Sunday, February 28, 2016

MOOCs going mainstream? Reflections from eMOOCs 2016

University of Graz
Social learning, secure online examination, new pathways to credentials, unbundling and the application of learning analytics. These are some of the main themes of lat week's eMOOCs 2016 conference in Graz, Austria, that I attended together with MOOC practitioners mostly from Europe but some from further afield. Earlier conferences attracted many policy makers and managers but now the focus was very much on sharing experience and moving MOOCs to a new level. The overall tone of the conference was that MOOCs are beginning to mature and the earlier criticisms of instructivist pedagogy, low completion rates and hyped glossiness are now being addressed. Many MOOCs now offer virtual proctoring to enable MOOCs for credits, micro-credentials though badges are improving learner motivation and the focus is now on social learning rather than self-study. The business models of the main consortia are built around a freemium model with only access to course material available for free and a host of layered value-added options available at a price.

The conference featured two inspirational keynote speakers, Anant Agarwal (Professor at MIT and CEO of EdX) and Pierre Dillenbourg (Professor at EPFL Lausanne), and the rest of the time was devoted to practitioner experience, research findings and workshops. Agarwal gave an infectiously enthusiastic presentation of the EdX consortium's progress and future direction, stressing the need for MOOCs to break the sonic barrier of credits. This demands of course increased accountability. MOOCs should be as good if not better than traditional courses and this is achieved by innovative solutions, virtual proctored exams, social learning, project teams, tutoring and teacher grading in combination with peer assessment and guided studies that have become a hallmark of the genre. Verified certificates have increased course completion rates to around 60% whilst more advanced verification and course packages have given even higher rates.

Conference begins
Offering MOOCs as a stepping stone to campus studies is already in place, notably the Global Freshman Academy initiative between EdX and Arizona State University. This involves replacing the freshman year with MOOCs with open admissions. When you sit the course exams you only pay for credit if you pass. Admission to campus studies from year two is available for those who pass their year one courses and pay for the credits, what Agarwal referred to as inverted admissions. The big question here is whether more universities will accept this concept and give learners access to year two of a degree programme on the basis of credits gained from other universities' MOOCs, even with proctored examination. A similar concept is that of micromasters, bundles of MOOCs with tutoring, project work and proctored examination, which are being developed in cooperation with major companies (see also for example Coursera's specializations concept and  project-based courses). These micromasters can be counted as half of a regular masters degree thus allowing learners to complete their masters degree at half the normal price. The partner companies are on board but it remains to be seen whether this approach will gain acceptance throughout the higher education sector and widespread employer recognition.

The frequently voiced concerns about the credibility and security of online examinations may well be addressed by the practice of virtual proctoring through companies such as Software secure and Proctor U. These companies have centres where virtual proctors monitor thousands of online examinations using webcam, microphone and screen surveillance. Student computers are locked down and only allow the examination application and the webcam will register any activities like checking a mobile under the table. The software registers all exceptional behaviour and movements both on screen and in the room and these can later be investigated if there is any suspicion of cheating. This is already in practice in MOOCs for credit as well as in regular for-credit online courses though as far as I could gather had not really been tested extensively in Europe. I can imagine that European universities will be unwilling to risk such extensive surveillance data being stored outside the EU but I'm sure there will be a solution. The claim is that this technology will make online examinations at least as secure as traditional on-site exams (ie. not completely cheat-proof but probably good enough).

The conference closed with a thought-provoking speech by Pierre Dillenbourg who called on European universities to agree on how to recognize each others' MOOCs and open the way for real virtual mobility through a kind of virtual Erasmus programme. He argued that we already have the key ingredients in place; we have a common academic currency in terms of the Bologna agreement and ECTS, we have publicly funded universities giving around 4000 potential testing centres and we have cultural diversity so why can’t we offer credits for MOOCs? He urged universities and university associations to start discussing this and there were several representatives in the hall who immediately agreed to investigate further. The conference Twitter feed immediately informed us that there is already a cooperation in place between a few universities for exactly this sort of virtual mobility called Opening universities for virtual mobility.

My one concern with all this is that that the potential of MOOCs to truly open up education is being tamed and adapted to fit nicely into the traditional model. The focus now seems to be on the value-added layers and the promise of examination and credits. The wider potential of open networked learning I believe will be the task of non-traditional educational organisations rather than the higher education sector.

There were of course many other extremely interesting presentations and discussions and I may well return to them in a later post as I may do about my own contribution.

Download the full proceedings of the conference.


  1. Thanks for your reflections, very useful for those of us who could not attend. Interesting perspectives on Dillenbourg's proposal - on the one hand, it's certainly exciting to see innovations within the traditional university sector, which might lead to more access, more cultural diversity, better pedagogy etc. On the other hand, you're right in that too much focus on fitting MOOCs into traditional structures of course credits and accreditation risks loosing some of the genuinely innovative around MOOCs... Although a lot of the innovation wasn't necessarily happening on Coursera or EdX anyway, and as these two (especially Coursera, but I think EdX will follow) are closing down their platforms, focusing more on fee-paying students etc, I hope there are increasing efforts by universities and research communities to support alternative experimental platforms and communities.

  2. It was great to meet you at the conference Alastair, thank you for the accurate and thoughtful summary of what we're trying to accomplish with the Global Freshman Academy. Hopefully we can find a way to walk the fine line between accreditation and wild experimentation with connected global learning.

  3. Indeed Jenni. Hope you found the conference as interesting as I did. Good luck!

  4. Thanks, Alastair. I agree with your comment that MOOCs are being "tamed" to fit into our existing ways of operation but I don't think this precludes more innovative ways of using them. It is possible to award credits for your own MOOCs and to agree credit recognition between institutions providing MOOCs and still have them completely open (as in Arizona State but not Georgia Tech). the institutions can also release their individual learning objects (documents, links, videos) as open resources (Creative Commons?) as some MOOCs do. In the meantime, awarding and mutually recognising credits may be useful in justifying activity within institutions who are not yet fully convinced of the merits of open education.


  5. I fully agree Brian. I just suspect that the innovative practices may well come from outside the traditional setup. The instinct of the "system" is to integrate and develop rather than disrupt.

  6. The coursera project-based courses isn't open, coursera take a fee 20 - 130 USD per course.

  7. They certainly aren't open. Almost all MOOCs charge for any form of certification now. The only part that's free is to view the material. I'm more interested here in the business models and new ideas around the concept.