Do MOOCs help you get to university?

MOOCs in universities and companies - is this what the future of learning looks like?

The 02/18 issue of the Verdi and IG Metall online magazine is dedicated to the topic of "(Professional) learning in digital times". In this context, Jörn Loviscach presents the format of the MOOCs, analyzes the current market of the MOOC platforms and assesses the added value of the online courses. The article first appeared in the online magazine "Think about it" under this link.

Anyone can study for free, from anywhere and at any time with and with the best in the world - with this promise, the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) started around 2012. Since then, successes and failures have made it clear what remains of this promise in professional reality.

A tsunami that will sweep through the university landscape - with this term John L. Hennessy, at the time the President of Stanford University, hit exactly in 2012 what practically everyone expected from him in Silicon Valley just outside San Francisco: "Massive open online courses" (MOOCs, pronounced "muhks") will revolutionize the education system that is considered sluggish and overpriced.

Electronic courses for the world

Characteristic of MOOCs: massive participants Image: [ Dmitry Bayer] Anyone who has already taken further training on the web has a good idea of ​​how a MOOC is from the point of view of the Learner looks: The main components are slide presentations, test tasks, discussion forums, maybe also discussions via video conference and final exams - all via the Internet. If the focus is on more prepared materials, one speaks of an xMOOC. If the focus is more on discussion and collaborative work, it is a cMOOC. The "x" comes from the "extension classes", the evening courses at universities; the “c” comes from the first such MOOC for “connectivist learning”, learning through networking.

The term “MOOC” is not clearly defined, but some criteria can be defined: It is about a course, that is, more than a lecture, but less than a course of study, more like a lecture over a semester. “Online” is intended to mean that the course takes place entirely or in large part on the Internet. The number of participants should be “massive”. There have already been courses with several hundred thousand registrations. Even with a few hundred registrations, some speak of “massive”; then a classic introductory lecture in business administration would also be massive.

The word “open”, for which the first “O” in the abbreviation “MOOC” stands, is even more diffuse. The course is "open" to everyone who wants to register, regardless of age, educational qualification and origin (unless an embargo applies, such as that of the USA against Cuba and Iran). When it comes to MOOCs, “open” usually also means “free” - at least in the basic version (more on the details below). The “open” of MOOCs is usually not understood as “open” in the sense of “open teaching / learning materials” (OER): For example, the videos and quizzes of a MOOC are typically only allowed to be used personally and not disseminated.

The implementation of “anytime” is restricted in two ways: Firstly, licensed MOOCs often disappear from the network again. Second, most MOOCs expire in a timed manner, with a specified start and end date. Often the materials are only activated during the course. This reduces the independence of time, but helps against procrastination, ensures focus in the discussion forums and other joint work and brings about a higher level of public awareness. Many courses are initially open to free editing after graduation. Some very popular, non-paced courses also experiment with automatic cohorts: each participant is assigned a group of others who started at the same time.

Mediator of education

Immediately in the early days of the MOOCs it became clear: Producing the course materials and reaching and managing tens to hundreds of thousands of participants requires organizational and technical support as well as massive marketing. This is how the institution or the business model “MOOC platform” emerged - the platforms Coursera and Udacity from the sphere of Stanford University, the platform edX from the sphere of MIT and Harvard University.

In the German-speaking area, mooin [vii] (from the Lübeck University of Applied Sciences), iMooX (from TU and University of Graz) and openHPI (from the Hasso Plattner Institute Potsdam) are currently most visible. After its bankruptcy in 2016, the university-independent platform iversity announced that it would focus on offers for companies. The Hamburg Open Online University (HOOU) is currently showing rather small-scale offers as a "beta version".

In the European context, the platform "European Multiple MOOC Aggregator" (EMMA) should be mentioned, but above all the activities of the European distance education association EADTU: OpenupEd as a comprehensive pool of offers and the European MOOC Consortium as a specific association of platforms.

Find a market

Business model: the certificate of completion is not & quot; open & quot ;. Image: [ Rolands Zilvinskis]

The free courses for hundreds of thousands of people caused media hype at the beginning, but the commercial MOOC platforms such as Coursera and Udacity have not yet generated any income. For Coursera, which mainly offers courses produced by universities at their expense, this did not become a problem as quickly as it did for Udacity with its mostly self-produced courses. And so various business models were tried out and often rejected again.

One of the first ideas was to place the best participants in companies - for a fee from the companies. This seems to have fizzled out over time. The second idea has persisted: You can attend the course free of charge, but an electronically acquired certificate costs money. This is now also available as a subscription model and with tutorial (remote) support and tasks that are viewed by people.

