BOON OR BOONDOGGLE? Free online courses offer knowledge, but no credit

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have taken the education world by storm, promising to deliver rich content to a significant number of people via the Web – for free. While students are signing up in droves and employers are beginning to take notice, educational experts question whether courses without certifications deliver any real value.

MOOCs exploded onto the education scene in 2011, when a free artificial-intelligence (AI) course offered by Stanford University in the USA attracted 160,000 students from 190 countries. Since then, dozens of top universities have caught the MOOC wave, including Harvard and Yale in the USA; Copenhagen University (Denmark) and École Polytechnique (France) in Europe; and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology in China.

In addition, a number of commercial start-ups offering MOOCs have formed in association with universities, including Coursera, Udacity and Edx in the USA, and FutureLearn in the UK. Coursera estimates that more than 3 million users attend MOOCs – nearly double the attendance it estimated less than a year ago.


Many would agree that higher education needs a shake-up. Costs are high and climbing, and students increasingly must pay their own way. According to Times Higher Education, Finland (in 2010) and Hungary (in 2013) have introduced fees. Others, including the UK, have vastly increased tuition costs. State funding in the USA, which hit a 25-year low in 2011, contributed to fee increases of 42% in the past decade. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, 43% of 25-year-olds globally had student debt in 2012, an increase from 27% in 2004.

Cost isn’t the only factor limiting access to higher education. “Many people do not have the credentials that would get them admitted in higher education,” said Stéphan Vincent-Lancrin, project leader in the Directorate for Education at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). “One big problem for access comes from learning (and dropout) prior to higher education.”

The availability of education also is inadequate, Vincent-Lancrin said. “There may be more demand than places offered because of the cost of enrolling all interested students. For students located in developing countries, they may not be able to access the best quality or the most relevant courses in their field.”

MOOCs have the potential to change all this. “In the past few months, hundreds of thousands of motivated students around the world who lack access to elite universities have been embracing those (MOOCs) as a path toward sophisticated skills,” Tamar Lewin wrote in the New York Times article “Instruction for Masses Knocked Down Campus Walls.”

Kritika Desai, a student of English literature at Jadhavpur University in Kolkata, India, is one example. Desai recently enrolled in an “Introduction to Finance” course on Coursera, offered by the University of Michigan. “In India, no university provides a combination of literature and finance,” Desai told University World News. “The MOOC has made it possible for me to study an extra subject from a top American university free of cost.”


A free online course in artificial intelligence offered by Stanford University attracted 160,000 students from 190 countries.

As well as benefiting students, MOOCs help universities build global awareness. Educause, a non-profit association focused on advancing higher education, observes that universities can use online courses to extend their reach and reputation internationally.

“The notion of a teacher standing in front of a classroom is yesterday’s news,” said Tracy Gray, managing director of the Center for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Education and Innovation at the American Institutes for Research. “There are relatively few teachers that can captivate the digital native students of today. MOOCs allow all students to access the very best educators.”


MOOCS also help graduates acquire the specific skills they need to get better jobs. “Even with high unemployment, employers are complaining about the lack of candidates with the specific technical know-how needed for open positions,” said John Challenger, CEO of US-based outplacement specialist Challenger, Gray & Christmas. “Forward-thinking employers already recognize MOOCs as one possible solution.”

In fact, MOOCs can help employers cherry-pick prospective employees and better identify training needs. “Having a degree or certificate in hand is no guarantee that a candidate will actually be able to do the work for which he or she is hired,” Challenger said. “Because the MOOC environment is digital, providers of this new system of education have unprecedented access to information that can be easily mined to identify candidates. And because we are so early in this trend, employers have a much better opportunity to shape curriculums to fit their needs.”

Some top companies are already adapting MOOCs for in-house training. McAfee and General Electric, for example, are exploring which design features of MOOCs best suit their corporate learning and development programs. “MOOCs can really benefit employers when they’re used internally,” said Jeanne Meister, founding partner at Future Workplace, a US-based consulting firm dedicated to assisting organizations in re-inventing the workplace.

Meister believes that employers increasingly are embracing MOOCs. “There is clearly momentum toward the acceptance of non-degree credentials in general,” Meister said. “For example, many entrepreneurial incubator programs have better reputations than Ivy League schools when it comes to churning out brilliant business minds.”

Challenger agrees. “Long-term, MOOCs hold a lot of positive potential. They will become more and more specific to employers’ needs. They will also be used increasingly as a way for employers to provide continuing education to existing employees. And they will be critical in helping unemployed workers keep their skills and knowledge-base fresh.”


Despite the potential of MOOCs, a number of challenges remain. Dropout rates are high. For example, of the 160,000 students who attended Stanford’s AI course, only 23,000 finished. Accreditation is also an issue. Most MOOCs are offered as non-credit courses. To date, only the Global Campus of Colorado State University (CSU) has agreed to provide students with full transfer credit toward a CSU bachelor’s degree if they complete an introductory computer science MOOC. Many providers simply offer a certificate of accomplishment – and only for students willing to pay a fee.


“MOOCs allow all students to access the very best educators.”

Tracy Gray Managing Director Center for STEM Education and Innovation

The lack of human interaction is another sticking point. “Education is a two-step process,” said Eric Mazur, professor of Physics and Applied Physics at Harvard University and area dean of Applied Physics. “MOOCs are only replicating the easy part – delivering information – without paying attention to how students make sense of that information. If you were to take my course and turn it into a MOOC, there’d be nothing to film because students are actively engaged in activities. This simply cannot be replicated online.”

Navneet Johal, associate analyst for Education Technology at London-based global analyst firm Ovum, cites a long-term study by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College. “It suggests the students most often targeted in online learning’s access mission are less likely than their peers to benefit from – and may in fact be hurt by – digital as opposed to face-to-face instruction,” Johal said. The study found that, especially for adult students, the academically under-prepared, and members of some minority groups, students fared less well in online courses than in face-to-face classes.

Educational institutions also lack a standard business model for how MOOCs will be funded once venture capital dries up. “The funding won’t last forever,” Mazur said. “Education is expensive. You may be able to supplement it with free MOOCs in the short term, but how are these courses going to be supported ten years from now? As a substitute for a book, or as a supplement to lectures, then MOOCs are fine. But this isn’t the future of learning.”


MOOCs do have their supporters, however. “MOOCs are a good way of engaging with a new topic or getting to grips with a new skill rapidly,” said Mike Sharples, chair in Educational Technology at the UK’s Open University, which has offered distance learning for more than 30 years. “They’re not going to replace traditional higher education, but they will help to shape the future of learning.”

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which promotes universal education, is investigating whether the MOOCs model can be translated into remedial and introductory courses. According to the Foundation’s website, only about half of those who enroll in a four-year university course earn a degree, and barely 20% of those pursuing an associate degree earn one within three years. The Foundation is investing US$550,000 in providers that will develop MOOCs specifically for remedial and introductory courses.

MOOCs also seem to be making headway in areas where there is a lack of qualified teachers, such as the STEM fields. “There’s a pressing need for qualified instructors who can teach and engage students to enter and stay in STEM-related fields,” Gray said. “The opportunity to engage students through innovative approaches such as MOOCs and online/blended learning platforms have the potential to reach and engage significant numbers of students in the STEM fields, and also to enhance teaching and learning as we know it today.”  ◆

by Lindsay James Back to top