The silver bullet of education?

Nieuws | de redactie
21 mei 2013 | “Around the globe nations are searching for innovative approaches to delivering higher education to more individuals, at lower cost, and at higher quality”. Laura W. Perna and Alan Ruby from the University of Pennsylvania analyze whether MOOCs really are the meaningful innovation many claim these to be.

College access specialist Laura W. Perna, Professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania and cross-border higher education expert Alan Ruby, Senior Fellow in the same Graduate School analyze whether MOOCs are the panacea for education at lower costs, at a higher quality and for more students.

Democratization of education

“The founders and leaders of MOOCs promote their services using the language of access, opportunity and the democratization of education: Coursera stresses “connecting people to a great education so that anyone around the world can learn without limits”. Udacity’s “mission is to bring accessible, affordable, engaging and highly effective higher education to the world.” EdX’s goals combine the desire to reach out to students of all ages, means and nations”.

Yet to be a meaningful innovation for improving educational access and opportunity, MOOCs need to:

1. Reach people who are currently underserved;

2. Provide educational opportunities at lower cost; and/or

3. Offer learning opportunities that are of higher quality than those otherwise available.

Providing meaningful improvements in access requires reaching those who are underserved or not served at all by the current array of educational opportunities.  MOOCs will not achieve these improvements until we close the digital divide. Moreover, if we fail to recognize the persisting digital divide, MOOCS will only further enhance the opportunities and privileges of those who are now at the top of the economic and social hierarchy – that is those who currently have access to online services.

The digital divide

The digital divide persists within and across developed nations. At the end of 2012, 35% of adults in the US, usually those in low-income households and with no postsecondary education, did not have broadband connections at home. Usage of the Internet is also low among those with low levels of education:  One in two adults at least 18 years of age who did not complete high school and one in four of those who did graduate from high school but did not go to college did not use the internet.

Within Europe, the World Economic Forum’s 2013 Global Information Technology Report (GITR) shows large digital gaps between nations.  The Nordic nations are digital and networked leaders, with Finland having connectivity in 90% of households. Other parts of Europe, especially Southern and Central Europe, are less connected.

Despite improvements in infrastructure, Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean are largely unconnected. In developing economies in 2011, only one household in five had a computer and three out of four individuals did not use the Internet. In short MOOCs won’t improve access for those on the wrong side of the digital divide in developed or developing economies.

It is also not clear that MOOCs will provide an adequate solution to the cost issues.  At present, MOOCs are free to the consumer.  But, this advantage may change, as providers continue to develop their business models and look for ways to generate revenue.  Moreover, the costs of developing the required infrastructure (in such nations as Peru and Kenya) and improving international bandwidth (as in Jordan and Egypt) are compounded by the costs of deficiencies in basic literacy skills (as in segments of the population South Africa) and the costs of political regulatory constraints (as in Vietnam). None of these costs are immediately resolved by simply having an open access course delivery platform.

Large variety due to novelty

That brings us to third proposition: do MOOCs provide a higher-quality learning opportunity to those who are served? MOOC courses vary considerably in numerous characteristics. For instance, length ranges from two weeks (as in Exploring Engineering on to the fifteen-week U.S. semester duration of Coursera offerings.  Some MOOCs are self-paced, whereas others move in weekly offerings much like a graduate seminar.

Estimates of required effort also vary, ranging from 1 to 2 hours per week over 7 weeks for the University of Edinburgh’s Introduction to Philosophy to the 16 to 20 hours per week over eight weeks for Coursera’s Medical Neuroscience offering.  Some of this variation may reflect different interpretations of effort, as some instructors may include the time to view the “class” episode, while others may include time for pre–reading, exercises, projects and assessments.

Variations in the characteristics of MOOCs is not surprising, given the newness of the innovation and the role of the market in determining optimal offerings. But, to provide a meaningful opportunity to those seeking the knowledge and skill required to participate in a local or a wider economy, several issues must be addressed.

Pathway to recognized credential

Perhaps most importantly, MOOCs will need to find a place within the broader array of postsecondary educational offerings. They need to be able to offer credentials that have currency and value in the market place. That value may come from the reputation of the partner universities involved with MOOCs. Or, it may come the reputation earned by MOOC graduates as they are tested in multiple work places. Or, the value may come from the rigor and standards of the assessment processes adopted by MOOCs, and assuming that such processes will be perceived as reliable, fair and corruption free.

Consumers will also need to know how participation in MOOCs will benefit them. MOOC courses are now offered as independent units of study.  Some MOOCs offer credit, for a fee, at a specified partner university like San Jose State.  Yet, at present, there is no hierarchy of difficulty or any pathway or progression that leads to a recognized credential, like a certificate or degree.

MOOCs are clearly a promising innovation worth watching. Yet, whether they offer the magical solution to the access, cost, and quality issues plaguing higher education is yet to be seen.  Without more careful consideration of these outcomes, MOOCs will likely only be of interest to individuals seeking “personal enrichment”.”


Laura W. Perna, Professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, studies the roles of institutional practices and public policies in promoting college access and success.

Alan Ruby, Senior Fellow in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, studies globalization and cross-border higher education. 

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