Are MOOCs the new evening classes?

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are big news at the moment. It seems that nearly every week there is a news item or blog post variously describing them as the future of, or replacement for, traditional university eduction. However this view may be missing the point. What if the real power of MOOCs is simply to enable access to learning for all for nothing more that learning for learnings sake?

I have been interested in the development of MOOCs since the phrase was first coined in 2008 and have become something of a serial MOOC stalker over the last couple of years signing up for, but not completing, a number of courses. I must confess a little guilt over this – I am not usually inclined to begin something I can’t finish, however my motivation for engaging with these courses is not for the certificate or any credit – merely to see how they are taught and gain some new insights into either new or familiar subjects. It turns out that I am not alone in this.

One of the common criticisms of MOOCs is that whilst they attract large numbers of students, few actually complete the courses that they take, however this may be to miss the point of MOOCs in the first place. A recent working paper released by Harvard and MIT Universities study confirmed that there were low completion rates amongst those who signed up for their HarvardX and MITx courses, however it also showed that a significant number of students were exploring over half of the material available to them (the bottom right quadrant in the Figure below). In this respect it almost looks like people are learning for learnings sake…


The paper does not reveal why these students did not complete the course – perhaps they were unable to keep up with the material, or perhaps certification was not the goal in the first place, however it is reasonable to assume that these students, whilst not gaining the completion certificate, did learn something of the subject they studied along the way. This in itself is surely a good thing.

It almost looks like learning for learnings sake…

This is where parallels can be drawn with evening or night classes. Evening classes usually take place after 5pm in schools, further education colleges and universities. They are aimed at non-traditional students who have not entered further or higher eduction straight from school, work during the day or are retired from work. Evening classes serve a number of purposes. They may be used be learners seeking to re-enter formal further or higher eduction, to gain industry accreditation certificates, or simply to learn a new skill of enjoy the process of learning itself. In this respect they sound very much like the MOOC. There is some evidence that there is an ongoing decline in the number of people studying at evening and night classes however (which reflects a general decline in the number of part-time learners in general). A recent Access to Education report  (2009) from the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) suggests cost and flexibility as the main reasons for students abandoning additional study. This is where MOOCs come in. Many are free or low cost, most are flexible and the range of topics that are covered is staggering. Arguably the MOOC has the potential to offer the same (and sometimes better) quality of learning as the evening class, in a more flexible, lower cost model.

Perhaps then the real power of MOOCs then is not as a replacement for traditional university courses – either campus based or deliverer via distance or blended learning, but as a way for people to learn a new skill in their own time, or to experiment with a topic or learning in general as a precursor to applying to undertake a university degree.  This view is shared by Sebastian Thrun, the Stanford University Professor who founded the MOOC provider Udacity. In a recent podcast he challenges the common misconception that MOOCs should be considered replacements for traditional university courses and suggests their role should be complementary to colleges aiming to reach people who don’t have access to schools (for any number of reasons) or who need to learn specific skills. Personally I have used MOOCs to supplement my knowledge and skills rather than obtain a certificate or demonstrate competency, and my PhD student recently told me had taken a number of courses on statistics and research methods to assist him with his doctoral training over and above what he was being offered at our institution. 

So then, are MOOCs the new evening classes or night schools? Will the rise of the free online university course result in the democratisation of eduction? Perhaps it is too early to say, however this is an area that is evolving fast and perhaps MOOCs will change the face of education – just not in the way that was first expected….

Thanks to @AngiMansi for the idea for the blog post title and inspiration for the content…

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