Millions join the education free-for-all on the internet

Free online courses allow anyone, regardless of educational qualifications, to study whatever they like

“Online education has been around for decades. The thing that has really changed is that we now have the technology for one lecturer to teach a hundred thousand students. It changes the economics of higher education and allows us to take the most amazing courses in the world and give them away for free.”

Andrew Ng, computer science lecturer at Stanford University and co-founder of Coursera. org, is talking about MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses. In the past year, millions of people have enrolled in these courses, mostly through the big three MOOC providers, Coursera, Udacity and edX.

These platforms offer online courses from prestigious US educational institutes including Stanford, Harvard, MIT and Princeton. This means that anyone anywhere can watch the “superstar professors” of elite universities teach classes on anything from Greek and Roman mythology to quantum mechanics.

The defining characteristics of the MOOC is that it is open to anyone regardless of educational background, it’s free to take part – all you need is an internet connection and students – are encouraged to interact through online forums and, in many cases, help grade each other’s work.


“Coursera got started nearly two years ago when I put one of my courses online and it reached 100,000 students,” says Ng. “To put that number in context from the instructor perspective, I usually teach 400 students in my class at Stanford and to reach a comparably-sized audience I would have had to teach that class for 250 years.”

The term was coined back in 2008 during an online course delivered by the University of Manitoba, Canada, and the concept is still very much in development. The UK's Open University is a veteran presence in online distance learning and is launching its own MOOC platform, FutureLearn, later this year. One of its first international partners is Trinity College Dublin.

The first third-level institute in Ireland to deliver a MOOC is the Dublin Institute of Technology with the launch of PharmaMOOC last month. This was also the world's first MOOC in Pharmaceutical Manufacturing. The three-week course was delivered using the BlackBoard CourseSites platform and enrolled more than 800 students from around the globe.

"PharmaMOOC was advertised worldwide through social media and we got people enrolling from all over – Europe, India, China, Singapore. There's been a lot of interest so we plan to run it again in October/November," says Dr Frances Boylan, the eLearning Development coordinator at DIT's Learning, Teaching and Technology Centre.

PharmaMOOC is the brainchild of Dr Anne Greene from the School of Pharmaceutical Sciences and is designed as a taster for related BSc and online professional development courses offered by DIT. Boylan says that "just because it is free and open doesn't mean it can be approached in anything less than a professional manner"; there were 11 dedicated instructional staff working on the MOOC in conjunction with IT professionals and the main lecturer.

The Institute of Technology, Sligo – already highly active in online distance learning – is taking a slightly different approach by launching a MOOC aimed at professional development in the area of Lean Six Sigma. Launching in September, this six-week course in Lean Sigma Quality was developed on the back of the institute’s strong relations with the high-end manufacturing industry and targets the current skills shortage.

"IT Sligo believes that free online education is going to be a significant part of the landscape of higher education in the future. We need to be trying this out and seeing how it works," says Brian Mulligan, lecturer in engineering computing.

'Flipped classroom'
Although developing these courses seems like a lot of work for already busy third-level institutes there are obvious benefits to the educators as well as the students, says Coursera's Ng. "It gives them the opportunity to reach more students in a couple of months than they would otherwise in their entire professional career. For those of us who have entered our profession for the passion of the subject – which is pretty much all lecturers – I think the ability to have a large impact is very exciting."

This is surely exciting, but it raises questions about the future of the traditional university structure. Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free? While places such as Stanford and MIT are producing MOOCs for Coursera, other US institutes are on the receiving end and have begun to buy in courses to show their classes, something that professors at the philosophy department at San Jose State University claimed was reducing the lecturer to the role of "glorified teaching assistant".

“The MOOC cannot and should not be replacing lecturers, “ says Ng. “Content is increasingly free on the web anyway. Most of our university partners are getting on with the realisation that the real value of attending a university lies in the interactions and discussions.”

Ng says that most Courersa partners have introduced the idea of the "flipped classroom". This is a place where the educator will have greater flexibility, explains Prof Brian MacCraith, president of Dublin City University.

“In the flipped classroom the student can get through the content in their own time, coming to grips with concepts outside of the classroom. The lecturer can then focus on a more engaging, participative experience.”

DCU is currently in talks with several MOOC providers including Coursera, says MacCraith, both in terms of creating and consuming MOOC content. This is part of a “blended learning” strategy where 80 per cent of DCU degree programmes will have online, eLearning components by 2014/2015; undergraduates will attend on campus and online.

The future role of the lecturer is not the only elephant in the room. There’s a small herd – low completion rates, coping with scale, remote authentication of students and, in most cases, no route to a recognisable qualification.

“Fine, it’s free,” says IT Sligo’s Mulligan. “But what’s it worth? That’s the big question.”

Little investment
The evidence so far is that completion rates for MOOCs are only 7-8 per cent and that is primarily because there's "no clear structure or pathway for the MOOC taker to follow; they have to create their own path," says Gavin Clinch, programme manager for the Centre for Online Learning at IT Sligo.

But high dropout rates are to be expected, he adds. It is important to remember MOOCs are free and open, with little investment required on the part of the enroller. There are, however, those who compete the course and want assessment.

“Through a process of disaggregation, a MOOC provider can deliver the content while someone else can assess the learning and award a qualification,” Clinch says of the new wave of MOOC development.

Platforms such as Coursera are beginning to offer what could be called the freemium model of education. Anyone is free to take a course and on completion get a certificate of attendance. If they want the university-backed credit or qualification they’ll have to pay for it.

This is beginning to happen already in the US. Georgia Tech University and Udacity are now offering an entire MOOC masters degree in computer science. It costs a mere $7,000 in fees in comparison to the average $40,000 it normally would to enroll on campus and attend classes. Zvi Galil, the dean of computing at Georgia Tech, says that the current masters class of 300 students is expected to grow to as much as 10,000 in the next three years.

Verified certificate
As MOOCs begin to award qualifications the need for verifying individual students becomes more urgent. Right now, most MOOCs can be gamed; you can sign up and get your friend to do all the work while you walk away with a certificate of completion. Coursera has developed its own technology to avoid this.

“We’re very proud of the technology used on our Signature Track courses,” says Ng. “It detects typing rhythm, which is as different as a fingerprint from person to person.”

This works in conjunction with webcam screenshots taken every few seconds to make sure the real student is at their desk. On completion Coursera then issues a verified certificate with the university logo.

Love them or hate them, MOOCs will be around for a while. “One would be very foolish to ignore this movement and the democratisation of access to education,” says MacCraith. “The eventual outcome isn’t clear yet, but what is clear is that the MOOC will be a huge part of learning.”

*This article was amended to correct an error