The online democratization of higher education: do MOOCs work?


MOOCs (massive open online courses) have been with us now for over a decade. The idea that anyone with a high-speed internet connection could participate in a wide array of courses and programs – and even obtain professional certificates or degrees – at no cost or low cost seemed rich with promise.

In recent years, criticisms have inevitably arisen. Completion rates are low. Courses lack academic rigor. Good education is not one-size-fits-all, and online courses lack the personal touch of teachers and professors. Programs remain Western- and English-language focused, and are primarily benefiting those from wealthy countries who already have degrees, over those in the rest of the world.

These concerns need to be taken seriously. But I can’t help but wonder if it’s too early to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater? I am not an educator, but am keenly interested in continuous quality improvement, and it seems to me that these criticisms merely highlight opportunities for improvement. They should not necessarily disqualify the effort entirely.

A group of academics (with admitted conflicts) studied the issue and published their results in the Harvard Business Review in 2015. In discussing the benefits of MOOCs, they concluded that:

….[a]mong all career builders, we find that general career benefits (both tangible and intangible) are more likely to be reported by people with higher socioeconomic status and higher levels of education. The story is different, however, when you look at tangible career benefits specifically. In developed countries, career builders with low socioeconomic status and lower levels of education report tangible career benefits at about the same rate as those with high status and lots of education. And in developing countries, those with lower levels of socioeconomic status and education are significantly more likely to report tangible career benefits.

As one writer noted in the MIT Technology Review, MOOCs may not quite have changed education in the ways early promoters hoped, but they have proved valuable in surprising ways, including the development and uptake on useful interactivity and assessment tools, and a willingness to consider the reinvention of teaching. As well, the data generated by MOOCs can be mined to determine how students respond to the material.

More recently, academics from the Harvard Kennedy School published their study on Georgia Tech’s groundbreaking online M.S. in Computer Science, a low-cost, high-quality collaboration with AT&T and Udacity. They concluded that the program provided opportunities for populations who would not otherwise pursue higher in-person education, such as mid-career students. This suggests that such online programs can serve to grow the pool of qualified individuals, rather than supplant traditional in-person education.

That seems like a start. In spite of some early disappointments, the potential to improve MOOCs to increase accessibility to education and global collaboration still seems enormous to me. But I invite comments from actual educators.

  • The Equality of Opportunity Project, led by Stanford’s Raj Chetty, teaches students how big data can be used to understand and solve key socioeconomic challenges. It introduces students to research in applied economics and social sciences, but does not require prior coursework in economics or statistics.
  • In fact, Stanford offers an entire range of online courses for free through their Stanford Online initiative.
  • EdX is a collaboration led by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
  • Coursera is a for-profit online learning forum offering online courses, degrees and professional certificates from a variety of top educational institutions at affordable prices.
  • And of course, the non-profit Khan Academy, which Sal Khan famously founded over a decade ago when he began giving a cousin YouTube tutorials as a favour, and which has since provided more than 1 billion lessons to students worldwide.
  • MOOC List provides a listing of online courses led by Canadian post-secondary institutions, such as University of British Columbia and University of Toronto.

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