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Friday, January 13, 2017

The return of the MOOC - Established education providers v new contenders | The Economist

"THE HYPE OVER MOOCs peaked in 2012. Salman Khan, an investment analyst who had begun teaching bite-sized lessons to his cousin in New Orleans over the internet and turned that activity into a wildly popular educational resource called the Khan Academy, was splashed on the cover of Forbes." continues The Economist.

Sebastian Thrun, the founder of another MOOC called Udacity, predicted in an interview in Wired magazine that within 50 years the number of universities would collapse to just ten worldwide. The New York Times declared it the year of the MOOC.

The sheer numbers of people flocking to some of the initial courses seemed to suggest that an entirely new model of open-access, free university education was within reach. Now MOOC sceptics are more numerous than believers. Although lots of people still sign up, drop-out rates are sky-high.

Nonetheless, the MOOCs are on to something. Education, like health care, is a complex and fragmented industry, which makes it hard to gain scale. Despite those drop-out rates, the MOOCs have shown it can be done quickly and comparatively cheaply. The Khan Academy has 14m-15m users who conduct at least one learning activity with it each month; Coursera has 22m registered learners. Those numbers are only going to grow. FutureLearn, a MOOC owned by Britain’s Open University, has big plans. Oxford University announced in November that it would be producing its first MOOC on the edX platform.

In their search for a business model, some platforms are now focusing much more squarely on employment (though others, like the Khan Academy, are not for profit). Udacity has launched a series of nanodegrees in tech-focused courses that range from the basic to the cutting-edge. It has done so, moreover, in partnership with employers. A course on Android was developed with Google; a nanodegree in self-driving cars uses instructors from Mercedes-Benz, Nvidia and others. Students pay $199-299 a month for as long as it takes them to finish the course (typically six to nine months) and get a 50% rebate if they complete it within a year. Udacity also offers a souped-up version of its nanodegree for an extra $100 a month, along with a money-back guarantee if graduates do not find a job within six months.

Coursera’s content comes largely from universities, not specialist instructors; its range is much broader; and it is offering full degrees (one in computer science, the other an MBA) as well as shorter courses. But it, too, has shifted its emphasis to employability. Its boss, Rick Levin, a former president of Yale University, cites research showing that half of its learners took courses in order to advance their careers. Although its materials are available without charge, learners pay for assessment and accreditation at the end of the course ($300-400 for a four-course sequence that Coursera calls a “specialisation”). It has found that when money is changing hands, completion rates rise from 10% to 60% . It is increasingly working with companies, too. Firms can now integrate Coursera into their own learning portals, track employees’ participation and provide their desired menu of courses.

These are still early days. Coursera does not give out figures on its paying learners; Udacity says it has 13,000 people doing its nanodegrees. Whatever the arithmetic, the reinvented MOOCs matter because they are solving two problems they share with every provider of later-life education.

The first of these is the cost of learning, not just in money but also in time. Formal education rests on the idea of qualifications that take a set period to complete. In America the entrenched notion of “seat time”, the amount of time that students spend with school teachers or university professors, dates back to Andrew Carnegie. It was originally intended as an eligibility requirement for teachers to draw a pension from the industrialist’s nascent pension scheme for college faculty. Students in their early 20s can more easily afford a lengthy time commitment because they are less likely to have other responsibilities. Although millions of people do manage part-time or distance learning in later life—one-third of all working students currently enrolled in America are 30-54 years old, according to the Georgetown University Centre on Education and the Workforce—balancing learning, working and family life can cause enormous pressures.

Source: The Economist