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Five myths about Moocs

Diana Laurillard explains why a model based on unsupervised learning is not the answer

Dale Edwin Murray opinion illustration (16 January 2014)

Source: Dale Edwin Murray

Moocs will not solve the problem of expensive undergraduate education or educational scarcity in emerging economies. This is just a cruel myth

In last week’s Times Higher Education, University of Greenwich vice-chancellor David Maguire called massive open online courses the most-hyped new idea in higher education in 2013. He predicted that a “trough of disillusionment” would open up in 2014.

Well he might. Free online courses that require no prior qualifications or fee are a wonderful idea but are not viable.

Mooc students spend the majority of their study time watching videos and reading. To aid understanding they join discussion groups with other students, and they take computer-marked tests that direct them back to material they have not understood. For feedback they exchange assignments with a partner and peer grade them against a set of criteria.

Moocs are depicted as a disruptive technology because they involve no ongoing teaching expenses and cost the same to run no matter how many students enrol. But the idea that “content is free” in education is one of several myths that have helped to inflate the bubble of hype. Yes, there is a mass of free material on the web. But for educational purposes, web content has to be curated by someone who knows how it relates to an intended learning outcome, and their work does not come free. Video content could of course be the by-product of a lecture that is already part of a course, but for online students with no prior qualifications it would have no meaning. Video content for them would have to be specially developed – and funded.

Another myth is that students can support each other. UK universities maintain a staff-to-student ratio of roughly 1:25. This means that if you have 25 students on a course it will take at least one tutor to advise, guide and assess them. Even the largest Open University courses operate on this basis. Harvard Law School uses the edX platform for its course on copyright, but limits enrolment to 500 because it has only 21 tutors and knows – as it says on its website – that “high-quality legal education depends, at least in part, upon supervised small-group discussions of difficult issues”. A Duke University Mooc that began with 12,000 students used only 200 hours of tutor time. But the number of students requiring support for the eight or so hours they spent in tutored discussions and assignments was around 500 by the halfway point: roughly a 1:20 ratio.

Nor will Moocs solve the problem of expensive undergraduate education or educational scarcity in emerging economies. This is just a cruel myth. Evidence from several universities suggests that well over 60 per cent of those who register for Moocs already have degrees (although the reports do not include demographic data on the few who complete). So Moocs do not provide an opportunity to discover how to teach first-time undergraduates successfully in an online format.

It is true that university education in its current form completely fails to meet the worldwide demand, currently estimated at 100 million potential students each year, primarily from emerging economies. But our fully developed economies do not meet even the domestic demand for well-educated graduates. So why are our top universities spending millions to provide free and (they claim) innovative courses for global students who turn out to be already highly qualified professionals? Once they have benefited from the contribution of Moocs to their reputation and marketing campaigns, universities claim they will be able to pass on the innovation to their own undergraduates. But why were their undergraduates, who pay thousands of pounds in fees, not worthy of such investment before? These technologies have been available to universities for many years.

The simple fact is that a course format that copes with large numbers by relying on peer support and assessment is not an undergraduate education. Education is not a mass customer industry: it is a personal client industry. The significant initial investment required in the preparation of educational resources can be distributed over very large student numbers and repeated runs of the course, but education is fundamentally about learning concepts and skills that we do not acquire naturally through our normal interaction with the world. And this takes time. It requires personalised guidance, which is simply not scalable in the same way. This is what the private educational sector continues to ignore, and it is why every new idea for solving the problem of mass education with technology falls flat.

So if we support students on a roughly 1:25 staff-to-student ratio and we increase our student numbers by hundreds of thousands, where are those thousands of tutors to come from? That is not a rhetorical question; there are ways of answering it. We could be exploring new structures for higher education. But the simplistic myths of Moocs are not the answer.

The model has value for professional development, providing a forum for the dissemination, discussion and development of up-to-date ideas. It could even be used to help academics, teachers and policymakers make technology work in education, and develop effective ways of tackling that huge unmet demand for higher education. Only then would vice-chancellors’ excitement about the hundreds of thousands of students registered on their Moocs – dwarfing their campus cohorts – be justified.

But I have had many opportunities to observe that very intelligent people leave their brains behind when it comes to technology. The Mooc phenomenon is just further confirmation of that simple truth.

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Readers' comments (15)

  • Surprise, surprise, the turkeys vote against Christmas. What Prof Maguire and Laurillard forget to tell us is that in the mass production factories that UK universities are today (perhaps with the exception of Oxbridge), students get very little in the way of valuable academic support and proper formative feedback.

    Truth is, a motivated student can get better academic content and more organised scientific information from a well made Mooc than from an average UK degree course - and save several tens of thousands of pounds in the process.

