April 24, 2014

Research from the Michigan Virtual University on a connectivist MOOC

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 MVU MOOC report

Ferdig, R. et al. (2014) Findings and reflections from the ‘K-12 Teaching in the 21st Century’ MOOC Lansing MI: Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute

We are now beginning to get some in-depth research or evaluations of MOOCs. This one is from a team at Kent State University that developed a five week ‘connectivist’ MOOC aimed principally at three distinct audiences: high school students interested in becoming teachers, preservice teachers, and inservice teachers in the K-12 system.

I provide here a very brief summary of the report (as always, you should read the report for yourself if my summary gets you interested). Italics are direct quotes from the report.

Goal of the MOOC

How can we get teachers to think more deeply about reinventing education?

MOOC design

facilitators take on the role of connecting people around an idea for the purpose of bettering our understanding of the
idea. A connectivist-based MOOC draws on the extensive number of participants as well as the existing open repository of content to develop an experience. Participants are both teachers and learners in a process – not a product.

The course was designed around four principles often associated with teaching in the 21st century: connected learning, personalization, collaboration, and reflection.

Core technology

Coursesites by Blackboard provided the basic platform for content and discussion, supplemented by the use of participants’ social media networks and technologies. In addition participants were asked to create an ‘artifact’ to represent their learning.

Use of partners/co-facilitators

Kent State provided core facilitators for the MOOC, but they also invited other co-facilitators from schools, colleges and universities both in Michigan and from several other states.

Qualifications

Badges and continuing education units were given for successful participation.

Main results

Participants (data at time of enrollment, i.e. all participants)

Start of course: 673; end of course: 848; mainly from Michigan and surrounding states, although 12 were international

School teachers: 42%; k-12 students: 23%; post-secondary students: 16%; 19% other (inc. school administrators, university faculty); 80% female.

Participants’ response to the MOOC (168 participants who completed a post-course survey)

Most participants who responded enjoyed the MOOC, with in-service teachers enjoying it the most. Th main criticism (especially from the k-12 students) was the amount of work involved in following the MOOC.

Very active participation in the online discussion forums (within the Coursesites LMS)

There were over 6,000 actual posts (comments) and over 65,000 ‘hits’/looks over a five week period, from just over 300 of the participants – but almost to-thirds did not participate at all.

Types of participation

Lurkers (i.e. did not participate in LMS discussion forums – they may have participated through social media): 63%. There were accounts created in Facebook, Twitter, Delicious and blogs related to the course which indicated active social media connections both for registered participants and with those who had not registered for the course but were interested. However, these numbers were relatively small, and hard to measure.

Passive participation was defined as doing the minimum amount of work required to complete the course. Some of the passive participants were K-12 students forced to complete the MOOC for a class requirement.

There were also preservice teachers and inservice teachers who could be described as passive participants. These participants often completed the course; however, much like the high school students, their posts were limited to one or two sentences per posts. Their comments were also superficial, for example, “Nice job” or “I like what you did.”

Active participants participated in four ways:

  • informing personal practice
  • sharing the MOOC with their communities
  • leadership within the MOOC community
  • critical colleagues

The authors’ main conclusions

The seeking and sharing of digital media highlights that people want to form and engage in communities, and the growing interest in MOOCs shows this is true of educational communities as well….

Learning takes place in communities; depending on the implementation, technology has the capability to create and sustain the communities’ learning and practice….. Evidence in this report suggests that such activities can lead to positive outcomes, particularly as they relate to getting teachers to think more deeply about teaching and learning in the 21st century.

My comments

Even though (or perhaps because) this is a self-evaluation, this is a very useful report. I was fascinated for instance that this course ended with more participants than when it started, due to the ‘publicity’ of social media connections during the course itself.  It was interesting too that some of the participants in this MOOC were not necessarily willing participants – being forced to participate as part of a formal credit program. This seems to me to go against the whole purpose of a connectivist MOOC.

More importantly for me, the report highlights some of the ways research can be conducted on MOOCs and also some of the challenges. The study identifies the importance, from a research perspective, of having some kind of platform that can gather student data and track student behaviour, such as levels or types of participation. However, given the importance of social media for connectivist MOOCs, some way of accurately tracking related social media activity is critical. It seems to me that this is a problem that appropriate software could solve (further development of gRRShopper?), although privacy issues would need to be addressed as well. (Perhaps the spy agencies can help here – just joking!)

