When top US universities like Stanford, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology offer education programs through massive open online courses (MOOCs), does it really make prestigious education more accessible?
Imagine taking an online course from an Ivy League (that's US speak for 'prestigious') university along with 200,000 others around the world. You would not only go through the same subjects as fee-paying students, but also be able to discuss what you've learnt in forums populated by exponentially more students than your average classroom, all for the price of your bandwidth and time.
A massive open online course (MOOC) is an open access program, which means students do not need to register at an institution or pay an enrolment fee. In many cases, MOOCs provide a community-centric mode of study and assessments are conducted through multiple-choice exams and peer-reviewed assignments. 'Graduates' do not receive official credit towards a qualification, but are free to note their participation in a MOOC on their résumé.
Although MOOCs have been around in various guises for years, the uptake of the model by Ivy League institutions has shifted the concept from the fringe to the mainstream. There's a whiff of goodwill about this: anyone with the equipment and the curiosity and drive to access these courses will get what a fee-paying Ivy League student gets. And yet, there's opposing cynicism that suggests it's yet another gateway for universities to monetise their brand.
Maybe I'm a cynic too, because rarely does an internet audience get something for nothing. "If you are not paying for it, you're not the customer; you're the product being sold," remarked Andrew Lewis on community weblog MetaFilter in 2010 (and repeated since). But I think selling the student audience for advertising is small-minded thinking for a big brand university, and more obviously reeks of 'sell out'.
Instead, a 'freemium' model where the course is free but value-add services become the product would be a logical step. If hundred of thousands of people—people you may be competing with for a job—have a MOOC course on their résumé, then what distinguishes you? Well, if you underwent personalised assessment (paid, of course) through the university and they awarded you a verified score or educational testimonial, then that might swing things your way. Or if the university had a special careers department that could, for a fee, act as a go-between for MOOC 'graduates' and potential employers, I'm sure the prestige factor of having a Harvard advocate would be to your benefit.
The scalability of MOOC also invites a small paywall, which could be lucrative despite the infrastructure required to collect payment. Imagine if the 160,000 students that enrolled in Stanford University's first MOOC each paid $10. That's $1.6 million extra for courseware that has already been developed and paid for through pre-existing resources.
There are bigger ticket items in play too. I suggest that MOOCs will become a gateway for those interested in certain areas of study to trial a lesson and perhaps, if affordable, it may lead to enrolment in a related degree. It is also ideal for former graduates and existing practitioners to brush up on current skills and knowledge.
And consider this: the ubiquity of fake luxury goods in countries like China boosted the sales of real luxury goods. Why? Because the rich want to show that they can afford the real thing. The real thing thus reclaimed its place at the top of prestige charts.
A fake Louis Vuitton handbag is a real bag after all, it holds things and looks nice, just like a MOOC is a piece of education that serves its purpose when it is used correctly in the real world. Who cares where it comes from or whether you took the exam and aced the assessments?
But people buy the real Louis Vuitton handbag because the brand is a guarantee of a certain standard of quality and worksmanship. Students will thus continue to attain their qualifications through reputable institutions because of a 'guaranteed' superior education outcome.
The easier it is to attain a certain item—luxury goods (albeit fakes), Ivy League education via a MOOC—the more prestigious and distinguishing the superior version becomes. So in a world that makes it easier to educate yourself via MOOC, will a qualification increase in stature to become a 'more authentic' kind of education?
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