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Entrepreneurship and Innovation

Are MOOCs only old wine in new bottles?

Their future evolution and potential influence on higher education


Andreas M. Kaplan
Professor of Marketing and Communication

Last year we heard stories of how Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) would entirely disrupt the higher education landscape. Now, voices of disappointment are beginning to emerge, with education industry analysts expressing concern about the evolution of MOOCs thus far and their lack of tangible results. If we consider the trajectory of MOOCs through the lens of Gartner’s Hype Cycle, it is not surprising that MOOCs seem to be traversing the trough of disillusionment, given the apparently inflated initial expectations, which could not be met. This raises the question: What does the future hold for MOOCs, and what is their actual potential for influencing the education business?

Not everybody’s cup of tea: Currently, MOOCs are not for all personality types and occasions
A key factor in the disappointment described above is that MOOCs, in their current form, are simply not for everybody and do not address all types of needs.

First of all, to successfully follow a MOOC from beginning to end, one has to be intrinsically motivated and self-disciplined. MOOCs are not for those who learn only when forced to come to class, guided by time slots and schedules and pressured by grades, or for those who require extrinsic motivation in the form of a diploma.

Second, as MOOCs cannot be used to earn an accredited diploma, they are only interesting to those who seek to learn for the sake of knowledge itself, rather than for purposes of accreditation, for example, with the aim of eventually being hired. Note, however, that there are numerous types of people who fall into the former group—take young entrepreneurs, for example, who can use MOOCs in order to acquire, free-of-charge, the competencies needed for opening their own businesses, thereby avoiding the need to pay ever-rising university fees. MOOCs might also play a role in executive education—indeed, most MOOC participants already have jobs. However, executives also work long hours and thus might quickly be tempted to abandon the online adventure.

Last but not least, participation in MOOCs requires infrastructure, i.e., a computer and an Internet connection with sufficiently high performance. Therefore—at least for the moment—MOOCs might not be suitable for providing education to the most rural zones of developing countries, despite the fact that MOOCs' potential influence in these areas has been much touted in the press. Rather, MOOCs are more useful in areas in which technological infrastructure exists but building infrastructure is lacking. In India, for example, the pace of building physical universities lags behind the rapid rate at which the student population is increasing, and in this case MOOCs can serve as a good temporary fill-in.

These three reasons potentially explain why MOOCs have not met expectations so far. Successful MOOC users tend to be older than the classical student (25/30 years), are likely to already have at least one first diploma (80%), and are likely to be male (70%).

You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink: MOOCs’ future evolution
Despite the fundamental challenges outlined above, levels of initial registration to MOOCs are very impressive. However, the dropout rates are similarly high. To reduce the dropout rate, future MOOCs will need to overcome certain deficits.

First, MOOCs will need to be more engaging. This might entail integrating interactivity, including, for example, offering live chats with the professor or live video tutorials with teaching assistants, establishing dedicated Facebook groups, or creating virtual study groups. Enabling users to observe other co-participants during a MOOC might increase their involvement, by allowing them to experience being part of a larger group and potentially reducing feelings of loneliness and isolation. In addition, one could introduce a certain selection process by asking for a small enrollment fee, which might limit MOOC abandonment rates.

Second, future MOOCs will need to open up job opportunities. The education platform Coursera, for example, has begun to explore this avenue, initiating a career service in which companies and the most talented MOOC participants are introduced to one another for potential job interviews. However, while MOOC providers may facilitate the organization of interviews, their participants will need to prove themselves to be as qualified as job-seekers who attended traditional classes. If HR departments end up feeling that recruiting MOOC participants is a waste of time, such recruitment efforts will quickly cease, which, in turn, will reduce MOOC participants' extrinsic motivation.

Closely linked is a third issue to be solved: ensuring that the person getting a certificate and/or diploma is the same person who finished the course work with successful exam results. One possibility is to observe and record test-takers via webcam with or without their knowledge. This is similar to the case of call-center employees whose conversations with clients are occasionally supervised. In addition, technology enables typing styles during previous exercises to be compared with typing styles during exams, with a mismatch being a signal for potential fraud. Finally, one might simply ask participants to physically come in to test-centers. Udacity and edX have already announced their intention to create a partnership with PearsonVUE, a company owning around 4,000 test centers in 170 different countries worldwide.

New wine in new bottles: Potential influence of MOOCs
One criticism of MOOCs is that, alongside the challenges they present, they ultimately offer little more than “old wine in new bottles”. Yet this is likely to change as MOOCs continue to develop, particularly if they follow the evolutionary path proposed above. Eventually, MOOCs are expected to have a substantial impact on the shape of higher education, which universities and schools should take note of now, before it is too late.

For starters, MOOCs will produce star professors—those charismatic, communicative, entertaining, and telegenic enough to capture a wide audience and keep them glued to their screens. Stars have always existed among faculty members—e.g., bestselling authors of textbooks such as Kotler’s Marketing Management—but MOOCs will provide such stars with unprecedented opportunity to gain social presence. Given their success, MOOCs featuring these stars are likely be widely adopted by traditional higher education institutions, with supplementary professors (perhaps with less "star power") serving more as tutors and coaches, whose purpose is to put the stars' lectures into perspective and context. As a result, time in class will be used differently. Students will be asked to watch videos before attending class and then will use their time to work in groups, discuss video content with the professor or solve exercises. This is not a completely new concept—for example, numerous professors consistently try to make their students read the textbook before coming to class, with more or less success. However, more interactive and engaging video material will most likely be more efficient and more convincing than a simple textbook. Correspondingly, professors will need to provide sufficient added value in order to justify having a real-life class in addition to the MOOC.

Traditional universities and schools might also become more specialized and niche-focused. Claims that in coming years only a few MOOC providers will survive should be taken with a grain of salt, since it is unlikely that a single provider can specialize in all subjects. To a certain extent, such specialization already characterizes traditional higher education institutions: Law students strive for Harvard, future investment bankers dream of Wharton, and managers who specialize in cross-cultural management might shoot for ESCP Europe. MOOC providers might also distinguish themselves by offering different languages with different regional teaching and learning approaches. Branding is also likely to encourage the emergence and survival of multiple MOOC providers: At some point, if and when MOOCs begin to influence the job market, employers will want to be able to filter candidates according to their participation in specific MOOCs (e.g., prestigious MOOCs of top universities). Correspondingly, MOOC providers will need to offer courses adapted for students with high potential, and these courses are likely be more complex than those an average student could follow. This creates a need for further variety among MOOC providers.

Wine is but single broth, ale is meat, drink, and cloth: Offline will always be better than online
This 16th-century proverb refers to the myriad uses of ale as opposed to wine, which was solely a drink. The hops left over from brewing ale could be used to provide food for cattle (meat) which, when slaughtered, provided skins for clothing. In our context, we can interpret this proverb as meaning that a live course (the ale) will almost always be preferable to an online course (the wine). To attend a traditional class means not only absorbing information—as in the case of an online course—but also meeting and socializing with other people (sometimes even a future wife or husband), and gaining new life experiences, e.g., living on one's own or moving to another city. In short, offline studies provide not only knowledge and know-how but also opportunities to gain life skills. Therefore, despite claims that platforms like Coursera will become the Napster of the education industry, the success of MOOCs does not necessary mean an end to universities. Look at the music industry—although CDs have indeed been replaced by mp3s, there are still live concerts. And in the end, watching a star like Britney Spears on stage is better than watching her on YouTube—not that one can compare a star professor of a MOOC to a performer like Ms. Spears, or can one


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