Saturday, April 13, 2013

Who are MOOCs really for?

CC BY-NC-ND Some rights reserved by catspyjamasnz
I've written before about the irrelevance of looking deeply into completion rates of MOOCs. Due to the fact that MOOCs are free and (relatively) open they should not be compared to regular university courses. The typical completion rates of around 10% obviously alarm those who view MOOCs as alternatives to for-credit courses. However, given the fact that such a completion rate for a course with 50,000 students would still give more successful students than several years of campus courses, they maybe don't do so badly after all. What so many articles seem to miss is the fact that the target group for MOOCs is not traditional university students at all. I would like to see some studies on the demography of MOOCs to see who's really using them and I suspect that the traditional student group of 19-25 year olds is not as well represented as you might expect. MOOCs do not really compete with higher education, they make higher education material accessible to people who would never otherwise have access to it.

This is the theme of an excellent article by Oscar Becerra, The One Laptop Per Child Correlation With Massive Open Online Courses. He starts by stating that "MOOC Target Audience are Currently “Non-consumers” of Education", meaning that MOOCs should be seen as an exciting extension of higher education allowing millions of people to explore new fields that were previously closed off to them. Whether these people complete their courses or not is not really very interesting, it's what they feel they have learnt from the experience.

"What we need to bear in mind is that the MOOCs are trying to make better quality education available to a great mass of people who are currently “non-consumers” of education and such quality is currently superior by far to whatever they may be getting right now. The MOOCs are not aimed to people who are willing to cheat but to those willing to learn ...
... we may say the MOOCs and online education offerings available today are “good enough educational offerings” helping ordinary people who are willing to learn to reach goals that had been out of their possibilities so far."

MOOCs are not regular university courses and we shouldn't compare the two. You do not get the same levels of tuition and guidance and you need to be highly self-sufficient and digitally literate to be able to benefit from them. But you can learn a lot from them if you apply yourself and that in itself is a justification. At the moment I suspect the majority of MOOC students are graduates and professionals who are trying out the new arena out of curiosity. People like myself basically. We are often only interested in looking at methods and content and seldom stay for the whole course (I'm guilty as charged here). This group is highly self-sufficient and many are educators themselves with little interest in credits even if they were available. I'd be interested in seeing how the demographics change as the hype dies down. I suspect that the curious academic category will fall off and the group of new learners, people outside higher education, will increase. They are the real target group of MOOCs but they are not in focus at present due to the vast numbers of "curious academics" so maybe we should reserve our judgement on the MOOC phenomenon till the dust settles.


  1. Thank you for valuable insights I'll keep them in mind since I was asked to write some brief comments on MOOCs next week.