MOOCs will ultimately play a transformational role

This is my contribution to the WISE online debate - you can find other contributions here.

The democratization of the MOOC cannot be underestimated

We have reached the point in the history of MOOCs where the initial excitement is waning and people are beginning to ask questions about whether MOOCs will play a useful role, much less a transformational one, into the future. This comes as record numbers of MOOCs are being offered by numerous providers MOOCs have become a worldwide phenomenon, with Britain's FutureLearn launching in beta and the first Arabic MOOCs coming online.

The criticisms surrounding MOOCs are based in fears that they will replace professors with technology, concerns that the social and personal aspects of learning will be lost, concerns about the need for MOOC participants to be self-motivated and academically ready, and concerns about the high dropout rates all MOOCs have experienced. While some early experiments in certification have been started, there is also widespread skepticism that MOOCs can provide a route to traditional academic credentials.

These criticisms, far from identifying where MOOCs will fail, offer glimpses into the future of MOOCs. For while we may agree that these are weaknesses of the current model, the fact is that the advantages of MOOCs make it more desirable to press forward with the concept, rather than abandoning it and returning to traditional online and classroom-based courses and programs.

The first advantage is accessibility. As the name 'Massive Open Online Course' suggests, MOOCs are available to everyone, requiring only an Internet connection (now 40 per cent of the world’s population, according to the International Telecommunications Union). Even if certification is not available, the fact that participants do not need to pay tuition makes them especially attractive to people outside the traditional university audience. As evidenced by the hundreds of thousands of people registering for courses like Stanford AI (artificial intelligence), there is significant demand for open access to higher education content.

As important to accessibility is flexibility. People can, for the most part, pick their own time to study. Even if students miss the live online presentations, they can view the recorded archive. They can study the material at their own pace, and even if they fall behind, they can continue to access content, work through the examples and assignments, and continue to learn from the course.

The community that develops around MOOC courses has made MOOCs attractive to students worldwide. In 'connectivist' MOOCs, such as those offered by George Siemens and myself, this interactive community is actively encouraged and content contributed to such diverse sites as Blogger, Tumblr, Moodle forums and Twitter feeds is harvested and shared with course participants. In the case of video-lecture based MOOCs, such as those offered by Coursera, communities have developed outside the official channels, as participants meet with each other and discuss the course in their own space.

This democratization of the MOOC cannot be underestimated. It represents a transition in the management of learning from a centrally administered service, such as offered by a corporation or university, to a distributed and essentially unmanaged form of cooperation on the part of students themselves.

And this is what points to the most important element in the future of MOOCs. Today MOOCs are hosted by Coursera or Udacity are based at universities. But over time, they will develop their own presence and their own existence. Take, for example, the Stanford AI course, or the Introduction to Complexity course offered by Melanie Mitchell. While at the moment they are strongly associated with an individual university, over time on sites like Complexity Explorer they will forge their own identity, separating themselves from their university origin.

What will happen in such a scenario is that one course may be offered by several universities. There is no reason why the complexity course could not be shared by MIT, Stanford and the University of Calgary, with local services (such as tutorials, labs and social events) being provided by host institutions, while the content, community and activities are based in the online environment. In the past I have referred to this as the 'online-host provider framework'.

Some pundits have begun to discuss the 'flipped MOOCs', wherein the online MOOC offering is 'wrapped' by the trappings of a traditional course. But this should not be confused with the host-provider framework, where the academic content is defined and provided exclusively by the MOOC providers. Participants will obtain certification from the MOOC provider, which may be converted into local credentials - but the local credentials will be viewed skeptically if not based in the course certificate.

In any case, over time the importance of credentials and certificates will decline. What MOOCs offer is a place and a mechanism whereby individual students can participate in activities and events related to a discipline, work through challenges posed by the course with other members of the community in an online environment accessible worldwide (much like the way open source software works today). These activities leave digital traces, and future employers will not look so much at credentials as they will depend on intelligent software which harvests these traces and constructs a digital profile of prospective employees.

This changes the debate regarding participation and completion rates and even motivation and academic skills. Instead of being requirements imposed by providers on students (usually as a means of assessment for credentials) they will become optional, something students can use to advance their own profile, but not in any way essential aspects of a course. Again, consider the case of open source software (OSS) - a person can contribute as much or as little as they wish, and there's no sense to be made of OSS 'completion rates' or any such thing.

When we view MOOCs as a means of obtaining an education, and establishing a track record, rather than as courses leading to credentials, our original hesitation about the perceived weaknesses of MOOCs can be overcome. The democratization of learning will lead to large and small online courses provided by a range or providers - from major universities to governments to oil companies - but it will be students themselves who decide whether to participate, and whether these courses are worth their time.


  1. I've been wrestling with the problem of credentials for nontraditional online learning (MOOCs, etc) for some time now, and I never really thought about the person's "digital traces" functioning as a credential for employment.

    It really comes down to credentials. If that problem can be solved, the whole university monopoly on "learning" will be broken. I have written about how college degrees are waning as a credential for learning and perhaps for employment (, and it's clear that a major shift is underway.

    To me, as I said above, if the credential problem can be solved, MOOCs will have turned the corner.

  2. I am an Instructional designer and am perceiving MOOCs as a tool to bring in transformation in Indian education due to the inherent features of MOOCs.

  3. I became a MOOC fan. Even when I feel my backgroung is failing to catch up with certain knowledge areas I feel fascinated with what I'm accessing. That's true with Complexity Systems.
    The Future of Storytelling is another interesting theme that has motivated me.
    Perspectives on Disability is finishing and it has been a great opportunity to dig deeper in my professional field. All professors and teams that support these MOOCs have kept the standards high and deserve all our respect and gratefulness for such opportunities. Long live MOOCs!

  4. Stephen, thanks for this! As an digital entrepreneur trying to leave a footprint in this brave new world your insights are appreciated.

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