It’s been four years since The New York Times declared 2012 “the year of the MOOC” (Pappano, 2012). In that time, San Jose State’s partnership with Udacity failed, edX and ASU’s creation of the Global Freshman Academy generated course credits for less than 1% of its 34,086 users, and Udacity has abandoned its college-like courses for technical nanodegrees. Retention rates hover at less than 10%, and completion rates remain in single digits. The promise of a more affordable, brave new world for higher education has come and gone, leaving massive open online courses (MOOCs) long in the rear view mirror.
Still, MOOC enrollments just reached 16M users, several state legislatures have explored the option of requiring their state higher education institutions to give credit for MOOC courses, and the U.S. Department of Education is now piloting the Educational Quality through Innovative Partnerships (EQUIP) program, allowing students to use federal financial aid to cover the cost of attending innovative, non-traditional postsecondary institutions like coding boot camps and MOOCS. Even the American Council on Education, the nation’s prominent authority on all things higher education, endorses MOOCs as viable medium of education.
Now, with the Higher Education Act (HEA) reauthorization in the hands of Congress, MOOCs stand to gain or lose great deal in the near future. MOOC providers must take action to remain relevant in minds of educators, student, and lawmakers alike. Here are a few recommendations:
The current reauthorization of HEA has been delayed once again, but this is good news for MOOC providers and their supporters. Both Senators Murray (D-Washington) and Alexander (R-Tennessee) primary goal in reauthorizing the Act is making college more affordable for students. Whereas they are focusing on the length of the FASFA, MOOCs create an unique solution to both affordability and accessibility to postsecondary education. MOOC providers, empowered by EQUIP, should be lobbying Congress to consider the value MOOCs create for learners, institutions, and the employers.
Moreover, the conversation around competency-based education is at an all-time high. Competency-based education allows the student to progress through a degree based upon their mastery of content at their own pace, as opposed to duration of time (i.e. a semester or four years) and is a potential resolution to the concern of the lack of accountability for getting your money's worth in American higher education system. Former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan claimed he wanted competency-based education programs to “be the norm.” Through competency-based education, employers can hire employees with comparable qualifications and less student debt than college grads and current employees can pursue professional development at little to no cost to their companies. Thus, the economy has much to gain from the mainstreaming and endorsement of MOOCs by Congress. True, MOOCs cannot yet confer degrees, but their issuing of certificates has value in the job market. It is currently unclear if the value comes from the branding of the provider or the course’s home institution.
- Focus and Identity
While Udacity’s move to partner with tech companies to develop nanodegrees carves out a niche for them in the marketplace, Coursera and edX struggle to find their identity. edX touts itself as the not-for-profit brainchild of MIT and Harvard, but one tour of its site leaves a user unsure of what it’s selling or if they offer courses beyond the scope of STEM. Coursera offers a wider cross-section of courses than edX, but that’s where the difference between these two platforms ends. Users toggling between these two virtually identical platforms (including the websites), find themselves curious as to what distinguishes a Coursera certificate from edX’s credential, or XSeries program, or even what exactly is a MicroMasters. These two companies, as well as the numerous less popular providers such as Open2Study and FutureLearn, need to define and refine their focus in order communicate their value to current and potential users.
The majority of federal education laws are limited by the requirement of accreditation. MOOCs are not currently accredited, meaning that though they have less regulatory oversight, they lack the stamp of legitimacy. Despite popular belief, accreditation does not derive from federal regulations but from peer-reviewed standards set by private regional boards that collect fees from their member institutions. The federal or state governments do not play a formal role in the accreditation process, but through the HEA, it can incentivize these regional boards to consider issuing accreditation to MOOC providers.
Accrediting MOOCs makes more federal funds available to users to take advantage of programs like the Global Freshman Academy and MIT’s MicroMasters. It also legitimizes this new model of learning for this new generation of digital natives. That said, current accreditation standards are designed for traditional higher education institutions, but this does not mean these standards cannot be amended to evaluate MOOCs. Why not create non-traditional educational platform accrediting boards?
These recommendations are not exhaustive, but they are a step in the right and necessary direction if MOOCs want to be more than a fad.