For a while now, MOOCs have been hailed as the next “big thing” in Higher Education, with enrolments almost doubling year on year until a couple of years ago. As initial evangelical enthusiasm for the MOOC has waned slightly, and the model’s faults have come to the forefront of discussions about it, the decline of the MOOC has begun to be predicted. But if recent reports about the death of the MOOC are exaggerated – and the sheer number of MOOCs available at the moment suggests they are – what is their future role in our Higher Education system?

What is a MOOC?

MOOC stands for Massive Open Online Course, and refers to a model of content delivery pioneered by several academics at Stanford University in the US. These academics went on to form several of the most dominant companies in the marketplace currently offering MOOCs, including Udacity, edX, and Coursera. The original purpose of the MOOC was to grant access to introductory undergraduate-level content to anyone, anywhere in the world. A major initial draw of MOOCs was the prospect of far greater numbers of learners being exposed to content delivered by world-leading experts in a particular field – often from elite Ivy League institutions – than would be possible in the “real world”. Admission to universities like Stanford, Duke, and MIT is reserved not only for students with the academic credentials to meet the stringent entry requirements, but also those with access to the funds to pay premium fees, or else the competitive edge to obtain a scholarship.

At its core, the idea of the MOOC is both egalitarian and Utopian: it’s based on the principle that the highest quality tuition from the world’s leading experts should be available to everyone, regardless of their past academic performance and their ability to pay Ivy League fees. And it also assumes that its audience has the time, inclination and motivation to engage in learning for its own sake, without reward except for perhaps a standalone certificate of completion: MOOCs almost never count as credit towards a “real” degree.

What are the advantages of MOOCs?

The vast majority are still free – though premium options leveraging the MOOC model are increasingly showing up in the marketplace – easy to access, and offer many people exposure to the quality of tuition and sophistication of thought that they simply couldn’t access by any other means. They also offer more flexibility in terms of for students of any age – but especially mature students considering returning to education after a decade or more in a job or raising a family – MOOCs also function as great “taster” introductions to a range of subjects. If you’re not sure you’ll enjoy studying a particular topic – or have the chops to study it at university level – a MOOC is a great way to try it out.

What are the drawbacks?

MOOCs are great in theory – and as standalone opportunities they’re a fantastic way of widening participation in lifelong learning – but of course they have their drawbacks too. Assessing student progress is a difficult task; instructors obviously can’t be expected to mark assignments from a “class” of students whose numbers can run into the tens of thousands, and there’s none of the support you might be able to access from a regular university module like, for example, meeting with your instructor during their office hours to clarify your understanding of certain aspects of the content. Assessment therefore depends on limited automated methods, or on peer review and collaboration, which requires a comparable level of commitment from all students in a peer group.

And that leads us onto the most pronounced issue with MOOCs – their famously poor completion rates, which can be as low as 5%. MOOCs are low-stakes, easy to access, and easy to sign up for, which makes them the academic equivalent of a trial gym membership. Good intentions quickly evaporate as life gets in the way. And if you do complete a MOOC – at least in its traditional sense – the reward is purely intangible; there’s seldom any real enhancement to your CV or employment prospects.

How are MOOCs changing?

In an attempt to leverage the MOOC model in a more formal context, we’ve seen the recent rise of things like the "nanodegree", which offer courses on skills that employers in dynamically evolving fields like the tech centre find highly desirable. And they even come with guarantees that you’ll find employment with a partner. These are paid programmes, though much cheaper than a full degree, and claim to offer a more tangible reward for sticking with them. But there’s a flipside to this: as an article in the tech magazine Wired warned last year, the noble “learning-for-learning’s sake” vision of MOOCs could be quickly subsumed into a vocational model that offers an inferior, mass-market alternative to Higher Education, and degrades the distinct ethos of the MOOC in the process.

What is the future of MOOCs in the UK?

The MOOC has the potential to fill a very specific void in the UK, which until recently was occupied by the Open University. Until a change in its funding model meant that fees for its modules quadrupled almost overnight a few years ago, the Open University offered credit-by-credit distance-learning modules that could be taken standalone for the love of learning or converted into a full degree when a sufficient number of modules had been taken. The Open University’s model – and fee structure – now looks more like every other university, and taking a degree through it has become prohibitively expensive for many people. However, via FutureLearn – an e-learning provider that also partners with other major UK universities – it offers numerous MOOCs for free, in addition to its full module offerings.

Like the Open University in the past, FutureLearn provides low-cost, degree-level, learning-for-learning’s sake content for those who just want to expand their knowledge. On the other hand, the MOOC model is contributing to a sharper distinction between recreational learners and those who are looking to gain a professional qualification and offers much less flexibility for learners to change their minds later and put their recreational learning towards a formal qualification.