Udacity pioneered not only university lecturers, but also companies such as Google or Autodesk to organize courses. Coursera has followed suit with other courses, also from Google. Even on the formally "non-commercial" platform edX you can now find not only the world's elite universities, but also Amazon Web Services and Microsoft. In Germany, the company SAP (whose co-founder and current chairman of the supervisory board is the namesake and initiator of the Hasso Plattner Institute) operates a clone of the openHPI platform with openSAP - with courses on development with SAP business software.

As free offers, the MOOCs also serve to guide people to chargeable courses on the same platform, not only with the US providers, but also with the mooin parent company oncampus. The Udemy platform (not to be confused with Udacity) has specialized in making everyone a teacher of a course they have designed themselves, which is then marketed for a price of, for example, 20 euros or can be accessed free of charge.

Distance universities of the 21st century

All three major US platforms offer combinations of courses - as “Specialization”, “Nanodegree” or “XSeries”. Coursera and Udacity have also entered the business with full degree programs: Coursera with master’s programs in computer science or accounting for fees of around 20,000 to 30,000 US dollars, recently also with a bachelor’s program in computer science for 10,000 to 17,000 British pounds, Udacity with the Computer Science Masters from the prestigious Georgia Tech for about $ 7,000. The telecommunications giant AT&T is on board as a partner in the latter, and many participants come from its workforce. Of course, these courses offered by Coursera and Udacity require a corresponding (university) school qualification, so they are neither financially nor in terms of the requirements "open", but use the technology of the MOOC platforms and benefit from the neighboring MOOCs in terms of marketing.

At the beginning of the MOOC era, universities were careful not to dilute the value of their traditional degrees by confusing them with MOOC degrees. This attitude is gradually crumbling. Even MIT offers larger parts of courses as “MicroMaster Credentials” online at relatively low prices. Here, perhaps, it could really prove to be true that the MOOCs bring a break in the high US tuition fees - even if supervision and certificate cost money, but significantly less than usual.

In Europe, the MOOC platforms are developing much more slowly in the direction of formally recognized distance learning universities: There is much less pressure from high tuition fees elsewhere. For example, iversity had pursued a business model of offering exams for its MOOCs at the organizing universities against payment, with accredited ECTS credit points and thus creditable in many courses. Obviously, this model did not pay off.

German universities must also examine and recognize “knowledge and skills acquired outside of higher education”. This way of using MOOCs in a traditional course of study seems to be very seldom taken by students so far - perhaps out of fear of dissent with their local examination board.

Since 2015, pressure to recognize achievements in MOOCs on regular study programs has come from a completely different direction: The German company Kiron Open Higher Education, funded with several million euros in project funds from the Federal Ministry of Education and Research and private foundations, wants to use online courses to attract refugees bring German universities.

Topics for millions

The topics on which MOOCs are organized is decided with a clear view of maximum impact: The picture is determined by specific tasks in software development - in particular practical introductions to artificial intelligence -, topics from the first semester of study, purely practical about office programs, a lot of popular science and - especially in the form of cMOOCs - courses on educational issues.

A lot can be thematically implemented, but the area of ​​software development dominates. Image: []

The lists of course topics read like a wild mix of an elite university course directory for first-year students and the course catalog of the local adult education center. With some justification, one could also refer to open math bridging courses such as VE & MINT as MOOCs. And the Lübeck platform mooin deserves the credit for dealing with topics such as “volleyball trainers” (more than 2100 registrations) and “eroticism” (around 70 registrations).

Programming and accounting exercises are relatively easy to do on the Internet. In electrical engineering, a circuit simulator helps on edX, with which you can at least test your handicrafts virtually. When it comes to topics such as mechanics or chemistry, the platforms are (still?) Well behind a real test internship in the laboratory. Discussions and collaboration are in any case tougher - albeit more flexible - online than face-to-face.

The production effort that is driven differs drastically from platform to platform, but also from MOOC to MOOC. Cheapest productions consist of videos of slides read word for word. It is common to have largely videos in which annotations are written on PowerPoint slides or in which the material is developed on the screen in handwriting like on a blackboard. Some courses, on the other hand, strive for the polished look one is used to from television, at production costs of several 100,000 euros.

Shows of the universities

At the beginning, competition for the MOOCs had largely subsided. Coursera and edX in particular knew how to present themselves as indispensable to the world's elite universities: every world-class institution must be there, so the message, otherwise it will be a thing of the past. The platforms have not only collected massive amounts of money from the universities for their participation, but also created a pull that in the end hardly anyone was able to resist. Even the ETH Zurich and the University of Oxford ended up on edX after a long hesitation, the University of Cambridge on the British platform FutureLearn.

Just as every self-respecting university had to be part of it in the beginning, there was also a race of teachers to be part of this game. This race has led to too many courses being produced far too cheaply: Professors and, above all, their employees have worked unpaid extra shifts to reach the masses - but also to get a bit of the media hype.

The MOOC production is an "expensive signal": Just as the peacock with its non-functional, huge, colorful feather tail shows the female how healthy it is, a university with an elaborate MOOC production shows that it can easily afford it, more than to take care of the local students - free of charge.

