Moocs are a solution in search of a problem


A common question to start-up founders is: “What problem does this solve?” Massive open online courses (Moocs) are a solution in want of a problem.

That’s not surprising because they did not emerge from a problem. Instead, they arose from the boredom of Stanford University computer science professors fed up with teaching the same lectures each year. Out of idle curiosity, they wanted to see what would happen if they dumped their courses, lectures and all, online for anyone to take.

Two suggested solutions that Moocs may offer is boosting social mobility and democratising knowledge. But while they have been extremely popular, Moocs’ biggest user group has always been graduates, rather than those unserved by traditional degree courses.

Hence, graduates are now defining what the operators of Mooc platforms hope will be the problem they address. The hypothesis is that workers in the 21st century will need to upskill multiple times. No longer will a degree be enough: base knowledge will need to be updated with breadth, and regularly refreshed. Upskilling will occur at the tertiary level, where the jobs of tomorrow lie, with Mooc platforms such as Coursera, edX, Udacity and FutureLearn locking down deals with respected higher education providers with the relevant expertise.

The problem, however, has a problem. To use a classic example, suppose a graduate of Japanese history is in a marketing job but wants to switch careers to become a data scientist. They lack the statistical skills required for a master’s, as well as the time or the money to do it. They might reason that a master’s is overkill anyway for an entry level job and will look online.

Specialisations, nanodegrees and other microcredentials abound for data science. And, in theory, the specificity of Moocs should be a boon, since, unlike generalist degrees, they show exactly what you know. But all Moocs face the same doubt: will any employer take them seriously? Recruiters may not even have heard of the Mooc platform in question, and even if they have, they may not know what it means to say that you have completed X courses of subject Y. That lack of confidence undermines the whole Mooc model.

Providers have a choice of strategies. First, they carry on as usual, churn out Moocs and hope that as certificates populate on CVs and LinkedIn everyone gets to know what they mean; confidence steadily rises and so do paying learners.

The second option is to target businesses. Coursera for Business aims to do just that by directly plugging big corporates into Mooc platforms. This way, employers can learn about Moocs, see which ones are effective for staff and, by extension, be able to better understand a jobseeker with these qualifications on their CV. A variant of this strategy is to get the employers to run the courses – or at least get them to endorse them. This has worked wonders for Udacity, which has hosted courses run by the likes of Google and Facebook – although there is very little data on whether their students are able to get work afterwards.

The third strategic option is to merge Moocs with an academic framework. The new microcredential from edX, the MicroMasters, involves students’ taking a third of a master’s and, if successful, receiving a certificate. They can then apply to do the full master’s at a partner university. The pilot, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology course in supply chain management, saw 200,000 people sign up, 19,000 earn certificates and 800 pay $1,350 (£950) for final assessment – with 40 accepted on to the full master’s.

In a way, the MicroMasters is a sleight of hand. It looks like it is a third of a master’s – which strictly it is – and this confers legitimacy. But it is really just a bundle of Moocs little different from a specialisation or nanodegree; its value as a qualification is realised only if the master’s is.

That may not matter, though, if the problem of trust can be overcome. What Mooc platforms are hoping is that the “Micro” is more important than the “Masters”. If the MicroMasters could gain enough legitimacy, then employers could recognise it, jobseekers could pay for it knowing that it would be recognised, and edX would have a scalable revenue model.

However, a messier, more collaborative approach to the problem may be required. It might need Mooc platforms to work with universities and employers – and possibly even government – to design agreed courses that meet industry needs. Some platforms will shudder at the thought: such things are expensive and time-consuming to establish, and often collapse with a change of government. Even if they succeed, the needs of the UK financial sector may differ from those of the US or Japanese sectors, for example, making qualifications too niche to have global reach.

The additional catch is that Mooc platforms aren’t the only ones chasing this golden goose. Specialist online education companies may lack the credibility of a university, but they can develop deeper relationships with employers and thereby more precisely target what employers want, rather than what academics can teach. This may result in such companies being seen as more credible by recruiters.

But the prize is big: the creation of a new currency of education, in addition to – or perhaps ultimately as a replacement for – the bachelor’s and master’s degree. The winners of this race will get to play a major role in defining how and what we learn in the 21st century.

Author Bio:Chris Fellingham is strategy and research manager at FutureLearn.