MOOCs and OER seem to be just the right answers to the ever-growing need for education for larger and larger numbers of students in all corners of the globe (whoever came up with that expression/translation should have taken a MOOC on geometry, it seems…). It is FREE and accessible for everyone! Just what the current YouTube-tuned, file sharing younger generations are expecting; and also adheres strongly to UNESCO’s vision of Education for All.
So what is the problem then? Is it not just marvellous that all get access to the wealths previously hidden in the cave of higher education by the 40 thieves (sorry, I meant “world-leading universities”)?
Well, the same caution applies here as for other “open” services: there is no such thing as a free lunch. Someone is definitely paying for the creation of MOOCs and OER, and the running of the courses in the case of MOOC; be it a government, a fund, a company – or university – with commercial interest, or the students themselves (directly, through course certificate fees, or indirectly, as pedagogical, economical or promotional laboratory rats). There are therefore in fact critical voices raising questions about the expansion of MOOCs (e.g., ).
Let us therefore pause for a while and consider the expansion of MOOCs from the perspective of 1) Public Universities financed by tax money and 2) Students.
The University perspective
Simply put, I see three, partly overlapping, reasons for developing MOOCs on a larger scale, as KTH is now slowly preparing to do:
The first would be a genuine, altruistic, desire of spreading education to new groups of students. While this may in fact be a driving force for some individual teachers who want to spread the knowledge in their area of expertise, it is not a sustainable business model for a university that needs to pay the teachers’ salaries.
Instead, the second, more realistic, reason would be promotional, to offer MOOCs and OER to recruit students (“Click the Free Trial banner”). This seems to be the central reason for universities today – traditional education programs are still their core activity and MOOCs are just another campaign to attract students.
This of course overlaps with the third reason, gaining money (or, for publicly financed universities, making the ends meet): by recruiting students to traditional courses and programs, the universities get funding.
The third reason could however be a driving force of its own: Funding can be attracted directly from the MOOCs, if students pay to get course credits, if other universities pay to use the MOOC as a commissioned part of their own education or if some funding agency supports the MOOC directly (changing the priority from course credits and degrees to knowledge distributed).
The economical strategies for MOOC funding is a chapter of its own, but for now it suffices saying that they do, and to an even larger extent will, depend on how students and employers perceive education.
The Student perspective
It used to be, and in some subjects and countries it is still true, that proper education equaled a degree from a prestigious national university, then this has (at least in Computer Science in Sweden) transformed into having studied at a prestigious national university, but not necessarily finishing with a degree. We might now be facing another game changer, as students may instead choose to take MOOCs at international universities, or even companies, and pay to get the certificates that they can show to employers. Or they may in fact not even bother to pay to get the certificate, or alternatively pay much less to a local university that certifies that the student has completed the MOOC provided by another institution.
In the first case, we would see an enormous economical transfer from local universities to the most competitive MOOC providers, and this is a fear that universities do start to talk about (“If we do not create our own on-line education, all our students will instead study MIT MOOCs in a couple of years“).
However, the second alternative is not that much discussed: established universities continue to assume that their stamp of quality approval on a degree or course certificate will always be essential to students and employers. But what if MOOC and OER will change they way we look at education all together: If the degree is not that important anymore, but rather the constituent courses, then perhaps it is in fact the knowledge provided by the course, rather than the course itself that is important, to students, and perhaps even to their future employers?
And the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences goes to whoever comes up with a sustainable business model for universities for that scenario…
There would be a totally different education and job market for free learners, where companies would not look at after the fact degree certificates, but could instead proactively identify and draft young talents and ask them to take a number of suitable MOOCs that will make them profitable for the company when they are later hired. And out the window went societal perspectives in education…
There are certainly no definite answers about the future of education in general and of MOOCs and OER in particular, but it is going to be an interesting journey, and it is not all that certain that the treasures found when the cave opened will bring joy to everyone.
 Weller, M. (2014). Battle for Open: How openness won and why it doesn’t feel like victory. London: Ubiquity Press.
Picture 1: llustration by Albert Robida in “Ali-Baba et les quarante voleurs”, page 4, reprinted in 1945. Public domain image in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or less.
Picture 2: CC0 Public Domain