Published 07 April 2014

Massive Open Online Courses

– a study of the development in four countries

The Swedish Agency for Growth Policy Analysis has on commission from the Ministry of Education and Research studied some aspects of Massively Open Online Courses (MOOC) in the United States of America (US), the United Kingdom (UK), India and China. The purpose of the study was to study the transformative importance of MOOC’s in general, its potential effects on traditional education as well as challenges associated with the educational form.

MOOC:s are in general characterized by a large number of students per course, the absence of tuition fees, open admission and that courses are given over the internet. There exists, however, also MOOC-like courses with restricted admission and a relatively lower number of students. In this discussion, the term “MOOC” is used in a relatively broad sense.

The number of MOOC’s has increased manifold since the first course was given, a few years back. Since then a number of platforms for courses have been, or are in the process of being, started in the US (Coursera, edX, Udacity) and the UK (Futurelearn), as well as in other countries such as India and China. Today, MOOC’s are given by many universities around the world. This includes highly ranked universities such as Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Karolinska institutet and the University of Tokyo. The universities see a value in MOOC’s for many reasons including international marketing, recruitment of students, spread of knowledge etc. However, MOOC’s are also important to increase the accessibility of education, for pedagogic development and for research. The technology associated with MOOC’s, such as lectures over the internet, may be used to free up time for interactive exercises, group work, labs and problem solving on traditional on-campus courses.

There appears to be a clear support for MOOC’s on the national level in all the countries studied. On this level MOOC:s may be seen as a way to market the country as well as its universities, export education, attract students, increase the supply of competent personnel and give access to education for larger demographic groups in geographically dispersed regions. It is, however, at present not evident that MOOC’s are taken by individuals from groups underrepresented in traditional education. In for instance the US, MOOC’s is also seen as a potential way to counter high tuition fees and associated debt. The relatively low costs per student and the absence of tuition fees (or low tuition fees) are also of importance in for instance China.

There is a substantial level of support for MOOC’s. However, the trend has also been criticized and the courses are associated with a number of challenges. The, sometimes, very large number of students on the courses makes examinations complex and identifications of students, over the internet, is difficult. Sometimes exams with multiple-choice questions combined with automatic correction are used. In other cases students correct or comment on each other’s exam answers. The majority of MOOC’s today do not result in formal academic credits which means that examination issues is a minor problem. However, it is likely that a larger number of MOOC:s will give academic merits in the future and it is therefore of the essence to discuss how examinations can be performed in a legally correct and fair manner, how course quality can be assessed, and how decisions concerning student support should be taken.

The business models for MOOC’s are often relatively unclear and the costs for the development of courses may be substantial. Tuition fees are in some cases charged but are usually much lower than for equivalent on-campus courses. Extra fees may also be charged for tests and diplomas, for students that desire formal recognition.

The proportion of students that complete the MOOC’s they enrol in is often low. A reason for this is that students register out of interest and that courses commonly are built from a number of discrete modules. It is likely that the number of students completing their courses will increase if these start to give formal academic merits. Formal merits are also important to increase the value of MOOC’s on the job market.

MOOC’s are important both in themselves and as the underlying web-based technology can change the pedagogic methods of on-campus educations. MOOC-like courses may have the potential to, in the future, replace some traditional university courses. However, at the moment the trend primarily appears to be complementary. One area in which MOOC-like courses may be particularly beneficial is in continuing education of professionals. In order for MOOC:s to gain a well-defined place in formal university education, challenges concerning learning environment, interactivity and business models need to be addressed.

It should be possible for Swedish universities to utilize MOOC’s developed by both Swedish and foreign universities for some courses and course parts. At the same time, Swedish universities should be able to increase their national and international visibility through MOOC’s which may help recruiting students, teachers and researchers. Furthermore, it should be of interest for Swedish educational institutions to use MOOC-technology proactively for pedagogic development at universities and in schools.

It is likely that some questions concerning quality assurance, examinations, student support and intellectual rights need to be further investigated.

Massive Open Online Courses – a study of the development in four countries

Serial number
PM 2014:08

Reference number

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