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The rapid rise of MOOCs shakes up the debate on online education
Massive open online courses (MOOCs) are free online courses offered on a massive scale by top universities, which, for the first time, are offering specific certification to students who successfully complete them.

It has now been a decade since the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) launched its OpenCourseWare project with a view to making its course materials available free of charge online. The project subsequently morphed into a consortium – the OCW Consortium – bringing together universities from around the world, including the UOC. At the time, however, the institutional will to grant official certification to students completing the courses was lacking. Since then, the model has evolved towards so-called MOOCs, which seek to offer actual certification to people who complete the courses, which are now offered free of charge on a massive scale by leading educational institutions. Five organizations stand out in particular. Two are non-profits: edX, led by MIT, Harvard and Berkeley, which will assess students at Pearson centres around the world; and the Khan Academy, also led by MIT in conjunction with MIT graduate Salma Khan. The other three are for profit: Udacity and Coursera, both founded by former computer science professors at Stanford, and Udemy, which allows anyone to upload a course.

Last September, at the official inauguration ceremony for the academic year for Catalan universities, the Catalan minister of economy and knowledge, Andreu Mas-Colell, referred to MOOCs as a threat. According to Mas-Colell, “Major international universities will muscle their way into the local market without creating jobs. We need to get out ahead of the curve on this. To that end, cooperation between universities may once again be essential.” In fact, Coursera has already signed agreements with more than 17 top universities, most of them in the United States, such as Brown and Columbia, to offer their courses to approximately 1.35 million students, 61.5% of whom live outside the US.

This raises a multitude of questions. Are MOOCs an alternative for students from developing countries who have a hard time or are flat-out unable to access higher education? Are they an alternative internationalization strategy for universities to the proliferation of loss-making satellite campuses around the world? What business model do they use? What qualifications can they offer to enable students to compete on the job market? Is the job market prepared to absorb “professionals” whose qualifications are hard to verify? Who is responsible for certifying the level of knowledge attained and the student's ability to apply it, and how will they do this? Will MOOCs revolutionize traditional education? What do they mean for the future of online higher education?

According to UOC president Imma Tubella, “MOOCs are courses for independent learners that are offered regardless of each student's specific circumstances, as there can be more than a million students at a time. This translates to extremely high drop-out rates (close to 95%), since students do not receive support. There is a risk that online education will come to be viewed as second-tier if we lump everything in together, and the UOC needs to draw a very clear distinction in that regard. This notwithstanding, we obviously remain open to experimenting with similar ideas, more in line with little open online courses (LOOCs), which will be overseen by specialized lecturers and will provide constant support for students to assure the quality of the online education.”

This preventive attitude towards MOOCs is shared by Albert Sangr, the director of the UOC's eLearn Center. “The most important question is whether the top universities behind the initiative (MIT, Harvard, Stanford, etc.) will recognize MOOCs in their own programmes and what value they will attach to them. For the time being, this does not seem to be the case. It also remains to be seen whether the certification systems will be reliable. Right now, it seems like they've reached an agreement with another company (Pearson) to handle the certification. Once the initial infatuation has faded, it will be crucial to see what kind of value added universities, such as the UOC, can offer beyond the certification itself.” He continued, “It is worth remembering that, years ago, when e-learning was still a relatively new phenomenon, a number of business models emerged that seemed poised to take over the entire university market. In the end, though, they all folded in three or four years, because they didn't take into account how the higher education sector works.” Sangr also thinks it is unlikely that universities will abnegate their teaching responsibilities in order to become mere accreditation bodies offering exams that third-party companies will also be offering regardless.

Lloren Valverde, vice president for technology at the UOC, underscored that MOOCs have emerged in the context of cut-backs in education budgets. At the same time, recent studies published in the United States have failed to find significant differences between what students learn online and in physical classrooms. “That's why universities, especially public ones, have begun to look into online training – which was previously largely ignored – as a possible solution to their lack of facilities or financial capacity to meet the rising demand,” he explained. According to Valverde, MOOCs should serve as a catalyst for change in the university system, “above all to underscore the value of the support that university institutions will need to offer students, since support is not something that can be easily replicated in a classroom with thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of students in which the learning and assessment model is automatic.”

Finally, with regard to the most plausible model for MOOCs in Spain, he noted, “I'm not sure that the American model can be easily exported to Europe. What we have to do is learn from experience and design and develop the best model for the specific characteristics of the European Higher Education Area.”

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