The real trouble with MOOCs is not the lack of completion, nor the lack of educational credit awarded, but whether they will still exist for large numbers of learners to engage with at no cost.
Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, have focused attention on opportunities for learning outside of traditional academic or professional institutions. The flexibility of these courses mean they offer a great chance for businesses to encourage their employees to develop their knowledge without the expense of providing training courses or footing the bill for formal qualifications.
One of the key criticisms of MOOCs has been that learners are not given academic credit for their participation and assessment. Some providers do offer a certificate of completion for free, but others charge for this service. Some universities such as Harvard have developed ‘small private open courses’, or SPOCs. These are smaller digital courses which are free to participate in but are more selective in making places available. This provides a more customised experience but, as yet, no course credits.
This gap offers an opportunity for universities to work with employers to assess and award credits to learners taking part in MOOCs.
My institution, the University of Central Lancashire, has a process to award credit for prior learning and there is no reason why MOOCs cannot be assessed in the same way. Although there is a fee charged for assessing prior learning it is usually less than the fee for the module or unit being assessed. This provides a lower and more cost effective route for employees to gain an academic qualification.
It may help businesses to up skill their workforce; bridging the skills gap between those with a level 4 (first year degree level) qualification or higher and those without will involve engaging the existing workforce rather than recruiting new staff with the requisite qualifications. At a time when financial support for part time students is difficult and mainly focussed on an individual learner, this route to a work-based qualification may offer some financial assistance to individual learners.
Critics of MOOCs draw attention to the extremely low completion rates. But the assumption that gaining knowledge about a topic requires the completion of a course is erroneous. MOOCs are rather like TV documentaries or books borrowed from a public library: they are free and provide an educational experience, but with no obligation.
The problem with MOOCs is that they may not be sustainable without some form of income for providers. Learners are already being charged for certificates of completion, and there is also a great deal of discussion about charging for ‘premium services’ such as work placements.
Only if the numbers enrolling are massive enough will MOOCs remain free to all. Venture capitalist John Doerr, a backer of leading MOOC provider Coursera, has stated that if a sufficient number of people out of “millions of learners” pay for premium services then it would be possible for MOOC providers to make a healthy profit.
The real trouble with MOOCs is not the lack of completion, nor the lack of educational credit awarded, but whether they will still exist for large numbers of learners to engage with at no cost. Businesses – who could choose to pay a small supplement for their staff to achieve a premium online learning experience – may prove to have an important role to play in keeping learning free at the point of access for all.
Beverly Leeds is a Principal Lecturer at Lancashire Business School at the University of Central Lancashire. She writes in a personal capacity and does not necessarily represent the views of her institution.