October 20, 2017

Keeping up with MOOC developments


How are you keeping up with MOOC developments? If you are like me, you are probably feeling swamped and not a little overwhelmed by all the coverage and news about MOOCs. Here’s what I’ve come across over the last couple of weeks.

MOOCs as an entry to a degree program

Kim, J. (2013) Q&A with Randy Best on MOOC2Degree Inside Higher Education, January 24

Joshua Kim interviews the CEO of Academic Partnerships about its plan to underwrite MOOCs that will guarantee entry to a university degree program with institutions that have partnered with Academic Partnerships, so long as the students successfully pass an examination set by the institution at the end of the MOOC. This project will use Instructure’s Canvas as the platform. Eight universities have so far signed up. The MOOCs will be existing online courses in the degree program. Students will receive full credit for successful course completion.

In this model, a university makes its own, already designed online, for credit programs, open to anyone, and if students successfully pass the course, they become admitted to the full program. This is really a big step towards opening up previously highly selective institutions.

I think this is a very interesting model. I pushed for a somewhat similar model for graduate courses at UBC, whereby we offered an ‘open’ online certificate program, but pushed for students who succeeded to carry over the credits into a full masters program. I was unsuccessful – the Faculty of Graduate Studies insisted on students meeting graduate entry requirements – even though these ‘open’ students were getting the same or better grades than other graduate UBC students taking the same courses (the certificate courses were also available as credit courses to the full-time graduate credit students).

Institutions have unnecessary and often arbitrary restrictions to entry and any model that breaks this open is to be welcomed. This one is tied to learner performance, which is properly measured and assessed.

MOOCs for credit

Fain, P. (2013) As California goes? Inside Higher Education, January 16

San Jose State University has signed a deal with Udacity:

‘to create a pilot program of three online, entry-level courses that will cost students $150 to take and lead to university-awarded academic credits if passed….The university will cap enrollment at 100 for each of the three courses, with half of the slots going to students from San Jose State. Priority enrollment for the remaining 150 openings will go to high school and community college students, members of the military and.’ veterans, and wait-listed San Jose State students.’

My question is: why is this a MOOC? It’s not massive and it’s not open and it’s not free. This sounds very similar to many existing programs aimed at enabling more open access to otherwise ‘closed’ programs, such as prior learning assessment.

Preparation for challenge exams

California community colleges, faced with a shortfall of 500,000 place in its campus-based colleges because of state funding cuts, are considering:

creating examinations for remedial courses and core general education courses for an associate degree aimed at students who want to transfer to a California State University campus. Students could use MOOCs to prepare for challenge exams, and community colleges could steer them toward the free online courses. And MOOC providers could tailor their offerings to the exams and gateway courses.

Then what? Having passed the challenge exam, there are still no places on further courses.

The problem is that California is in a financial mess, and there is a lot of flailing around to find cheap ways of providing post-secondary education. MOOCs are seen as a possible answer, but the issues of quality, learner support and assessment for MOOCs are not going to be resolved by wishful thinking. For more on the California situation, see ‘California buzzing’, which suggests other, and in my view, better ways in which online learning can help.

One last comment

MOOCs are a very interesting development, and have some potential to bring about major changes in the post-secondary education system.

However, they are only a side show to most online educational developments. Many other interesting things are happening and these are being drowned out by the hysteria and hyperbole surrounding MOOCs. It seems any new development in online learning has to be called a MOOC to get any recognition (even if it is neither massive nor open).

We need to get back to a sense of proportion here. It’s not the number of enrolments that matters, but the learning that takes place. For-credit online programs have had to prove that students can learn just as well online as on campus. There is over 20 years experience of what works and what doesn’t in credit-based online learning that is being ignored in most (but not all) MOOC developments. Not a single MOOC has been able to demonstrate clear learning gains for the students (or a viable financial model, for that matter). When that happens, they deserve to be taken seriously. Until then, I suggest you focus on the real world.


Plan to assess credit value of MOOCs

Marklein, M.B. (2012) College credit for online courses gains momentum USA Today. November 13

The American Council on Education, ‘a non-profit organization that represents most of the nation’s college and university presidents‘, is to develop a process by which MOOCs can be assessed for academic rigor leading to approval for academic credit, although the decision as to whether to accept approved courses for credit transfer will still be left to the institutions.

The initiative is being funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and will also involve research on the impact of MOOCs.


I have mixed feelings about this. I do want to see it made easier for informal learning to be taken account of, and MOOCs do offer a low-cost way of delivering education. The issue remains though the quality of the learning experience, not the quality of the content and its academic rigor. At the least I hope the process will go beyond looking at content to include assessment and the extent to which students meet assessment requirements. In particular, what kind of knowledge is being assessed?

Second, it looks like MOOCs are being gradually ‘absorbed’ into the formal, credit system. I wonder if eventually we’ll end up back where we started, with online credit courses, but this time funded directly (or indirectly) by students and run by corporations for profit. Massive, yes; online, yes; and yes, open to those who can pay maybe a smaller fee, but with courses and programs driven by the needs of for-profit corporations, and offering a second-rate learning experience. And I hope we will see other kinds of MOOCs surviving that do not merely ape traditional education, but provide a real alternative, especially for adult learners. (Go, cMOOCs!)

At the end of the day, we need to see the business model, and especially how the teaching will be remunerated. (Am I the only one who worries about the ethics of faculty trading on the name of elite and increasingly publicly funded institutions to run a completely independent for-profit operation?) In particular, will MOOCs continue to be dependent on funding from American foundations and venture capitalists? Is this the future for public education (at least in the USA), and is this a model we want in our own countries?

MOOCs have done the easy bit so far spectacularly well: they have delivered online courses to massive numbers at low cost. But let’s remember that this is not new: radio, then television, then satellites all were able to deliver education to massive numbers, but none has survived as a serious form of education, mainly because the ‘on-the-ground’ services were essential but expensive. Now similarly hard questions are starting to be asked of MOOCs.


The challenge of converting MOOCs (or anything else) into college credits

Kolowich, S. (2012) The online pecking order Inside Higher Education, August 2

This article takes a careful and detailed look at different ways that students might convert MOOCs into formal university or college credits, using prior-learning assessment, e-portfolios or competency-based approaches. In the examples given, it’s possible but not easy or cheap. In other cases, it isn’t even possible.


For many, the point of doing a MOOC isn’t to get a university credit in the first place (water’s fine, thank you). For others, the argument is that a MOOC credit, if it comes from an elite institution, is better than a formal qualification from a middle ranking institution, in that it is more likely to impress an employer. This of course is a hypothesis that has yet to be tested, a least on a significantly large scale. But for many current MOOC learners, getting credit from conventional institutions for their MOOC study is irrelevant.

Second, one of the reasons for the success of MOOCs is precisely because currently it is so difficult to get credit for non-conventional learning in most of our universities in particular – or even worse, to be able to transfer credits from one institution to another in the same system. I’ve worked in a university where credit and non-credit students were taking the same courses for a post-graduate certificate online and the same exams, but non-credit students who got the same grades as the credit students weren’t allowed to transfer them into the masters program, because they didn’t have the qualifications needed for graduate school – even though they had demonstrated at least as much learning and knowledge. (Incidentally, this same university threatened to deny a student with a masters degree her Ph.D. after she had successfully defended her thesis because they found out that she did not have a bachelors degree – an error on the university’s part when she was admitted to the program. Only the personal intervention of the VP Academic and a special waiver from a Senate sub-committee prevented this absurdity)

I hope that over time, it will become less costly and easier to get credits for non-credit study, as governments press their institutions for more productivity in the form of less time to graduation.  MOOCs could, with luck, speed up this process, as students demand to know from their state congressman why a Harvard MOOC is not recognized at Hicksville State University.

However, this whole discussion seems to me to be somewhat absurd, being based on a false premise about what should constitute a formal education, namely a banking system where you earn enough credits to pass ‘go.’ We have built a degree qualification system that is now as complex and as questionable as derivatives in banking. The drive for more accountability in the form of standardization of learning outcomes or competency-based learning or recognition of prior learning is likely to make the situation even worse, with admission officers using tape measures and stethoscopes to assess whether a MOOC credit is the same as a continuing education credit from the same institution, and whether it is worth one or two semesters’ study at first or second year for credit programs. We should be measuring output – or even better progress – not input.

Of course we could establish an organization where entry to all programs is open and free, but further progress and qualification requires showing development or progress in learning. We could call it perhaps an open university – or haven’t I heard that term somewhere else?

A degree of open-ness: University of Texas offers online degree completion route

Hamilton, R. (2011) UT System Launches Online Route to Degree Completion The Texas Tribune, December 13

I complained in my retrospective of e-learning for 2011 that some institutions that promote open content are not open to access for students wanting qualifications. Open-ness is not black or white but comes in varying shades. Often even within systems where students have been accepted and are paying full tuition, there are internal barriers to degree completion. I was therefore pleased to see that the University of Texas System is creating a new path to completion through online courses for students who attempted but — for whatever reason — have been unable to finish their college degree.

‘The Finish@UT program, which launched last week, is a selection of UT-System-approved online courses aimed primarily at students between ages 25 and 35 who have already amassed credits toward an undergraduate degree. “Particularly those students who have had various life issues intervene and cannot get to campus on a regular basis,” said Martha Ellis, associate vice chancellor for community college partnerships at the UT System.

Ellis said the primary benefits of the program for students are the flexible scheduling and degree personalization. “We want to know: How can we tailor a degree to get you a quality degree best utilizing the coursework that you’ve taken to date?” she said.’

This is a question that should be asked (and answered) within all post-secondary educational jurisdictions. For too long in North America we have had artificial and arbitrary barriers to degree completion that are the result of institutional autonomy and hubris. Well done Texas!

What can Ontario learn from BC in e-learning?


Toronto waterfront

The central importance of Ontario in Canada

Ontario is, if not the centre of the universe, certainly the centre of Canada, geographically, economically and in terms of size. Its population at over 13 million, is 3.5 times that of British Columbia, and it contributes 38% of Canada’s GDP, compared to British Columbia’s 13%. There is a tendency for Ontarians to see British Columbia, hidden behind the Rockies, perched on the Pacific Rim, and three hours behind Toronto, Canada’s financial capital, as being at the fringe of the country.

We have also seen that Ontario has a thriving post-secondary e-learning environment. It has more online enrollments, courses and programs than any other province. It has a very successful collaboration between the colleges, Ontario Learn, where 22 colleges share over 100 courses. Contact North provides services in rural and remote areas of the province that support the online courses and programs from Ontario universities and colleges.

However, there are still some lessons that Ontario can learn from BC. What Ontario currently lacks is a system view of e-learning, and mechanisms that allow for collaboration and sharing of online content, courses and programs that results in coherent, province wide learning opportunities for students, particularly at a university level. Despite the wide range of online distance courses available from Ontario institutes, no less than 40% of Athabasca University’s students are from Ontario (Athabasca is an Alberta-based distance teaching university).

To address some of these shortcomings, and to push Ontario to the leading edge in online learning, the Ontario government is creating the Ontario Online Institute. It could do worse than to look at the success of BC Campus in developing a system approach.

The success of BC Campus’s Online Program Development Fund

In a blog today, Paul Stacey, who has been the main administrator of BCCampus’s Online Program Development Fund (OPDF), sets out the eight year history of this fund (which comes on an annual basis from the BC provincial government), and its achievements. From this fascinating account, I draw the following conclusions:

1. Setting aside a relatively small amount of money each year to address gaps in the system and to encourage collaboration can have a very big pay-off (amounts have varied year by year, down from $1.5 million in the early years to $750,000 in 2010).

2. Central funding with conditions enables the development of a wide range of sharable open educational resources. All institutions receiving OPDF funding have the option of either a province-wide or Creative Commons license. In other words, once created these materials can be used by any public institution in the province, and increasingly proposals are coming forward to build on such resources.

3. Collaboration between institutions enables students to access a wider range of credentials across the whole province. The OPDF has led to the development of 47 different credentialled programs that are unlikely to have existed without such central funding. All the public sector post-secondary institutions have participated in OPDF funding, and often institutions have partnered with up to 20 other provincial partners. Many partners are not just post-secondary institutions, but school boards, NGOs and from the private sector.

4. Collaborative programming has been helped tremendously by a comprehensive system of pre-agreed credit transfers between institutions through the BC Council on Admissions and Transfer (BCCAT) transfer guide.

It should be noted that these initiatives are all over and above the contributions from individual institutions in BC, which while not having as many online courses and programs as Ontario, nevertheless has an equally flourishing e-learning scene.


‘Provincial’ is a word often used for an attitude that focuses on petty local issues that miss the big picture (my house is nicer/bigger than yours). There is a tendency often to look into the far distance, to countries such as the USA, Australia and the United Kingdom for inspiration, and there is nothing wrong with that. But often what we are looking for is closer to home. I’m not arguing that the Ontario Online Institute should copy or imitate BC Campus. It should take the best ideas from BC Campus and other system-wide initiatives and build something new and even better. However, if something works and has a proven track record – and the BC Campus OPDF certainly has that – it would be foolish not to learn from both its successes and its failures.

I urge everyone  interested in open educational resources, system-wide approaches to online learning, and those wanting to get the best bang for the buck in online learning, to read Paul’s detailed and compelling post: especially policy-makers in Ontario.

Stacey, P. (2011) Evolution of an OER Initiative – An Eight Year Retrospective Musings on the EdTech Frontier, February 28


Vancouver looking north