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  • Anyone handing £27,000 upfront for an unproven product with no guarantees would be considered a fool in any sphere other then UK Universities. Moocs are not competing against UK Universities as the business models bear no similarities. UK Universities model is so inflexible that the student has to fit into their system where there is no compromise whereas Moocs can be adapted to fit the student. I work in a UK Uni but take Mooc courses exclusively.

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  • Jock Coats

    Wow, a generalisation about something that is still developing - I'm not aware of a single definition of how a Mooc is delivered technologically or pedagogically (and if there is one doing the rounds it is bound to be wrong/insufficient because it is still a developing phenomenon).

    For example, what if a 1:25 ratio can be maintained by sponsorship meaning it remains "open" and costless to the student? What about mechanisms like Sal Khan's videos where you can go back time and time again to short snippets of things you don't understand and ask questions about them if you are still stuck?

    Equally, I am sure that some institutions are trying to follow an ill-defined "MOOC" formula without putting too much effort into pedagogical development because they may be seen to be a bit out of touch if they don't offer some MOOCs because it's trendy. And such "followers" could well be criticised for the issues the article highlights.

    As the previous comment says, the staff to student ratio on bricks and mortar courses do not guarantee much more personal guidance or contact hours. Whilst more support is available on demand many don't avail themselves of it (I haven't)

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  • Moocs might not be perfect yet, neither is real face to face education. Open up to the new qualities of moocs and you will love your job even more in the future professor: developing high quality moocs and/or coach students in the process of growing to a degree, or continue to present mediocre powerpoints multiple times and lose a lot of time on administration and reviewing?

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  • There only seem to be four myths here? I agree that MOOCs are oversold and are not a panacea, but most of these 'myths' miss the mark.

    1. the idea that “content is free” in education

    The idea that ‘content is free’ is not a myth. It is a fact. It is the one unmistakeable fact that is driving all the changes that we see. It is why universities are flailing around like headless chooks. Denial is not an option. Content is free. Accept it and move on.

    2. students can support each other

    Okay, so we have always taught with a model where a relatively small number of students relied on a tutor to assist them. Where is it written on golden tablets brought down from heaven by the archangel Michael that the way we have always done something is the only way to do it? Consider how our students learn how to play World of Warcraft. One high-level tutor does not shepherd 25 n00bs through instances explaining how to keep aggro off the healer. They learn in small groups, consulting forums and wikis that embody the accumulated wisdom of the community. You can learn anything this way. This is a natural, bottom-up, human way of learning things.

    3. MOOCs solve the problem of expensive undergraduate education or educational scarcity in emerging economies

    This piece presents no evidence whatsoever against this so-called ‘myth’. So what if 60% of people enrolled in MOOCs at this moment already have degrees. At one time 60% of the people who owned personal computers were white male uni drop-outs working in their parents’ garages. At one time 60% of the world’s motor cars were made in Germany. Emerging technologies are going to be localised. Early adopters are not the same cohort of people as late adopters. This is true for every new way of doing things.

    4. Education is a mass customer industry

    Now, here I can agree completely. Education isn’t a mass customer industry. It isn’t an industry at all. It is a human activity as natural as eating or playing sport, and a fundamental human right. If the education ‘industry’ as constituted currently is getting in the way of changes that are making education more accessible and affordable, it needs to die in a fire.

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  • There are some fair points in these comments. But some I'd want to come back on (numbered for ease of reference, should you wish to debate further):
    1. Not all courses operate like "mass production factories", but the article is certainly not a defence of the current HE model.
    2. " the business models bear no similarities" - true: MOOCs have no business model as yet; few UK universities know what their business model of teaching is.
    3. "UK Universities model is so inflexible" - there is not one, there are many, even within one university
    4. "Moocs can be adapted to fit the student" - many online courses are more adaptable, not running on such tight schedules.
    5. "Open up to the new qualities of moocs" - if only they had some, but I find the Coursera platform, for example, a lot more restrictive than, say Moodle, and the many other wholly online course platforms I've taught over the years, going back a long way to the mid 90s. There should by now be much better tools for teachers to use for creating good interactive and collaborative learning activities. We've not done well in education to get the learning design tools we need.
    6. "what if a 1:25 ratio can be maintained by sponsorship meaning it remains "open" and costless to the student?" - fine, but this has nothing to do with MOOCs - just about standard sponsorship as for any course.
    7. "videos where you can go back time and time again" - available on any f2f or online course that uses videos, not peculiar to MOOCs
    8. "the staff to student ratio on bricks and mortar courses do not guarantee much more personal guidance or contact hours." - these ratios and the quality guidelines for university courses apply to all courses, f2f and online. True they are not a guarantee in either mode, but they are an entitlement for students, and universities are evaluated in terms of the quality of student guidance they give, both f2f and online.
    9. No, content cannot be free for this reason: "web content has to be curated by someone who knows how it relates to an intended learning outcome". Educational content is not just anything that happens to be available. There is a duty to the student to make the content learnable and related to what they will need. That's an expensive process - someone at some point has to pay for that.
    10. "a natural, bottom-up, human way of learning things' - yes, hugely important, the way we do most of our learning probably, but not the same as education, which is about the things that are hard to learn, that we struggle to master, or that we have no idea we need to know. Formal education is different and gives a different kind of value from the informal learning that is natural and learner-driven. It's worth differentiating these isn't it? Add it into the mix, certainly, but that's not enough.

