Can Massive Open Online Courses’ revolutionize higher education and challenge traditional campuses?

Oozing from a primordial jelly in 2011, expanding and replicating across the globe… No, not the latest exotic flu, it’s MOOCs, those curious online courses proliferating so swiftly that 35 million students registered for them in 2015, more than double the number that took part in 2014.

MOOCs, which stands for Massive Open Online Courses, are university level web-based open enrollment classes. Many are offered by blue chip unis (think Harvard), most are free, and no special background or qualifications are needed. The variety of subjects offered is immense, ranging from Activism (How to Change the World, from Wesleyan University) to Zoology (Do you have what it takes to be a veterinarian? via University of Edinburgh). 10,000 people signed up for Dundee University’s Identifying The Dead: forensic science and human identification, a course that allowed students to investigate a murder mystery by the crime writer Val McDermid.

MOOCs were born of an idealistic and democratic impulse—to make education from the finest sources available to all. No longer would poverty, geography or an absence of traditional educational qualifications stand in the way of learning. Offered by online ‘platforms’ like Coursera, edX and UK-based FutureLearn, MOOCs would be accessible to everyone with an internet connection and an inquisitive mind. Adult learners who had never had the time or inclination for academic study in their younger days could now surf the mind of the globe.

Less expected, perhaps, were MOOCs’ popularity among the young. Private tutors stand aside! The newest weapons in the education arms race are MOOCs. MOOCs offer the same curriculum and assessments that students experience in the classrooms of some of the world’s top universities. School kids can pit their wits against students at the University of Bristol, Exeter or Nottingham—to name just three UK unis offering MOOCs—and show how brilliant they really are. School leavers can, in theory, improve their appeal to employers or beef up a future UCSA attempt.

New MOOCs, specially designed for the school market, have been released to mop up this new well of interest. “There is an increase in MOOCs geared towards high school students to help them bridge the gap between school and university and to get a taste of different degree options through introductory courses,” explains Carolyn McIntyre, CEO of MoocLab.club, which provides useful reviews and forums. Two MOOC providers in particular have high school offerings: edX with its High School Initiative, and FutureLearn with Going to University Collection.

Rather than a substitute for university, MOOCs are helping youngsters to get there. The courses are popping up on personal statements, alongside community service and work experience, as sixth formers strive to stand out from the crowd and show ‘passion.’ The Student Room advises uni applicants not to hold their light under a bushel: “If you’re going to be applying to unis this September and you’ve taken a MOOC that’s relevant to your course then don’t forget to mention it in your personal statement as it demonstrates your commitment could help you get a place on the course you want.” MOOCs can even be listed among academic qualifications if they are certified (which usually requires a fee).

Best not to go crazy though. “An armful of completed MOOCs is not, in itself, likely to impress a university if you don’t have the required exam results,” warns Sue Fieldman, an advisor with the Good Schools Guide Advice Service. “It’s a bit like reading extensively around your subject—it’s great as a conversation starter for university interviews and to include in your personal statements, but only if you know your stuff.”

15c43fc1-2578-4e8e-8d72-0e7b94ef6b15

Less Than Five Percent

Along with beefing up CVs, some sixth formers are using MOOCs to take part in subjects not offered at their school. Your sixth form doesn’t offer A-Level Sociology? No problem, try an Introduction to Sociology from Princeton University. Want to push ahead in IT? Register for Web Science from the University of Southampton.

Despite their rapid spread, MOOCs are unlikely to unseat the traditional university experience. “The MOOC I took part in recently was ok,” said Josh Cooper who graduated from university three years ago. “But it wasn’t like a real university course. It had a forum, where we were encouraged to discuss topics from the course, but it didn’t seem like many people did. At university you have to.” Josh also found feedback to be an issue—what kind of comments can be on a course taken by thousands of people?

Nor are MOOCs about to depose old-style qualifications when it comes to finding a job. Most people in the real world are more likely to think a MOOC is a bovine atomic weapon than a university level course. And online courses cannot yet match person- to-person contact when it comes to networking.

Completion rates for MOOCs remain absurdly low—often less than five percent. There may be a reason, beyond snobbery, that universities have entry requirements: without a solid background in some subjects a MOOC may be hard to follow. And without the pressure of university exams and graduation requirements, MOOC assignments may not get completed.

Even for those motivated enough to finish the courses and ace the homework, a niggle remains over identification and verification. How can a course provider verify that it was you who completed the work and took the tests rather than your brainy friend? What’s to stop an enterprising post graduate student setting up an online MOOC exam business?

MOOCs may never replace red bricks and ivy, but they are sure to walk ever more cozily alongside them. From autumn 2016, the Texas State University system in the US is offering a cost-free first year of uni to students who take 10 free MOOCs and pass the course tests. Meanwhile, degrees from the University of Arizona no longer differentiate between students who take courses in person or online as long as the latter pay a small fee at the end of each MOOC (to verify their identity). Going further, six universities from Australia, Europe, Canada and the US are working together to award formal credits to each other’s MOOCs. Blogger and business student, Laurie Pickard, chronicled her completion of an entire MBA equivalent one MOOC at a time.

However they develop in the future, MOOCs are already making a revolutionary difference. They give us all an opportunity to learn from some of the best. I’m eyeballing Guerrilla Filmmakers from Norwich University of the Arts.