MOOCs no panacea to easy educational access

By Monica Guy 

In a nutshell: MOOCs and other open online courseware are useful additions to the global educational landscape, but they will neither undermine face-to-face teaching nor substantially increase access to education for disadvantaged students.

Why the hell did I shell out for the Interactive Media program at Quinnipiac University when I could learn most of it online for free?


Credit: Mathieu Plourde

That’s the first thought that shot through my mind when I heard about Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs.

The second: Could MOOCs help disadvantaged students obtain a high quality education from some of the world’s top universities?

Changing the world

Plenty of MOOC providers think they are the solution to both the rising costs of university education and its inaccessibility to poorer students or those who live in countries that lack high-quality educational systems. Like Silicon Valley’s teenage CEOs, they think they’re going to change the world. Coursera claims to be “changing the face of education globally” while edX, created by Harvard and MIT, is “empowering learning in the classroom and around the globe.” In turn, Udacity  is “democratizing education” while Udemy is democratizing teaching by allowing anyone who likes to create and offer an online course.

Most commentators agree that MOOCs constitute a revolution in education, though they take different views: some praise them for “accelerating the onset of a democratized, globalized version of higher education” while others fear that universities will be undermined. Many can’t understand why they warrant such hype.

Along with 160,000 others in 190 countries, I signed up for what most people agree is the first MOOC, an Introduction to Artificial Intelligence course taught by Stanford professors Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig in October 2011. And along with 140,000 or so others, I couldn’t see where it was all going and dropped it after the first couple of sessions.

Staying to the bitter end

It wasn’t the fault of the subject, or the professors (who were amazing) or the students. Completion rates for all MOOCs are lame, hovering around seven percent as this visualization shows. (By comparison, completion rates for Quinnipiac’s courses are over 90 percent.)

Maybe completion rates are not the best way to evaluate the success of a MOOC – we probably need a whole new evaluation system for this new model of learning. But still. What is missing from MOOCs and other free and low-cost educational resources on the web that mean learners don’t stay engaged? What makes it worth paying through the nose for a “proper” course at a brick and mortar university? And how can we make this model work for disadvantaged students around the world who can’t pay through the nose?

Barriers to MOOCs

Before MOOCs can succeed in their goal of global domination, a few issues need to be resolved.

The first is practical. To take a MOOC, you need access to proper facilities, software and hardware, a strong Internet connection to download the huge video files and a safe, quiet place to work. Not everyone has that, least of all those disadvantaged learners. A Ugandan student on a MOOC I’m currently taking with Coursera remarked, “As someone who lives in a rural area without high speed internet, the video downloads take a long time to watch…. We are still a long way from making education available to all.”

The second is structural. Most learners need guidance on what are the best resources for their area of study, and they need a structured format for completing a meaningful program within a realistic timeline. Formal education in schools and universities can provide that. Informal education via online open courseware rarely does.

The third is academic. People need to learn how to learn – they need some basic level of education and the ability to study. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds often lack this (or they wouldn’t be disadvantaged).

The fourth – and this is the one I most struggle with – is motivational. We need know to where it’s all going. In most cases, this means better career prospects. In universities, you have many opportunities for networking events, workshops, internships, careers advisors and the like. If there’s no light at the end of the tunnel, there’s nothing to keep you going in the dark.


Credit: Sarah_G

The fifth is personal. One of the most valuable aspects of the student experience is having direct access to professors and experts in the field. Without that personal attention, it feels pretty lonely – like reading a book, albeit a talking book with an occasional quiz. Some MOOC students have been interacting with one another via Google Hangouts and Meet-up groups, while MOOC professors are trying innovative ways of getting students interacting, from peer grading of essays to multiplayer games. But none of that takes the place of being able to ask a professor a question and receive a reply.

And the sixth and most obvious is linguistic. Some MOOCs are offering their courses in different languages or seeking volunteers from the community of learners to translate the transcripts and quizzes. Nevertheless, the vast majority of open courseware is in English and likely to remain that way.

You can stop worrying about MOOCs now

There has been a backlash against MOOCs following the announcement by Coursera that it is partnering with 10 universities to become, in effect, just another regular courseware provider. I don’t quite understand the uproar. (Did anyone seriously think MOOCs were going to continue without a business model?) In their partnerships with these brick and mortar universities, Coursera is taking a step towards overcoming some of the barriers identified above which are preventing 90+ percent of learners from completing the course.

The idea that MOOCs and other OERs and eLearning technologies will “solve” the problem of education in developing countries is as naive and hair-brained as Nicholas Negroponte’s idea that parachuting tablet computers into villages in Ethiopia is going to solve all of Africa’s education problems. Technology alone won’t solve anything unless it is integrated into proper schools where children can actually go and learn to read, write and count.

So why the hell…?

So why the hell did I shell out thousands of dollars for my Master of Science in Interactive Media at Quinnipiac?  Because it gave me the structure and guidance I needed to complete a meaningful education in the subject, and because both the official qualification and the networking opportunities of two years studying closely with a small cohort of learners in my industry have helped me advance my career.

And will MOOCs increase access to education for disadvantaged students around the world? A few, perhaps – but very few, and generally those few who already have the time, facilities, motivation and learning skills to succeed in any case.

MOOCs and other eLearning initiatives are exciting additions to the educational landscape, and have a fantastic potential to lower the cost of higher education. But they have to be integrated properly and thoughtfully into existing educational structures in order to be effective. And they have a long way to go before they “change the face of education globally.”

Monica Guy is an experienced writer, editor, project manager and interactive media specialist who is turning to the exciting world of eLearning. She has a Classics degree from Cambridge University and recently completed a Master of Science in Interactive Media at Quinnipiac. Fluent in Spanish, French and Afrikaans, Monica is especially interested in how eLearning technologies can help disadvantaged students around the world.


  1. Fantastic article Monica!

  2. Monica
    Udacity is out now .
    Coursera does not provide academically good courses at all. They are courses of 4-6 weeks long mostly for adult training .
    But edx by MIT and Harvard is perfect if they provide degrees too .
    The cost is very low , so they will cha4rge when time comes only $ 50-150 per course.
    So quality education for all at low fees .

    Be honest now.
    If edx had provided the same program ( you received at Quinnipiac University ) at low fees
    would you go to EDX MIT Harvard and get degrees of MITx or Harvardx or still go to your university.
    EDX will solve the HE problem of the World and USA soon if they provide degrees toom .

    Negroponte was not a manager but an educator. He could not manage a Project well . But his dream is here now . $ 100 even $ 35 ( In India ) tablets are all around .
    Educators cannot solve the problem of education. That is my belief , you accept or not .

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