Sunday, 24 January 2016

The Changing Face of MOOCs

It has been a little while since I last posted (two years--really?) and so it is not surprising that there have been a number of changes. What is perhaps more surprising is the relatively slow rate of evolution. Given all the excitement engendered by the launch of the first MOOCs (the New York Times called 2012 "The Year of the MOOC") we might have expected to see an explosion in the number of courses and student enrolments, innovative approaches on both existing and new platforms, and a growing acceptance of MOOCs by both colleges and employers. The reality has been rather less earth-shattering and distinctly more incremental.

In this first post of 2016 I'll just touch on a few areas of change and look at some broader issues. I'll return to discuss them in more detail in later postings. To capture two years in a few words, I would characterise 2014 as a year of consolidation and 2015 as a period of restructuring.

2014 saw very few significant changes in the MOOC marketplace. The two major players, Coursera and edX, continued to expand their range of courses. Among the smaller players Futurelearn, which had debuted in late 2013, collected more partners but failed to make a big impact on the world scene while Open2Study seemed to stall offering no new courses at all. Udacity had effectively left the MOOC field in late 2013 'pivoting' its offering towards paid vocational courses.

Both Coursera and edX had introduced versions of verified certificates in 2013 and continued to promote them in 2014. As the only successful revenue source for MOOCs to date this was particularly important for Coursera who were relying on a substantial raft of venture capital in order to keep afloat. Once again mirroring each other, both the major players had also introduced the concept of sequences of related courses building towards an overall certification, XSeries in the case of edX and Specializations for Coursera. 2014 saw the steady growth of such sequences. During 2014 these sequences were mainly constructed from existing or already planned courses.

So 2014 really saw nothing too dramatic happening. A few courses here and there gained (US) college accreditation but there were not the seismic shifts predicted by some in the education industry. So how did 2015 shape up? More of the same or some surprises?

2015 will, I suspect, be seen as the year when finances really started becoming a central concern. If in nothing else, this can be seen in the attitude of providers towards free certificates. By the close of 2015 both edX and Coursera had essentially stopped issuing free certificates. This can only be explained as being a response to the need to promote their verified certificates. The problem both had faced was that the verified certificates offered little advantage to students: colleges weren't interested in non-accredited courses and employers, frankly, didn't care so long as candidates had skills that they wanted. The only way to persuade more students to pay for certificates was simply to remove the option of free certification.

Coursera finally began to update its user interface and move, as I predicted a couple of years ago, towards self-paced courses. Although synchronous ('cohort-based' in Coursera's terms) courses continued to be offered they were outstripped by the growth of self-paced courses, many built on the resources originally produced for what are already being called 'traditional' MOOCs. The new interface looked a lot slicker but seemed to perform less well in terms of functionality. Forums, previously the heart of Coursera, were curiously side-lined (with some courses having no forums) while the peer assessment system was also changed to accommodate the greater flexibility required for self-paced courses. One rather odd decision was the removal of anonymity of peers; not only does the reviewer know the identity of the student they are assessing but the student also knows who marked their work.

Over at the Saylor Academy, a resource that is shamefully under-promoted, radical changes were underway. In late summer of 2014 it had been announced that there were some 'mainly cosmetic' changes coming up. By early 2015 it became apparent that these changes were 'root and branch' rather than cosmetic. Having rapidly expanded their portfolio of courses, built around the idea of duplicating the ten most popular US college majors, to over 300 they found that the money generously provided by their benefactor Michael Saylor simply didn't run to supporting such an ambitious programme.

Saylor decided, therefore, to cut down to around a third of the previous total focusing their efforts on two full college curricula (Computing and Business) and a selection of other courses for which they had been successful in obtaining accreditation. Although I am on record of being sceptical in regard to accreditation of MOOC courses dramatic events in the first weeks of 2016 (about which I'll write on another day) were to force me to reappraise my position. Saylor also moved the surviving courses on to a new Moodle-based platform and introduced a rather better forum system.

In some ways 2015 was disappointing for MOOC enthusiasts; free certificates disappearing, platforms shrinking (Saylor Academy) or apparently going into suspended animation (Open2Study) and still no real progress on accreditation (for those who cared) or a real answer to the ultimate question, "Who pays the bills?"

Maybe 2016 will be more exciting. . .

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