I agree completely with the authors when they write:

Researchers have already provided ample evidence that asking if a technology works is the wrong question. A more appropriate question is: under what conditions do certain types of MOOCs work?

Another even more pertinent question is: What prior research into credit-based online learning applies – and what does not apply – to different kinds of MOOCs? This might save a lot of time re-inventing the wheel, particularly for xMOOCs. I am getting sick of hearing from research on xMOOCs that immediate feedback helps retention – we have known that for nearly 100 years. We do need though for instance to assess the importance and most useful roles, if any, of instructors/facilitators/subject matter experts in MOOCs, and whether MOOCs can succeed with reduced ‘expert’ participation. This report suggests almost the opposite – connectivist MOOCs work best with a wide range of facilitators – but what are the hidden costs of this?

Finally, I also agree with the authors that completion rates are not the best measure of success for MOOCs. This MOOC does seem to have raised some interesting questions for participants. I’m just curious about their answers. Despite the very good work done by the instructors/researchers of this MOOC, I am still left with the question: what did the participants actually learn from this MOOC? For instance, what would an analysis of the student ‘artifacts’ have told us about their learning? Unless we try to answers questions about what actual learning took place then it will remain difficult if not impossible to measure the true value of different kinds of MOOC, and I think that would be a pity.

In the meantime, this report is definitely recommended reading for anyone interested in doing research on or evaluating MOOCs.

MOOCs, specializations, and continuing education

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Vanderbilit and University of maryland will be offering a MOOC specialization in designing  Android apps

Vanderbilit and University of Maryland will be offering a MOOC specialization in designing Android apps

Academic Partnerships (2014) Academic Partnerships Launches New Online Global Specializations Credential Dallas, January 21

Gannes, L. (2104) Coursera Offers the Equivalent of a MOOC Major: Specialization Certificates Re/Code, January 21

It must be more than a co-incidence that these two completely separate organizations announced new ‘specialization’ certificates on the same day. First, a little background.

Coursera certificates

Coursera is planning to offer certificates for students who take a set combination of MOOCs and pass the assessment. The minimum number of MOOCs would be three, with other certificates requiring up to eight MOOCs. The certificates will be awarded by ‘leading universities.’ One of the first specializations open for enrollment is from Vanderbilt and the University of Maryland on making Android apps.  A Coursera specialization certificate will require students to verify their identity and pay on a per-course basis, usually $49 per course.

Academic Partnerships

Most people will know about Coursera, but Academic Partnerships may be less well known, but is still a significant player in the higher education world of the USA. Its is a private company that ’assists universities in converting their traditional degree programs and certificates into an online format, recruits qualified students, and supports enrolled students through graduation’. It works particularly with prestigious U.S. institutions that often were slow into credit-based online learning, or those that wish to keep the online learning activity at somewhat arms-length from their campus activities, but usually to increase enrollments and/or revenues.

Academic Partnership’s new initiative is on the global marketing of specialization certificates from prestigious U.S. universities, ‘to help partner universities capitalize on the globalization of higher education….Specializations consist of three progressive certificates that are offered in multiple languages and can be earned in nine months….AP’s partner universities outside of the United States, meanwhile, will serve as host universities for the Specializations….We believe that our Specializations initiative, which we originated and are launching with partner universities, will significantly increase post-secondary enrollment around the world, resulting in untold benefits for citizens everywhere, while simultaneously addressing the financial challenges faced by U.S. universities.’

Comment

These seem like sensible moves, moving MOOCs and other ‘open’ online courses much more clearly into the continuing education niche, and internationalizing them. The idea of opening up online courses to international markets of course is not new. The University of British Columbia launched an ‘open’ (but not free) online certificate program on distributed learning as early as 1996, which developed into an international Master in Educational Technology in 2003 (which is still very successful). The first enrollments for UBC’s certificate program came from over 30 different countries. There is clearly a large international market for online courses and programs from prestigious North American institutions, and Australia universities for many years have had a highly profitable international online learning presence.

Questions still remain though. One obvious one is about the transferability of credit from specializations: will students obtaining certificates be able to transfer these into regular credit programs, online or on campus, at North American or local universities? Will students, especially those overseas, be told this when they enroll?

The second challenge is the business model, at least for the MOOC initiative. It is not so much the MOOCs or courses themselves – they may be offered free by the institutions. But how will this impact on their Continuing Education divisions, who often exist now mainly to bring in extra revenues for the university? Many universities – at least here in Canada – have extensive online certificate programs which bring in a large profit for the university. One wonders why institutions would ‘give away’ this highly lucrative market in order to provide free, open courses. Or maybe MOOCs will destroy the current continuing education model for online courses, which will send a chill through many universities’ CE divisions.

For the Academic Partnership model, the success will depend on the added value that Academic Partnerships can bring to the university in international marketing and recruitment. It will be interesting to see how they price these certificates in the different international markets. There is also a strong Hawthorne effect here. As institutions in other countries begin to build their own MOOCs and online credit programs, the market starts to drop for programs from other countries, so timing is everything.

One thing that both initiatives though should be aware of – and this is free advice – from my experience in internationalizing online courses is that one needs to be aware of this from the beginning, ensuring the materials are appropriate for multicultural use (which goes way beyond direct translation), and above all, that there is 24×7 online learner support available in some form or other that extends beyond answering simple technical or administrative questions. In particular, international students will want to know what they can do with these specialization certificates and which employers are likely to recognize them. Since this will vary greatly from country to country, this is no simple or low-cost task. This is the major challenge in internationalizing MOOCs, and will require a very strong business model and excellent partners in the other countries for the Academic Partnership’s initiative to succeed.

Lastly, if I was a Director of Continuing Education or International Education, I would not be sitting back waiting for these initiatives to happen, but would be developing a business plan to go out and compete directly for international students and lifelong learners through online learning.

 

A review of a Harvard/MIT research paper on edX MOOCs

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 edX graphic

Ho, A. et al. (2014) HarvardX and MITx: The First Year of Open Online Courses Fall 2012-Summer 2013 (HarvardX and MITx Working Paper No. 1), January 21

This 32 page report provides a range of data and statistics about the first 17 MOOCs offered through edX by MIT and Harvard.

Methodology

MOOCs raise a number of interesting challenges when doing research, such as measuring participation, and defining success. In any interpretation of the results, these methodological challenges need to be considered. The researchers identified the following challenges:

1. Post-hoc research. The research design was established after the courses were designed and delivered, so data on some key critical research variables (e.g., socio-economic status) were not available or collected.

2. Variation in the object of the research. Although limited to MOOCs offered on the edX platform, the 17 MOOCs varied considerably in educational objectives, style, length, types of learner and other factors.

3. Measuring levels of participation. Participants varied from those who logged in only once to those that completed a certificate (and then some who went on to take more MOOCs). As a result, the researchers came up with four mutually exclusive categories of participation:

  • Only Registered: Registrants who never access the courseware.
  • Only Viewed: Non-certified registrants who access the courseware, accessing less than half of the available chapters.
  • Only Explored: Non-certified Registrants who access more than half of the available chapters in the courseware.
  • Certified: Registrants who earn a certificate in the course.

4. Percentages are misleading when numbers are large. This was a new one for me. I know one should never use percentages when n <20, specially when generalizing beyond the sample, but in this instance, the researchers argue that small percentages (e.g. <5%) are also misleading when the number the percentage refers to can be very large, e.g. when 3% = 1,400 students who completed a certificate. In such cases, the absolute numbers matter more than the percentage, so the researchers claim.

5. Measures of success The researchers argue that traditional measures of academic success, such as the percentage of those who successfully complete a course, are not valid (the word used is ‘counter-productive’) for open online courses.

Main results

Participation

  • 17 MOOCs
  • 841,687 course registrations: average per MOOC: 51,263
  • 597,692 ‘persons’: average of 1.4 MOOCs per person
  • 292,852 (35%) never engaged with the content (“Only registered”)
  • 469,702 (56%) viewed (i.e. clicked on a module) less than half of the content (“Only viewed”)
  • 35,937 (4%) explored more than half the content, but did not get a certificate (average per MOOC: 2,114)
  • 43,196  (5%) earned certificates (average per MOOC: 2,540)

Participants

  • 234,463 (33%) report a high school education or lower
  • 66% of all participants, and 74% of all who obtained a certificate, have a bachelor’s degree or above
  • 213,672 (29%) of all participants, and 33% of all who obtained a certificate, are female
  • 26 was the median age, with 45,844 (6%) over 50 years of age
  • 20,745 (3%) of all participants were from the UN listed least developed countries
  • there are ‘considerable differences in …. demographics such as gender, age… across courses.”

Comments

First, congratulations to Harvard and MIT for not only doing this research on MOOCs, but also for making it openly available and releasing it early.

Second, I agree that percentages can be misleading, a focus on certification is not the best way to assess the value of a MOOC, and that absolute figures matter for assessing the value of MOOCs. However, this is NOT the way most commentators and the media have focused on MOOCs. Percentages and certification DO matter if MOOCs are being seen as a substitute or a replacement for formal education. MOOCs need to be judged for what they are, a somewhat unique – and valuable – form of non-formal education.

Third, if we do look at absolute numbers, they are in my view not that impressive – an average of 2,540 per course earning a certificate, and less than 5,000 per course following more than half the content. The Open University, with completely open access, was getting higher numbers of students completing credit-based foundation courses when it started. The History Channel (a cable TV channel in North America) does a lot better, in terms of numbers. We have already seen overall average numbers for MOOCs dropping considerably as they have become more common. So when we account for the Hawthorne effect, the results are certainly not startling.

Fourth, these results so much reminded me of the research on educational broadcasting 30 years ago (for more details, see footnote). If you substituted ‘MOOC’ for ‘educational television’, the results would be almost identical (except there was a higher proportion of women than men participating). Perhaps they should read my very old book, “Broadcasting in Education: An Evaluation.” (I still have a few copies in a cupboard somewhere).

Lastly, this brings me to my final point. Where is the reference to relevant previous research or theory (see, for instance the footnote to this post)? There are certainly unique aspects to MOOCs that deserve to be researched. However, while MOOCs may be new, non-formal learning is not, nor is credit-based online learning, nor is open education, nor is educational broadcasting, of which MOOCs are a new format. Much of what we already know about these areas also applies to some aspects of MOOCs. Once again, though, Harvard and MIT seem to live in an environment that pays no attention to what happens outside their cocoon. If it’s not theirs, it doesn’t count. This is simply not good enough. In no other field would you get away with ignoring all previous research or work in related areas such as credit-based online learning, open education or educational broadcasting.

Having got that off my chest, I did find the paper well written and interesting and certainly worth a careful read. I look forward to reading – and reviewing – future papers.

Footnote: MOOCs and the onion theory of educational broadcasting

I eventually found a copy of my book. I blew the dust off it and guess what I found.

Here’s what I wrote about ‘levels of commitment’ in non-formal educational broadcasting in 1984 (p.99):

At the centre of the onion is a small core of fully committed students who work through the whole course, and, where available, take an end-of-course assessment or examination. Around the small core will be a rather larger layer of students who do not take any examination but do enrol with a local class or correspondence school. There may be an even larger layer of students who, as well as watching and listening, also buy the accompanying textbook, but who do not enrol in any courses. Then, by far the largest group, are those that just watch or listen to the programmes. Even within this last group, there will be considerable variations, from those who watch or listen fairly regularly, to those, again a much larger number, who watch or listen to just one programme.

Now compare this to Figure 2 (p.13) of the Harvard/MIT report:

MOOC onionI also wrote (p.100):

A sceptic may say that the only ones who can be said to have learned effectively are the tiny minority that worked right through the course and successfully took the final assessment…A counter argument would be that broadcasting can be considered successful if it merely attracts viewers or listeners who might otherwise have shown no interest in the topic; it is the numbers exposed to the material that matter…the key issue then is whether broadcasting does attract to education those who would not otherwise have been interested, or merely provides yet another opportunity for those who are already well educated…There is a good deal of evidence that it is still the better educated in Britain and Europe that make the most use of non-formal educational broadcasting.

Thanks for the validation of my 1984 theory, Harvard/MIT.

Reference

Bates, A. (1984) Broadcasting in Education: An Evaluation. London: Constable

 

Tracking online learning in the USA – and Ontario

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Babson 2012 enrollment graph Allen, I. and Seaman, J. (2014) Grade Change: Tracking Online Learning in the United States Wellesley MA: Babson College/Sloan Foundation

This is the eleventh annual report in this invaluable series on tracking online education in the United States of America. It is invaluable, because, through the consistent support of the Sloan Foundation, the Babson College annual survey provides a consistent methodology that allows for the tracking of the growth and development of online learning in the USA over more than a decade.

There is nothing comparable in Canada, but nevertheless I will use this post to try and draw some comparisons between the development of online earning in the USA and at least the largest system in Canada, that of Ontario, which does have at least some data. Also, Ontario has just established Ontario Online, a system wide initiative aimed at strengthening Ontario’s online learning activities. The Sloan/Babson surveys have important lessons for Ontario’s new initiative.

Methodology

The survey is sent to the Chief Academic Officer (CAO) of every higher education institution in the USA (private and public, universities and two year colleges), over 4,600 in all. Over 2,800 responses were received from institutions that accounted for just over 80% of all higher education enrollments in the USA (most non-responses came from small institutions, i.e. institutions with 1,500 students or less, who were far less likely to have online courses, as a sector).

An online course is defined in this report as one in which at least 80 percent of the course content is delivered online as a normal part of an institution’s program. MOOCs are therefore considered a completely different category from the ‘normal’ credit-based online courses in this report.

What is the report about?

The scope of the report can best be described from the questions the report seeks to answer:

  • What is Online Learning, what is a MOOC?
  • Is Online Learning Strategic?
  • Are Learning Outcomes in Online Comparable to Face-to-Face?
  • Schools Without Online Offerings
  • How Many Students are Learning Online?
  • Do Students Require More Discipline to Complete Online Courses?
  • Is Retention of Students Harder in Online Courses?
  • What is the Future of Online Learning?
  • Who offers MOOCs?
  • Objectives for MOOCs
  • Role of MOOCs

Main findings

This relatively short report (40 pages, including tables) is so stuffed with data that it is somewhat invidious to pick and choose results. Because it is short and simply written you are strongly recommended to read it yourself in full. However, here are the main points I take away:

Growth of credit-based online learning continues but is slowing

Sounds a bit like an economic report on China, doesn’t it? Allen and Seaman claim that a total of 7.1 million students are now taking at least one online course, or roughly 34% of all enrollments. (Note: ‘% taking at least one course’ is not the same as ‘% of all course enrollments’ which would be a better measure.) Online learning enrollments were up 6.5% in 2013, a slowing of the rate of growth which had been in the 10-15% range per annum in recent years. Nevertheless, online enrollments are still growing five times faster that enrollments in general in the USA, and most CAOs anticipate that this growth in online learning enrollments will continue into the future.

MOOCs are still a very small component of online learning

The number of institutions offering MOOCs rose from 2.6% in 2012 to 5% in 2103. The majority of institutions offering MOOCs are doctoral/research and there is a high proportion in the private, not-for-profit sector. This sector has been historically less involved in credit-based online learning.

Graph sectors with online learning

Less than a quarter of CAOs believe that MOOCs represent a sustainable method for offering online courses, down from 28 percent in 2012, and a majority of academic leaders (64%) have concerns that credentials for MOOC completion will cause confusion about higher education degrees.

Sector differences

The report identifies some clear differences between the different sectors in the USA’s very diverse post-secondary education system. Small institutions (less than 1,500) and doctoral/research institutions are far less likely to offer online courses. CAOs from institutions not offering online learning tend to be more critical of the quality of online learning and far less likely to think it essential to their future.

Of the CAOs from institutions offering online courses, nearly one-quarter believe online outcomes to be superior, slightly under 20 percent think them inferior, with the remainder (57%) reporting that the learning outcomes are the same as for classroom delivery

What about Canada – and Ontario in particular?

I have long lamented that we have no comparable data on online learning in Canada. The government of Ontario did do a census of all its universities and colleges in 2010 and found just under 500,000 online course registrations, or 11% of all university and college enrollments, with online enrollments in universities (13%) higher than in two-year colleges (7%). If we extrapolate from the USA figures (highly dubious, I know) which showed a 16% increase in online enrollments between fall 2010 and fall 2012, this would put Ontario’s online enrollments in 2012 at approximately 563,000.

More significantly, the Ontario government survey provided hard data on course completion rates:

  • the median in the college sector for the 20 colleges that responded to the question was 76.1% with most institutions reporting results between 70% and 79%.
  • the median in the university sector for the 15 universities that responded was 89% with most universities reporting results from 85% to 95%.

Contact North did a ‘cross-country check-up’ in 2012. It concluded (p.14):

Using proxy data (estimates provided by a variety of different organizations and a standard measure of full-time equivalent student set at 9.5 course registrations per FTE), we can estimate that there are between 875,000 and 950,000 registered online students in Canada (approximately 92,105 – 100,000 full-time students) at college and universities studying a purely online course at any one time.

The problem though is that these are one-off studies. While the government of Ontario is to be congratulated on doing the 2010 survey, it decided not to continue it in the following years (or more accurately, it did not decide to repeat it.) The Contact North data is at best a rough estimate, again valuable in itself, but needs to done on a more systematic and regular basis across the country (Canada’s higher education system is devolved to each of 12 provinces with no federal responsibility or office for post-secondary education, and Statistics Canada has been cut back in recent years by the current Conservative Government).

However, there is now hope. The government of Ontario has just established Ontario Online, a collaborative Centre of Excellence that will be governed and operated by the province’s colleges and universities. It has a start-up budget of $42 million. One of the first things it should do is to repeat and expand the 2010 survey, to establish a baseline for measuring the province’s progress in online learning. The expansion should include also measurement of hybrid/blended learning (preferably using the same definitions as the Babson survey for comparative purposes.) To do this accurately, institutions will need to categorize the type of courses they are offering in their courses’ database, if they have not already done this to date. Without such a baseline of data, it will be almost impossible to assess not just the success of Ontario Online, but of online learning in general in Ontario.

I would also hope that as the country’s largest province, with probably the greatest number of online courses and enrollments, Ontario will take leadership at the national Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC) to get the survey it has developed adopted and administered by all provinces across Canada. Politicians and experts can huff and puff all they like about the importance of online learning, but if they don’t measure it, it’s all just hot air.

In summary, many thanks to Sloan and Babson College for their invaluable work. Ontario has done far more than any other province in Canada to identify the extent of online learning, and is poised to make an even greater breakthrough through its new Ontario Online initiative. However, systematic data collection is essential for measuring the success of any online learning initiatives or strategies.

Sir John Daniel’s book review of ‘Beyond the MOOC Hype’ by Jeffrey Young

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Young's book on MOOCs

Young, J. (2013) Beyond the MOOC Hype: A Guide to Higher Education’s High-Tech Disruption Washington DC : Chronicle of Higher Education, 92 pp (available through Amazon for about $5)

Introduction

Sir John Daniel has kindly offered his review of this book for publication in my blog.

Sir John Daniel’s review

In September 2012, as a visiting fellow at the Korea National Open University, I wrote an essay on MOOCs entitled Making Sense of MOOCs: Musings in a Maze of Myth, Paradox and Possibility. At that moment the phenomenon of xMOOCs was far too new to have generated any scholarly research and there was little academic literature on cMOOCs either, although they had been going since 2008. I therefore had to base my essay on the copious coverage of MOOCs by journalists and bloggers. MOOCs had captured the attention of the news media in a remarkable way, so this reporting was plentiful.

I found one of the best commentators on MOOCs to be Jeffrey Young, who has covered the MOOCs story for the US Chronicle of Higher Education from its beginnings. The thoroughness of his work impressed me. He took MOOCs himself as a learner and also performed a particularly useful service for those trying to make sense of the business model of MOOCs by using freedom-of-information rights to obtain a copy of the standard contract between the MOOCs-platform company Coursera and its university partners.

Young has now distilled his deep knowledge of MOOCs into an eBook titled: Beyond the MOOC Hype: A Guide to Higher Education’s High-Tech Disruption. It is an excellent read, where he endears himself to non-American readers by being aware of developments outside his own country, a rare quality among US education journalists! He took a Manitoba cMOOC as a learner and visited the Indira Gandhi National Open University in Delhi to find out more about open universities.

The seven chapters of the book address all the key issues. At the beginning, calling MOOCs ‘Education’s Jetpack Moment’, he draws an analogy with science fiction predictions that never came true in order to ask whether MOOCs really will stimulate the revolution in higher education forecast by enthusiasts. His concluding remarks carry the title ‘A Fight for the Future of Higher Education’.

He looks at both sides of that fight, his goal being neither to promote free online education, nor to present a critical diatribe, adding wisely that ‘the future is unknown and how things turn out will depend on college leaders, professors and anyone who might one day take a free online course’. For Young, ‘MOOCs matter, whether they work or not, because they have put the future of college into the national spotlight’.

He starts with the basic question ‘what is a MOOC’ and finds that MOOCs take lessons from a fusion of trends that add up to more than the sum of their parts. In chapter 2 he examines the history of MOOCs and tries to put them in the context of the long history of distance education. This leads him to the toughest question: ‘if MOOCs are free to students, who will pay for them?’ There is no assurance that any of the moneymaking schemes proposed for MOOCs will work. The later chapters look at how MOOCs might change classroom teaching, the claim that MOOCs threaten the long-term health of higher education, and whether MOOCs are an effective way to teach.

The book is enlivened by stories from the coalface about teaching and studying MOOCs and about his own experience as a learner, notably through an engaging account of the MOOC he took on song writing, which ‘stirred a feeling of discovery I haven’t felt since my days as an undergraduate’.

In the chapter on whether MOOCs work, he recalls the well-known fact that 80% of Coursera’s students already have a degree of some kind. MOOCs have failed to achieve the lofty objective articulated by their pioneers, which was to bring education to those who never had access before, whether in rich countries or poor. Young notes the growing sense that the US higher education system is broken, with the running costs of colleges – and therefore the levels of tuition fees – growing faster than the incomes of students wanting to go to college. MOOCs are not addressing that problem – at least not yet.

Central to this issue is the question of credit. Young points out that the few institutions offering credit for their own MOOCs have had only a handful of takers, though he notes that these offers had little publicity. Yet he reports that a substantial minority of faculty teaching MOOCs, notably in engineering, maths, science and technology, felt that their students deserved credit. Meanwhile other bodies, such as the American Council on Education, are recommending credit for certain MOOCs.

Some colleges, while not giving credit for MOOCs, will let students graduate in three years instead of four if they earn enough MOOC certificates. In this respect MOOCs can give pupils leaving secondary school the sort of advanced standing that they can earn by taking Advanced Placement tests or the International Baccalaureate, thereby achieving a 25% reduction in the overall cost of college. Other institutions are taking the obvious step of introducing MOOC like qualities – notably scale – to regular, credit-bearing online programmes so that they can reduce fees substantially.

In his summary of the fight for the future of higher education Young addresses three questions: should colleges be run like businesses; who should provide higher education; and how can colleges bring down costs? Noting that the faculty-centred nature of US higher education is responsible for its quality and dynamism as well as its accelerating costs, he makes the telling point that the opening of a new college campus is now extremely rare. This alone suggests that this business model has run its course, at least in the US. On the other hand, the entry costs to online teaching are low: ‘like the difference between buying a food truck versus building a nationwide chain of restaurants’.

This means that new players, not only institutions but also partnerships of faculty members and professionals, can join the higher education enterprise. Presently a key barrier facing them is the monopoly that colleges have on selling credits and degrees. However, the MOOCs explosion is already accelerating the break-up of this monopoly.

By stimulating policy makers to reflect more deeply on the cost structures of higher education, MOOCs have revealed the perverse nature of much recent institutional spending. Investing in technology without revising the classroom-teaching model has raised costs, not lowered them. Furthermore, colleges have tended to add amenities like fancier dorms or climbing walls, instead of improving their educational quality. Online programmes that highlight the quality and effectiveness of their teaching/learning systems rather than the grandeur of their physical plant could gain an increasing edge. Residential colleges will not go away but some will struggle to respond to the challenge of online learning that MOOCs have amplified.

Young completed his book in mid-2013. The MOOCs space is dynamic and there have been significant developments, both in the US and elsewhere, since that time. Nevertheless, his thoughtful commentary on the frenzied phenomenon of MOOCs remains highly relevant to decision makers grappling with its implications for their institutions.