forms, from access to open education resource repositories – such as research publications and recorded lectures – to structured interventions,” says Dorfling.
Collaboration with, or detailed input from, industry has been identified as critical to ensure that valuable, marketable, suitable and relevant skills are developed. Employers identify the value of online learning as a cost- effective option to complement their workplace skills plan, says Dorfling.
“Big organisations can act as drivers of change and increase their professional communities’ access to knowledge assets and skills development opportunities through such partnerships, providing collaborated efforts for focused and sustainable training.”
Online learning – through MOOCs or otherwise – should be delivered in a way that addresses the academic outcomes best. For example, Harvard University has started to offer small, private online courses, as opposed to massive open online courses, illustrates Kilfoil.
Support for and interaction with the participants are equally important. Where relevant, courses may also be credit-bearing, which allows the students to further their studies and enables the employer to make use of skills levy rebate benefits. CPD activities could be offered through a subscription service providing access to a variety of training options.
An audit of workplace skills provides companies with a good understanding of the type of skills they have, as well as the strategic skills they need to develop to meet changing and forecasted business demands.
“However, such audits serve as working documents for education institutions and universities to align the types of training interventions with the industry skills required. Personalised training based on skills audits can provide even greater depth and yield long-term results to train employees in suitable skills and develop future industry leaders,” details Dorfling.
Online private education company Udacity cofounder and technology multinational Google fellow Sebastian Thrun noted in 2015 that the learning needs of businesses are vastly different from those of the past. “Learning must become a continuous and daily habit, and there is a need to bring education to you on your smartphone in your pocket.”
Enterprises UP recently released an application that assists professionals with their formal CPD activities using their mobile phones, confirms Dorfling. UP has also developed three fully online master’s programmes for engineering management.
New education services for various industries and disciplines will add new revenue streams for universities, such as the well-established CPD courses and professional online development courses, notes Kilfoil.
“Universities have a significant role to play in providing CPD opportunities for professionals, and many professions require formal CPD to maintain their professional status. CPD requires continuous new knowledge creation, which, by virtue of their research focus, universities are well-positioned to provide,” says Dorfling.
Universities “should take the lead’ in providing companies and various sectors of industry with more inclusive solutions to skills development.
“With the latest tools, knowledge and techniques, universities can measure industry competency as well as their readiness to become part of the value chain and, thus, create a much more enabling environment,” she concludes.