Massive open online courses (MOOCs) and companies hosting them, are sprouting up left and right.
Examples are Coursera, edX, Udemy, and Udacity. So far, courses are free, but there are many
speculations on whether these companies are out to make money (except Udemy, which lets teachers
charge for content) and whether they have the potential to threaten the business model of established
institutions of higher education.

Here is what I think is going to happen, but let’s first establish what MOOCs are and what they do.

First, MOOC providers are very similar to publishing houses who offer textbooks. Like publishing
houses, some are selective, like Coursera, which is invitation-based to get the best courses worldwide
and edX, which is exclusive to a few member universities, and some, like Udemy, are not selective at
all, letting anyone participate and offer content at their own price. One of the differences between a
MOOC and a textbook, however, is that “readers” of a MOOC can connect and learn from each other
(more on how these platforms do this below). Therefore, not only the quality of the content, but also
the quality of the consumers is important.

Second, MOOC providers distinguish themselves not only by content, but by online services. The basic
service shared by all course providers is to actually host the content, but what will distinguish them are
the various means offered to students to interact with the MOOC and with each other. For example,
Udemy allows teachers not only to upload slides, videos and text, but also allows users to ask questions
and to up- and down-vote forum answers, much like on Quora. Coursera provides additional services:
students can take quizzes during each video (a planned feature on Udemy), make multiple submissions
to review problems and auto-graded application problems, and do peer-to-peer assessment.  The peer assessment
framework of Coursera offers an additional opportunity for learning and can result in fair and detailed
assessments of non-structured work by relying on multiple, independent evaluations. Facilitating peer-to-
peer interactions among students is a service that is non-trivial to recreate and MOOC providers who
figure out the smartest ways of encouraging interaction among students, which maximizes student
learning and reduces teacher workload, will be most successful.

Third, MOOCs become better the more people take the class simultaneously. A learner’s experience not
only depends on the teacher-driven content, but also on peer interaction in the form of getting the best
answer for a question (e.g., those up-voted by many users), fair assessments from peers, and brain
teasers in form of other students’ peer review. The quality of the experience largely depends on the
number of true peers. Finding those is much more likely in a large class with large numbers of students
from top institutions (given the right interaction tools and algorithms). A reliable way to have a number
of good students is to offer the MOOC as an “inverted class room” at a top university. Here, course
platforms , which actively partner with the top universities are at an advantage over those with a less
selective approach.

Fourth, top MOOC providers are as exclusive as top publishing companies. Whereas everyone can post
content to Udemy, Coursera and edX are invitation-only platforms, which like top publishing
companies, do not accept content submissions from everyone. Although it is up to the learners, which
content they select, it is important to drive large number of people to the same class. This is ok, if the
classes available are high quality, such as Coursera classes, which have all been consistently ranked
highest by the students of their home university. Whereas large numbers might become less important
if the overall quality of the class is good, large classes are particularly important in the beginning
phases to observe and optimize individual learning and interactions.

In summary, as MOOCs have the most impact when used in a hybrid online/offline environment (a fact
backed by extensive research), they are not a threat, but an opportunity to universities. Rather than
threatening their existence, I believe they will polarize the university landscape into the following four
tiers (with respect to the education they provide):

  1.  “Tier 4′′ universities are exclusively online and do not provide hybrid modes of learning, exposure to practical experience, or face-to-face interaction with faculty and peers. They might be able to gather a significant portion of the continuing education market, which relies on selfguided, mature learners who put what they learn into practice on their own.
  2. “Tier 3′′ universities will stick to classical modes of instruction. This is understandable as designing their own content is extremely time consuming and MOOCs that will be served at a predictable schedule and offering good services may be unreliable and/or threatening.
  3. “Tier 2′′ universities will embrace the opportunity and flip their classrooms and offer hybrid modes of learning. Content will be delivered from those that have internationally evolved as “top” teachers, learning will be improved by interaction with online peers, and facilitated in a local classroom setting by a local professor, who can then focus on discussions and projects, further deepening learning by actively engaging students in proportion to his or her qualifications as a facilitator and teacher.
  4. “Tier 1′′ universities are “Tier 2′′ universities where content is facilitated by the content provider themselves.

MOOC providers offer educators a novel platform to distinguish themselves as master teachers,
complementing the the current function of major educational publishers. At the same time, they
provide a means of delivering content that enables new modes of instruction, which will transform the quality of college education. While content will most likely remain free to watch, offering universities means to integrate content and assessment into their curricula will most likely cost and require universities to adjust their business model.


One Response to Online classes, threat or blessing?

  1. Jasdeep says:

    Niklaus, great article. Goes beyond the obvious discussions which most commentators are focusing on. I am working on a project aiming to bringing MOOCs to India in a creative and effective manner. I believe India could well be the catalyst for MOOCs to show its potential and imopact

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