The Mancunion

Britain's biggest student newspaper

The free online education revolution

Massive Open Online Courses are widening access, but some doubt they can match the student experience


Fair access to higher education is a problem countless governments have failed to solve. Over the past decade Russell Group universities have seen a falling proportion of their students coming from state education and Just one in five pupils on free school meals make it to higher education. Grim facts, and with tuition fees trebling progress on widening participation looks set to stall.

One response to the problem of fair access is the MOOC; Massive Open Online Courses could provide university education to the worst-off.

Inspired by Salman Khan’s online education experiment The Khan Academy, Stanford University Professor Sebastian Thrun decided to offer his Artificial Intelligence course online for free.  Enrolment increased from 200 students to 160,000; suddenly education at Stanford was open to anyone with a broadband connection. To put that into perspective a year’s tuition at Stanford is over $40,000.

On the back of his success with the AI course, Thrun set up for-profit online education company Udacity. They now offer over 20 courses in maths, science and design. Lectures are delivered through short ten to fifteen-minute videos, students can speak to fellow course mates through online forums and some courses even qualify as course credits at colleges over the United States.

The problem of access has not escaped Thrun, in a recent speech he stated, “In California, we have 470,000 students waitlisted to get into community colleges. They’re willing and eager to pay for education. But they can’t get in.”

Thrun’s success has led to many imitators and competitors. Harvard and MIT teamed up to launch non-profit edX, while Thrun’s colleagues at Stanford set up for-profit Coursera. All three companies offer the courses for free and it took less time to register for a course in behavioural economics on edX than it did to update my details through Blackboard for the academic year.

Coursera had by far the most impressive selection of courses, covering palaeontology, cryptography and even the music of the Beatles. It was shocking to see how much was out there for free, enough to question whether it was worth the 9k to study at Manchester.

MOOCs aren’t just widening access to students in the US and UK, Coursera even offers a number of classes in Mandarin. The opportunity to provide courses to people in developing nations is massive and the gains for society could be astronomical. Think of the brilliant scientists, philosophers, and mathematicians whose innate ability and curiosity has been left to stagnate as they’ve been denied access to university.

In a report by the IPPR thinktank, economist Larry Summers drives this point home, noting in the past only “a select few people could get the opportunity to benefit from elite institutions”. Now everyone can benefit pointing out that he recently met a 12 year old in India who was teaching herself physics with online materials from Stanford.

Universities in the UK are getting in on the act as well. The Open University who have long lead the way in distance learning are working with Future Learn. A joint venture between 21 UK Universities, the British Council and the British Museum, Future Learn aims to capitalise on the expertise the Open University has in providing high levels of student satisfaction with distance learning.

Future Learn CEO, Simon Nelson criticised existing MOOCs “They’re often very conventional, based on lectures broadcast “at” students, rather than engaging with them.”

Future Learn aims to differentiate itself by emphasising the value of entertainment in learning and using less rarefied language to broaden the appeal of online education beyond the tech savvy students that make up the majority of MOOC users.

While many have welcomed MOOCs with open arms, some are still sceptical as to whether they will be able to replace face-to-face contact with lecturers and tutors.

Despite seeing them as a positive step in the education sector Manchester SU Education Officer Rosie Dammers said, “I do not think they will replace university courses and should not be seen as a solution to the problem the higher education sector faces in regards to access.”

She added, “I think the face-to-face contact that a university education provides is an indispensible part of the teaching and learning experience and something which students’ value.”

Some have argued that most MOOCs represent no more than a glorified textbook, and sadly they have a point.  MOOCs fail to offer the same level of one to one, face-to-face contact, that a degree at a brick and mortar university does. Thrun’s Google Hangout office hours are no match for a face-to-face chat with your tutor.

Especially for students in the humanities, regular contact with tutors and fellow students is where the real learning happens. Debating an issue within a tutorial and having your points constantly challenged is where you truly develop at university. On a course with over 100,000 fellow students you will never be able to have that argument with the lecturer. It is all very impersonal.

Further criticisms of MOOCs point to high drop out rates. While over 160,000 students registered for Thrun’s AI course, only a small fraction actually went on to complete the course.

learning seems to be best suited to independent learners, who require very little assistance with their studies. Beyond web forums and busy Google Hangouts, students struggling with their course receive very little support. If MOOC providers wish to replace the campus they will need to find a way of facilitating students who need extra learning support or else they risk excluding many learners.

