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Are MOOCs Going to Disappear? 4 Challenges to Overcome

Written by Laurie Pickard
4 minute read
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Ignacio Despujol knows MOOCs. In addition to coordinating the MOOC initiative at the Universitat Politecnica de Valencia (UPV), which boasts 72 courses and over 1.5 million enrollments, he personally serves as the instructor of twelve MOOCs. Despujol also teaches an on-campus course that uses MOOC content in a flipped classroom model. Yet despite being an ardent supporter of MOOCs and the positive changes they can bring to higher education, Despujol acknowledges that MOOCs do face significant challenges if they are going to become a permanent feature in the higher education landscape. Earlier this year at Learning with MOOCs Conference in Madrid, Despujol gave a talk titled “Are MOOCs Going to Disappear? MOOC Challenges In the Coming Years.” In that talk, he highlighted four key challenges that MOOCs face.

Challenge #1: Completion rates

Much has been made of MOOCs’ famously low completion rates, which hover around 2 to 4%. However, Despujol says, these numbers need to be put into perspective. Looking at one of UPV’s first courses on edX, almost 200,000 learners enrolled, of whom only 7.5% passed the course. Digging deeper into the data, one learns that only around 34% of the enrolled learners ever accessed any of the course materials. The barriers to entry for a MOOC are so low that many people who sign up are merely curious and aren’t intending to actually complete the course. For the course in question, when you consider only those learners who took the first exam, more than 44% of them passed the course, a much different completion rate than the 7.5% headline figure.  We should consider the learners’ motivations and redefine success accordingly, says Despujol. “Even the ones that are not finishing the courses are getting some education, and a percentage of them are achieving the goals that they had when joining the MOOC,” he notes.

Challenge #2: Accountability and Accreditation

Another challenge to MOOCs reaching the mainstream has to do with accountability. It is difficult in an online environment to assure that cheating isn’t happening. The risk of cheating goes up when courses become more valuable to learners, either because they result in university credit or because employers use them when making hiring decisions. However, these kinds of incentives are precisely what are required to ensure that MOOCs remain on the scene long term. To solve the problem of cheating, Despujol suggests a variety of technology-based solutions, including remote proctoring by humans, and even using the student’s computer microphone and camera to make random recordings during exams. Some of these solution are already in use on the major MOOC platforms.

Challenge #3: Accessibility

A third challenge has to do with who is currently benefiting from MOOCs. Despujol stresses that MOOCs ought to be used to close the digital divide, rather than enlarge it. In UPV’s MOOCs, 74% of learners already possess some sort of university education. According to Despujol, the main impediment to reaching those who don’t already have access to university education has little to do with access to technology. Rather, it is a lack of awareness that free and low-cost courses exist. “If you go now to the street and ask people if they know what is a MOOC they will answer that they don’t.” The solution, says Despujol, is simply to raise awareness. “We have to partner with the key agents in each community that know how to reach its members and spread the word about this wonderful opportunity.”

Challenge #4: Financial Sustainability

Of course, when it comes to challenges MOOCs face, the 800-pound gorilla in the room is financial sustainability. The greatest threat to the continued existence of MOOCs is the significant cost of creating great courses, and the low likelihood that those expenses will be paid back quickly, at least under current revenue models. To address this problem, Despujol has a few suggestions. MOOC platforms can develop new revenue streams, for example by offering learning solutions to corporations. They can also charge more for professionally oriented courses and use these to subsidize their other offerings. Working on the other side of the equation, universities can use various techniques to lower the cost of production for creating new MOOCs. By automating the MOOC production process and training teachers to be effective MOOC creators, Despujol’s team at UPV is able to quickly and affordably produce new MOOCs, even with a small staff.

Finally, if all else fails, governments can kick in the difference. Despujol notes that some governments are already supporting MOOCs through the creation and financing of national MOOC platforms, such as France’s FUN platform and Israel’s Campus-Il.  Says Despujol, “Governments should start putting money in MOOCs if they want to keep them free.”

Professor Ignacio Despujol’s full talk, “Are MOOCs Going to Disappear? MOOC Challenges In the Coming Years,” is below: