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MOOCs: Money, Marketing and Mystery

Bob Little 

November 21, 2014

The current decade has seen the rapid growth of massive open online courses (MOOCs) and their subsequent derivatives. Accompanied by the rise of open content, MOOCs have been generating huge interest and controversy, particularly in the higher education sector – where the phenomenon has been focused. Along with adaptive learning platforms, learning-as-a-service (LaaS) and increasingly smart assessment, the growth of MOOCs is among the current key trends in the online learning sector.

However, MOOCs are also beginning to affect the corporate learning world, especially where large, global organizations are concerned. Information and communication technology vendors, such as SAP, are among a growing number of organizations to introduce corporate MOOCs. In addition, the partnership of Google with the edX MOOC at the end of last year, to form MOOC.org, is a significant development.

The Mystery of MOOCs

According to a report – A Review of the e-Learning Markets of the U.K., EU and China 2014 – published in July 2014 by e-learning industry market analyst Learning Light, the presence of MOOCs “can’t be underestimated in terms of current noise levels and there are ‘doom mongering predictions’ of them sweeping away universities as we know them. MOOCs will have an impact and educational establishments will have to address this changing landscape. The key issue is how they do that.”

The U.K. government was so concerned that education in the U.K. may have missed out on an important opportunity, as far as MOOCs are concerned, that it encouraged the Open University to develop its own MOOC – FutureLearn – to compete with the U.S.’s MOOC platforms.

Monetizing MOOCs

According to Learning Light, there were more than 500 MOOCs registered across Europe in April 2014, with Spain leading with 200. Nonetheless, it believes that the impact of the MOOC movement may have been overstated. It says that there remains too many uncertainties around how these MOOC-related entities will “monetize.” While there are some interesting models and eco-systems emerging around MOOCs, monetizing them remains the challenge, with both Udacity and Coursera – which attract the most attention – exploring options for charging students.

Judging by comments – both on and off the record – made at the recent ELIG annual conference, held this year in London, this is a key issue for Europe’s academics. Olaf Dierker, director of the Hamburg-based TLA TeleLearn-Akademie, believes that his organization will be among several that will soon be charging students to access their MOOCs.

As befits the e-learning industry’s lengthy track record for increasingly introspective segmentation and specialization, recent months have seen the development of MOOC subsets – with the advent of small private online courses (SPOCs), synchronous massive online courses (SMOCs) and the vocational open online course (VOOC). VOOCs, designed and trademarked by the U.K.’s Virtual College, offer a career seeker a vocational “warts and all” learning experience to help choose a vocational career pathway. Like a MOOC, a VOOC is free.

Marketing MOOCs

MOOCs may have originated in the U.S. and, initially, been the preserve of the Western world but, according to Coursera’s co-founder Andrew Ng, China is the company’s fastest-growing foreign market. China now has a localized version of Coursera: dubbed Coursera Zone, it’s been on the market for about a year via a partnership with the Chinese online media giant Netease.

Mobile technology is key to the growth of MOOCs in China. At present, Coursera’s Android app is downloaded in China more than in any other country. China is also second in terms of iOS downloads of the app.

Thanks to the advent and continued development of smartphone technology, online learning companies such as Coursera have been able to reach lower-income people worldwide – including those in China, of course. This has been made easier by the increasing affordability of smartphones. Naturally, Coursera’s presence in China doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Besides its U.S.-based competitors, Coursera has to contend with Chinese MOOC providers such as Kaikeba and XuetangX – the latter using edX’s open-source platform.

Market Analysis

Back in the West, MOOCs are well-enough established for analysis to have been done on their use. At the recent ELIG annual conference, Andy Lane, professor of environmental systems at the Open University, revealed that studies show that MOOC students tend to be drawn from the already-privileged in society. Those signing up for MOOCs tend to be confident, top achievers, not people who are poor, and certainly not those who are unable to access the Internet.

“There’s lots to be said in favor of MOOCs and other technology-delivered learning – not least that they provide greater access to learning and a wider range of knowledge from different cultures and countries – but technology is not good just because it’s there,” says Professor Lane. “Digital-based learning activities can be inauthentic and not relate well to everyday uses. Moreover, you can now get lots of digital learning materials for free – so what sort of learning materials will people now be prepared to pay for?”

Diana Laurillard, professor of learning with digital technologies at the Institute of Education at the University of London, endorses Professor Lane’s comments by revealing that, according to Coursera, 85 percent of its MOOC users have degrees. So, she asks, “why do universities invest so much in free courses for well-qualified professionals when undergraduates pay such high fees?”

In her view, MOOCs have a use for providing high-quality online continuing professional development for fee-paying professionals, using collaborative learning, user-created content, and peer evaluation but with minimal accreditation. She argues that universities could then use the income, resources and experience from the MOOCs to invest in online teaching and assessment for higher-quality and lower-cost undergraduate courses – as well as for free, open courses for schools and the wider public.

What are your experiences of using MOOCs? Do they have a place in corporate learning?

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