When you study on campus, you also have the benefits of regularly associating with other bright individuals. You can set up student societies, attend extra-curricular lectures and build a network of friends that can help you throughout your life. It is no surprise that the MOOC revolution began at Stanford University in the heart of Silicon Valley. When you have so many brilliant individuals working so closely together, innovation comes more frequently and ideas are regularly shared and improved upon. In a world of distance learning you do not get the same level of contact with your peers, if Mark Zuckberg opted for edX rather than go to Harvard, he might never have met Eduardo Saverin.

There are also fears that completing a course on Coursera or edX lacks the same legitimacy as a traditional degree. Attending a top Russell Group university sends a signal to employers that you are highly able. If you pass the stringent entrance requirements, survive the exams and graduate with a 2:1, you will have demonstrated that you are a good hire. Depressingly most employers do not care what your dissertation was on; they are only interested in what grade you got for it. Employers see university as a means of separating the wheat from the chaff.

Without a trusted system of accreditation a degree from a MOOC is worth little more than the paper it is printed on.  Yet bringing in a trustworthy system threatens to undermine the free and open nature of MOOCs. Current free methods of evaluation such as short online quizzes lack the rigour of producing essays. Further problems come from a reliance on peer marking, and a lack of safeguards to prevent plagiarism and cheating.

Thrun fails to see this as an obstacle to the acceptance of MOOCs “The vast majority [of Udacity students] don’t cheat. If you find a way to cheat around 1,000 quizzes, you probably deserve to pass … if you find people to participate in your place in online forums, you should probably be a manager.”

To solve the problem of accreditation it has been suggested that universities should devolve their examining and accreditation functions to split off organisations. Universities could lose their unique status and could be open to a much fiercer level of competition as accreditation becomes more homogenous.  This would be a welcome development for students, but universities will surely resist it.

Most critiques of MOOCs tend to miss the point. Disruptive innovation rarely produces a strictly better product. MP3s do not have the same sound quality as CDs, iPhones lacked the battery life of your old Nokia dumb phone. Yet, both were able to change their respective markets massively. MOOCs will do the same as they offer a form of education that suits the needs of people currently excluded or underserved by university.

MOOCs open the door to studying for busy professionals who want an opportunity to reskill without dropping everything. It is intended for those sceptical of spending a huge amount of time and money when they are only interested in studying a couple of modules.

By unbundling education students can pick and choose exactly what they want to learn and at their own pace. If a student wants to do all of their studying in their weekend and work in the week, they can do that, no longer will they have to worry about modules clashing.

Being able to choose their own pace also means that their studying time isn’t dictated by restrictive term times. Bright students should be able to finish their course in under a month rather than waiting for slower learners to catch up.

MOOCs also push universities to work harder to improve the quality of their teaching, if I can receive philosophy lectures from Michael Sandel, economics lectures from Greg Mankiw, and biology lectures from Steven Pinker for free, why would I pay more for sub-par lectures.

MOOCs allow students to supplement their existing university education and fill in gaps in their knowledge. Khan Academy videos on calculus got me through first year whenever I had underestimated the importance of attending lectures.

If universities wish to stay relevant, they have no choice but to adopt some of the methods of MOOCs. Thankfully at Manchester lecturers are already taking the hint. Philosophy PhD student Chris Ovenden has produced Khan Academy style videos to help students struggling with formal logic. While Economics lecturer Ralf Becker has used video lectures to supplement the lectures and exercise classes already offered on his course. His teaching has been recognised in the University of Manchester Teaching Excellence award in response to consistently positive feedback from students.

Most importantly MOOCs are finally addressing the constantly rising costs of higher education. Whether provided publically or privately, universities have been struggling to keep costs down while educating more students than ever.

Education suffers from Baumol’s cost disease. William Baumol identified that in some sectors, such as manufacturing it is easy to increase productivity, yet in others, like teaching it’s very difficult to produce more with less. As salaries in the manufacturing sector rise with increased productivity, universities have to pay lecturers more and more to keep them from moving into high skilled manufacturing. This leads to rising costs without any improvement in quality.

In manufacturing you can keep costs down and produce more by substituting labour for capital. Universities up until now have not had that option. Increasing student to teacher ratios merely reduces quality, to educate more simply costs more.  Universities either have to put tuition up or compete for a shrinking pot of public money.

Economist Richard Vedder notes “with the possible exception of prostitution, teaching is the only profession that has had no productivity advance in the 2,400 years since Socrates taught the youth of Athens.”

MOOCs allows teachers to become more productive, to reach more students without increasing tuition. Teaching, however, may not be a profession where economies of scale are desirable. MOOCs must offer a better student experience to win people over with top professors, more resources and the option to pick and choose when and what you learn. But if tuition continues to rise and rise, then online education will inevitably become a very attractive option.