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Are MOOCs making the education pie bigger?

In her famous article “five myths about MOOCs”, Diana Laurillard argued that “MOOCs won’t solve the problem of expensive undergraduate education”. She referred to “evidence from several universities (that) suggests that well over 60 per cent of those who register for MOOCs already have degrees” and she concluded that “MOOCs do not provide an opportunity to discover how to teach first-time undergraduates successfully in an online format”.

What would Laurillard think of the recent initiative taken by Arizona State University and Edx to offer enough MOOCs so that students can complete their first year of undergraduate studies online at a fraction of the cost for regular on-campus students? In the words of the promoters, “The partnership was established to provide quality higher education opportunities to anyone, anywhere in the world”. Once again, the promise of a quality higher education for anyone was revived. This announcement created the buzz within the “MOOCs community” and generated some very contrasted comments from “Cheap MOOCs for sale” to “promising full college credit”.

Is it all about giving larger access to higher education to a new category of students that would have been excluded otherwise, as Laurillard would like? Or is all about money?

Philip Regier, ASU university dean for educational initiatives, said it all: “The way we’re thinking about it is we’re making the whole pie bigger”. Which pie? And bigger for who?

Europeans may not be used to comparing education to a pie and are not always aware of the huge controversy over higher education costs on the other side of the Atlantic. In the last three years, MOOCs went all the way from being an – almost – philanthropic initiative to continuously looking for new revenues. This is may be just what ASU and EdX are doing: making the whole pie bigger, recruiting students at any cost, selling them certificates against college credits and thus generating new revenues, especially attractive for second tier universities and MOOCs providers – even if, as in the case of EdX, we are still talking of a “not-for-profit” institution (the American way, though).

At least, what the ASU – EdX initiative demonstrates is that another of Laurillard’s myths about MOOCs is falling down: content is not free in education. Charging for certificates and credits just means that online contents have to be curated and that this has a cost.

What is unclear in our example is how contents will be curated. And this is maybe the most preoccupying part of the story. The initiative has been launched but nothing clear is said about the courses’ format, the students’ support and assessment. The only thing we know is that: “the MOOCs will be the same in all essential respects as the variants of the courses taught in person”. A little bit imprecise indeed.

As Europeans we still have a hard time adapting to this pure market vision of “the education pie”.  The EMOOCs conference that is about to start in Mons (Belgium) will hopefully transmit another vision of MOOCs and say “bye bye education pie”.