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  • Thanks for getting back to us. :) Hmm, I am wrestling around the subtleties of your argument that content is not free... "There is a duty to the student to make the content learnable and related to what they will need." There is certainly something in that, but we don't do it very well with the conventional model. Five hundred students in my first year chemistry class are all starting from different places in terms of how they learn and are doing the class for different reasons - I like to think I earn my pay, but even now I think the 'wisdom of crowds' does a better job at guiding them to appropriate content than I can.

    'Curated by someone who knows how it relates to an intended learning outcome' implies to me a certain centrally planned model of education where we carefully shepherd students along from point A to point B... like chemical syntheses where you carefully protect and deprotect groups and add one bond at a time. I think they have had enough of this treatment before getting to higher education and should be encouraged to undergo something more akin to a branching chain reaction ...?

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  • Thanks Diana for replying to comments. The problem is not whether MOOCs are 100% free - the point is that they are intrinsically much cheaper than traditional courses, simply because their content can be accessed by millions of students. Governments will want in the future to cover the relatively small cost of setting up a first class MOOC, given the potential benefits of this operation.

    MOOCS do not provide a bottom-up method of learning - the information is still provided and organised by the lecturers. Is this really different from a traditional course, in which largely non-interactive lectures are delivered to big groups of students?

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  • 1. They are pretty metaphors, Chris, but we're talking about nurturing minds - by enabling them to develop high level skills, and be able to build on the knowledge already developed about the world. Education has a responsibility not simply to 'transmit' that knowledge (and that is what we all react against) but to enable students to tussle with those complex concepts themselves. Don't imagine they can do it all by going off on their own journeys (the branching chain reaction?). That's what the experts who went before us did and it took them a lifetime to figure out, for example, that there were such things as branching chain reactions - amazingly powerful concepts and ways of organising the world into something we can shape ourselves, building on that knowledge, and thereby move on to discover our own new contributions - not just as academics but as professionals, practitioners or citizens. The teacher's job is to relieve you of the problem of having to discover those concepts for yourself. And how do we do that? Well, the great thing about digital technology is that it gives us a plethora of new ways to do that. But learning technology is hopelessly under-explored so far.
    And if the wisdom of the crowds guides them to free content, what is that, other than another chunk of someone telling what to think? Where's the conceptual tussle in that?
    500 students is a lot. Try the Keller Plan (Keller, F. S. (1974). Ten years of personalized instruction. Teaching of Psychology, 1(1), 4-9.)? Old but it works. That's how I managed 100 students from 70 different countries with a wide variety of A-level equivalents, none of whom properly understood the maths they'd apparently been examined on. It's a way of helping students work at their own pace, help each other, get tested on what they know, and all move together at the same pace. Sort of. Mostly it worked. If MOOCs were any use they'd have developed a technology version of this technique for managing large numbers as an online tool. As I said, hopelessly under-explored...

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  • Giorgio that's a fair point about costs: "intrinsically much cheaper than traditional courses, simply because their content can be accessed by millions" but it only addresses the fixed costs part of teaching, where the per student cost is low because one lecture is seen by so many.

    But if that's all we do, we're back to the transmission model of teaching: tell them and they'll know it'. That's not enough support for students who are trying to understand the difficult ideas it took brilliant minds a lifetime to discover. Education has to help us make sense of those ideas, and to develop the high level skills to take them further, or to apply them in new areas. 'Nurturing minds' is how I referred to it in responding to Chris - that's the tutorial support, small group discussions, student seminars, individual guidance, personalised commenting, marking, assessing... all the aspects of teaching that make it go beyond mere 'telling', and that are labour intensive because they are 'variable costs' - related to the number of students in the cohort. That's not cheap.

    Does that make sense?

    Personalised commenting for a million students requires something a bit more imaginative than quizzes. And that's where I think we hopelessly under-exploit what digital technology could do. Simulations, games, intelligent support, personalisation, etc, are the kinds of apps that rarely get out of the research lab and into mainstream products. They could offer fixed cost solutions to personalisation and student guidance. But that would require investment in technologies peculiar to education, and no country in the world has ventured into doing that yet. MOOCs are not on any trajectory that will go in that direction, sadly, but they could be.

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