Three Major Benefits, Three Major Challenges and Three New Developments for Canadian Colleges and Universities
MOOCs are back big time. What does their resurgence mean for higher education in Canada?
The MOOC Surge
As the pandemic began to impact people in every corner of the world in 2020, many looked at their time in lockdown as an opportunity to engage in learning.
Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), particularly from the six major MOOC providers — edX, Coursera, Udacity, Udemy, Swayam and FutureLearn — experienced major growth in registrations, especially for programs leading to credentials.
At the end of 2020, these six major providers (there are many more) secured 195 million unique users and were offering more than 167,000 courses between them. They were also offering 66 full degrees and 1,140 micro-credentials. Coursera alone has approximately 13,500 students studying for a specific degree — almost double the number registered in 2019. This includes 3,000 students registered for the University of London’s bachelor in computer science and 1,500 in the Illinois iMBA. Providers anticipate significant growth in degree-based registrations, especially in the caring professions.
In 2020, about 650,000 Canadians registered for a MOOC, with the most popular courses focusing on information technology, business, art and design, health and medicine, languages and personal development.
Micro-credentials represent a significant growth area for MOOC providers. In 2019, these six MOOC providers offered just 540 micro-credentials. They have more than doubled this offering over the past year. They see on-demand upskilling and reskilling linked to key growth areas of national economies as a primary market.
These developments were so successful that Coursera launched on the New York Stock Exchange, raising the market capitalization of the company to $5.9 billion. edX was recently sold to 2U Inc for a reported $800 million. And Udemy is reported to be considering an initial public offering.
But what do these developments likely mean for colleges and universities in Canada?
Three Major Benefits
- Some Canadian universities that offer MOOCs have secured significant new registrations. The University of Alberta’s 12-lesson Indigenous Canada course, which explores Indigenous history and the issues facing Indigenous peoples today, was significant growth in registrations, with more than 39,000 signing up in the first week of June 2021 alone. The University of Toronto launched a “stay-at-home” hub to support alumni and others who wished to study. And a course on Managing Your Mental Health During COVID-19 attracted more than 5,000 learners.
- Canadian universities that partner with edX and other micro-credential MOOC providers have new students enrolled in their own master’s degrees. These include Royal Roads University and Queens University. Specific MOOC courses that transfer directly into graduate degrees point the way as prototypes for modular, stackable and transferable learning.
- Many adults who were not previously engaged in online learning now are. Registrations in MOOCs continue to climb, driven in part by the on-demand nature of many courses, their low cost and also by the offer of a pathway to credentials.
Three Major Challenges
- Especially in terms of pedagogy, MOOC courses with large registrations remain problematic for several reasons. Frequent criticisms include weak connections between instructors and learners and between the learners themselves; a limited range of assessments; a reliance on the “sage on the stage” model and a lack of learner engagement.
- MOOC micro-credentials dominate the global market. There are 1,140 micro-credentials from big-name institutions. With many offered on demand and at a lower cost than similar credentials from Canadian colleges and universities, the MOOC providers will shape the market for these programs and courses.
- As aggregators — organizations that offer programs and courses developed by others — MOOC providers are reshaping our notions of transfer-credit. Most jurisdictions have transfer credit arrangements, but these tend to be cumbersome and do not yet easily encompass global transfer arrangements for MOOCs. As our acceptance of modular, stackable, transcriptable and portable learning evolves, MOOCs will find a new place in every college and university with elective options, core components of diplomas and degrees, accelerated and lower-cost pathways to micro-credentials. Ignoring them is not an option. Partnering is.
Three Major New Developments
With new injections of funds, new players in leadership roles and a maturing MOOC industry sector, we can expect three major new developments:
- There is more available through MOOC platforms, especially an acceleration of micro-credential and degree programs. These produce higher revenues and improve completion rates while meeting specific needs for upskilling and reskilling. Given the focus on helping people who lost jobs during the pandemic, some governments are now looking to MOOCs as a response to their skills development needs.
- More pathway agreements give MOOC students routes into college and university programs. More universities and colleges are developing agreements to integrate MOOCs into their programs, enabling learners to use MOOCs for credit. In Malaysia, there are formal pathways for MOOCs to be used as direct pathways to degrees. As the boundaries between continuing education and for-credit learning blur further, more MOOCs will be accepted for transfer into diploma and degree programs.
- MOOCs are available from new college providers. Currently, MOOC platforms are dominated by courses and programs from universities. As colleges begin to develop on-demand micro-credentials, these will begin to appear on the MOOC platforms. Given the absence of community college programs at this time, colleges could see this development as a major opportunity and start to leverage access to global markets. One could envision many degree’d apprentices securing some of their required learning through MOOCs.
If 2020 and 2021 are the best years yet for MOOCs, we can expect to see more innovation and development in the future.