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How MOOCs can cross the chasm

04.03.2014
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It seems rather unfair to regard MOOCs as anything but a success.  Despite being in a rather nascent stage of their trajectory, they have achieved huge enrollment numbers and have done a superb job of opening up the discussion about what tertiary education should be and how it should be delivered.

You’ll find no arguments from me on that score.  Of course, the completion stats aren’t great and there are some nice moves afoot to help improve those figures, but for me the biggest area for progression is in the kind of people that take a MOOC.  The last few months have seen a number of institutions release stats showing just who is taking their MOOCs, and it’s quite overwhelmingly homogenous.  Most students are white, thirty something men who already have some kind of university education.  They’re the people that already get education, and indeed have already gotten an education.

Whilst I don’t begrudge those folks hoovering up all that MOOCs have to offer, you suspect that when founders first envisioned creating a platform for delivering university style learning online for free they hoped it would attract people that were locked out of tertiary education in its current form, whether by finances, location or whatever.

So what can be done to improve that situation?  Improving Internet access is an obvious one, and so obvious it doesn’t really merit elaborating on.  Two areas that I think do however are accreditation and relevance.  Lets look at each in turn.

Accreditation

The accreditation issue has been a stumbling block for MOOCs for a little while now, and whilst attempts have been made to certify the knowledge gained from completing a course, I think suppliers have merely scratched the surface with this.  I mean certificates are nice, but a piece of paper is rather limited in what it can offer me.

Offer me something verified that I can stick up on my LinkedIn profile or oDesk account however and you’re getting somewhere.  Do that and you’re giving people something tangible to show that they know something and are continually updating their skills.  Even linking up with the numerous professional bodies that offer continuous professional development would be a good step to make.

There could also be more done to work with job centres and similar support agencies helping to get people back into work.  They should be a prime audience for those looking to offer high quality learning for minimal cost.

Relevance

Thus far, the majority of MOOCs have been relatively standard fayre, which is perhaps expected as the courses have been delivered by universities, hence they’ve delivered traditional university style content.  That kind of content may not be all that relevant to people outside of the traditional university market though.

Think about learners in developing countries for instance.  Will they want to learn what an American college is willing to teach?  It seems inevitable that learners from outside of the core MOOC market will have specific needs, and I’m not sure that existing MOOCs are doing a very good job of meeting those needs.

Of course, I don’t want to come across like I’m bashing MOOCs here, far from it, I think they’re generally fantastic.  They’re also evolving pretty quickly and changing all the time.  Hopefully in the coming months we’ll begin to see a few alterations in the standard MOOC approach that will help them attract those currently less inclined to participate.

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