Massive open online courses

by Professor Francois Therin

Recently, the front page of the ‘University World News’ website featured an article on the development of massive open online courses (MOOCs) in Asia and one on Europe finally entering into the enlightened world of MOOCs. By looking at the Google Trends graph (Figure 1) on the acronym, MOOCs are certainly a much discussed topic.







Figure 1


The problem is that, MOOCs have most of the characteristics of a bubble, which no one really cares about. There is an irrational and unsubstantiated belief that MOOCs are the future of business despite the non-existence of any business model.

Various reputable and relatively unknown universities are jumping on the bandwagon, investing significant amounts of time and money in MOOCs in the belief that they need to be seen as early entrants and trend-setters.

Early results have made universities think that MOOCs will work, as tens of thousands of people are enrolling in the first experiments. And if there is no viable business model now, one would eventually come up.

The belief that universities will be able to monetise the offer one day is as wrong as it was for all sorts of websites and apps 15 years ago. Why is that?

The ones which can monetise their offers are already well-positioned and are leaders, for example, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University. They are able to monetise by increasing, if needed, their brand value as technology and educational leaders, or by potentially attracting sponsors for their activities. In some ways, investment is not such a big deal as the return is obvious.

But is it really the same case for Tier 2 regional universities, for example, in Australia or Germany? I am not sure of this.

On the other hand, a company like Coursera, a company offering MOOCs in engineeringhumanitiesmedicine,  business and computer science, has already reached a critical mass, allowing it to potentially start monetising the information gathered, just like a network effect.

It is no surprise that most newcomers want to team up either with EdX, a non-profit organisation offering MOOCs and interactive online classes, or Coursera. By doing so, they don’t necessarily create more value for themselves but more value for these two providers. Of course, as first entrants, EdX and Coursera are not immune to the arrival of competitors but they are the ones in place at the moment.

Furthermore, besides the current euphoria, universities will soon realise that developing online content can cost up to USD1 million per unit at one of the oldest and most reputable online universities and that the content need to be updated regularly. Therefore, how long can they cover the cost if they do not know how to generate any income?

Or is it just one of those things that fade and disappear with the next budget cut? If universities are serious about developing MOOCs, they cannot avoid this question.

The number of people enrolled is already showing all the characteristics of a fade. People going seriously for MOOCs should not be that disconnected from people enrolling for fee-paying online degrees. It is not scientific, but if we take the 30 largest providers in the Financial Times (FT) list of Online MBAs for 2010 to 2013, the number of students enrolled was 49,000 in 2010, 38,000 in 2011, 46,000 in 2012 and 41,000 in 2013.

So, among what the FT considers as being the most serious, if not the best, online MBAs, the enrolment is rather stable, around 40 to 50,000 students. Then, we read about the objectives of many universities to have 1 or 2 million people enrolled in MOOCs. Does it really make sense?

E-learning was also presented 15 years ago as a disrupter. It developed rather slowly in many countries and occupied one slice of the market which was previously not addressed. It served the people who did not have immediate access to higher education and/or time to commit to face-to-face learning, mostly because of their locations or because of their work schedules.

In essence, a MOOC cannot replace a genuine degree. There are limits to what universities can do for free and without awarding credits. MOOCs cannot for the moment have the same level of rigour than smaller scale online units, or face-to-face ones, particularly because of the cost related to moderation and marking, where academics still play a practical and critical role.

Peer evaluations can work in the context of units chosen by people choosing to specialise in one area and in advanced units. But can you seriously give credits for evaluations done by five other people following the unit who could have no prior knowledge in the area, nor have any interest in evaluating you?

MOOCs, as they are now, do not provide any clear assurance of learning. You also have the question of brand dilution. If it is now good for Harvard or MIT to appear as technology leaders of higher education, do you really think that they can afford to have people claiming ‘Harvard’ credits on their CVs?

What about employers? When they hire a Harvard graduate, it is for many reasons including the mentoring, pastoral care, communication skills and extracurricular activities which are not covered in a MOOC.

The rush by many universities to develop MOOCs is largely irrational and can divert resources from the building of a clear strategy to expand the number of reachable students. Access to higher education is an important challenge but MOOCs are certainly not the only answer and, as they are now, do not provide the assurance of learning needed by participants. 

Professor Therin is the Dean of the School of Business at Curtin Sarawak. His teaching and research interests cover strategic management, technology and innovation management, and high-tech innovation for small firms and technoentrepreneurship. His views on higher education have been published in The Guardian online edition and University World News, and are also available on his blog Dr. Therin can be contacted at +60 85 443 939 ext. 3841 or by e-mail to He can also be followed on Twitter @ftherin.