Guest blog: MOOCs: Disruptor or Indicator of Something Deeper?

July 20, 2014 Tony Bates
Guest blogger: Nicole Christen

Guest blogger: Nicole Christen

Introduction

I don’t usually do guest blogs, and when I do it’s always because I know they will be of the highest quality – and I NEVER accept unrequested guest blogs from people I don’t know.

However, I was a participant in a study on MOOCs by Nicole Christen for a paper as part of her Master in Educational Technology program at the University of British Columbia. She kindly sent me a copy of her final paper. I was so struck by the quality of this paper and its significance that I immediately asked her if she would be willing to provide a summary in the form of a blog post. Here is the summary of her paper. I found no need to change it. I strongly recommend though that you read the paper in full, which is available here.

Nicole Christen

MOOCs: Disruptor or Indicator of Something Deeper?

Why have massive open online courses, known as MOOCs, established a stronghold in the educational marketplace? Are they responsible for disrupting the traditional system of higher education? And, how can post-secondary institutions survive the changes taking place?

In the summer of 2013, amidst the early hype surrounding MOOCs, I conducted a qualitative research project. My objective was to explore the motivations driving institutions to launch MOOCs and join MOOC consortiums. MOOCs have been labeled as a disruptive force to the traditional system of post-secondary education; however, my research argues otherwise. MOOCs, themselves, are not the source of disruption. Deeper forces are at work.

About My Research Project

In order to understand the reasons behind the rapid implementation of MOOCs by post-secondary institutions, I interviewed educational technology thought leaders from around the world whose areas of expertise included distance learning and open learning at the post-secondary level. During each 30 minute interview, I asked a series of questions designed to help me identify common underlying themes surrounding MOOCs and the overall concept of open learning. The themes extrapolated from my interview data provide a solid overview of fundamental shifts that have occurred as a result of the technological revolution and remain relevant regardless of any changes to MOOCs that have taken place since this research was conducted.

Forces Driving the MOOC Movement

Media hype that portrays MOOCs as an all-powerful disruptive force overlooks the underlying factors behind the adoption of MOOCs. In particular, the post-secondary marketplace is becoming increasingly driven by learner desires. Self-directed, distance education at the post-secondary level has existed for decades; however, the relative ease with which people around the world can now access the Internet, has created a tipping point. In many cases, learners are no longer as limited by geographical boundaries or technological limitations. Open learning initiatives, such as MOOCs, remove financial barriers as well. Instead, learners can (and do) go where their needs will best be met. The educational marketplace is becoming learner-driven.

Interpretations and Implications

Why, then, are MOOCs significant? Because MOOCs are a clear indicator that the realm of post-secondary education is changing as a result of advances in technology. The shift from a top-down, institution driven marketplace to one where a learner can use technology to create a  personalized, piecemeal learning experience from multiple institutions requires institutions to ask themselves what they offer learners that is unique. If one institution meets a unique need, and can fulfill this need on a mass scale for learners better than any other institution, then other institutions need to find a different competitive edge.

Furthermore, if MOOCs become a viable educational option (viable in the sense that employers begin to value emerging credentialing systems created by MOOC providers), then there is a real risk that MOOCs will encroach upon the territory of undergraduate education. Post-secondary institutions rely on heavy enrollment of first and second year students to fund their operations and programs. Losing first and second year students to MOOCs will be detrimental to any institutions.

With that said, according to many of the people I interviewed, there will always a be place for research universities and Ivy league schools. These research-based schools fulfill a market need for an element of prestige attached to credentials, networking opportunities with leaders in the field of study, and the opportunity to conduct innovative research. The institutions most at risk of losing students to online and open learning initiatives are those that simply disseminate information generated elsewhere (typically from prestigious research-based institutions).

Given the potential impact of MOOCs, they can certainly be classified as disruptive; however, they are not a disruptor. The shift toward a learner-directed marketplace, widespread access to high-speed Internet, and the ever-increasing global network of information are the true disruptive forces. If MOOCs had not emerged, then some other form of open learning would have emerged to meet the need for low-cost access to educational resources.

Additionally, MOOCs may not be a lasting phenomenon, especially because a sustainable model for operation has yet to be proven; however, if their popularity fades, another innovative open learning opportunity will arise. Things will not go back to the way they were. The demand for open learning will not disappear.

How can institutions survive the disruption taking place in post-secondary education?

My hope is that my research can provide a starting point for institutions to explore the ways in which they can withstand the changes taking place within post-secondary learning by exploring new niches to fill and discovering which specific learner needs they are best equipped to meet. For example, open learning programs (such as MOOCs) often provide information in a way that can be considered akin to a free, interactive textbook. Certain institutions can build on MOOCs by providing classes that help students understand the material being presented to them. In essence, the institutional programs would complement MOOCs.  The most important take-away from my research is that the conditions which have lead to the rise of MOOCs have also created new gaps in the educational marketplace, opening the door for many other innovative approaches to adult education.

My formal research report is titled Open Online Learning: This Changes Everything and can be found at http://nicolechristen.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/Open-Online-Learning.pdf

Bio: Nicole Christen is a digital media strategist and a recent graduate from the Master of Educational Technology program at UBC. Read more about Nicole’s professional background and areas of interest at www.nicolechristen.com/portfolio.

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