Universities like to adorn themselves with expensive MOOC productions. Image: [ Ash Edmonds]

Self-discipline and more is required

There are similar signal phenomena on the part of the participants: if you have a dozen MOOCs with a certificate, you may be demonstrating ability to an employer, but in any case iron self-discipline - and language skills, because the selection of German-language MOOCs is manageable. There are currently only three German-language courses on Coursera and only two on edX. The range of really academic subjects on the German-language MOOC platforms is also manageable.

The majority of the registered participants only take a look at the course a few times. Often only a few percent make it to the final certificate. For a popular course on one of the US platforms, a few percent of several hundred thousand people is still a multiple of the audience for a large traditional lecture. In the case of a German-language course with 500 registrations, however, one begins to doubt its efficiency in view of such numbers.

As early as 2013, an experiment caused disillusionment: students at San Jose State University and high school students were asked to alleviate their math deficits with the help of the math MOOCs from Udacity and online tutors. The result was significantly worse than in the previous traditional courses - a first example of the fact that the so-called Matthew effect (named after a passage from the Gospel of Matthew) also occurs in the MOOCs, as it is generally known in sociology: “For whoever has will be given, and he will have abundance; But if you don't have what you have, what you have will be taken away. ”For example, a study on edX showed that around a third of the participants are or have been teaching. Around three quarters already have at least a bachelor's degree.

Above all, self-discipline is required for the successful completion of online courses. Image: [ Val Vesa]

Opportunities for working people

Overall, the picture is ambiguous: MOOCs in principle give everyone access to higher or basic education, depending on the topic. A recognized certificate is usually chargeable - albeit often cheaper than with traditional providers. Support and advice are typically also paid for. A good knowledge of English is very helpful, perfect self-organization is a must.

Before entering or re-entering professional life, MOOCs help to get up to date with the current state of an area or to reorientate yourself. Employers will not only appreciate the proven knowledge of certificates in the application portfolio, but also read the perseverance and conscientiousness between the lines.

MOOCs are also suitable for further education or training parallel to professional activity. Perhaps there is also an opportunity here to form local working groups of like-minded people with whom you can work on courses together, if possible with credit towards the working hours. Very large companies, but perhaps also corporate associations or trade unions, could offer their own MOOCs, such as Google, Microsoft and SAP already do.

MOOCs offer opportunities for working people - and could be completed in a team. Picture: [ Annie Spratt]

Unclear effects on the world of work

However, due to the low-threshold availability of MOOCs (compared to the more lengthy traditional courses of study) there is a risk that educational efforts will become independent and get out of hand. Certificates are already being collected today so that the application letter looks better. The more MOOC certificates you can enclose, the more personal commitment, self-organization, language skills and the like are evidenced by the application in the form of “expensive signals”. This could degenerate into an arms race that costs individuals a great deal of time and money.

The effect of MOOCs on society is currently by no means as dramatic as many predicted in 2012, but the MOOCs fit into a picture of a virtualized and precarious working world:

  • Education and training are being privatized, taking place outside of working hours at personal expense. The more this possibility is used, the more it becomes a de facto compulsion to get or keep a job. The hurdle to do this was significantly higher with the previous offers.
  • Participants are in a global and faceless competition for the top positions that promise a job. In doing so, they willingly reveal data, for example about how often they answer which question incorrectly.
  • The boss is an algorithm.

MOOCs are a further piece of the mosaic alongside digital daily wage work in the form of crowdworking (work is distributed in small pieces via the Internet) and in the form of the so-called "sharing economy", such as the placement of drivers through Uber or accommodation through Airbnb shows.

Seen as part of crowdworking, MOOCs can also come under pressure. Image: [ Crystal Kwok] Instead of “daily wages”, the term “minute wages” might be more appropriate on the Internet: It brings flexibility for users, perhaps also for some providers, but destabilized today's society. The insecure startups with hyper-motivated work for the corporate vision also fit into this picture.

And not only the MOOCs can degenerate into self-exploitation, with which one wants to attract the attention of potential employers: At "hackathons" - often organized by companies - software is developed under high pressure over days and nights. Everyone can compete against the world in programming competitions, the perfect assessment center from a company perspective. The contributions that you have made (in your free time?) To the development of open software are now a natural part of the application.

The learning of the future

Every now and then children or young people from developing countries who have passed MOOCs with flying colors are presented to the world public. Nevertheless, MOOCs do not represent a path for the broader population, at least at the moment: The first digital divide consists in the fact that many people do not have sufficient technical access to the network. The second digital divide is that many people - despite technical access - do not use the network productively.

For individuals and individuals with the right prerequisites, MOOCs are an opportunity. However, one must keep an eye on the effects on the world of work and society. It seems strange that MOOCs emphasize formal learning with a certificate of completion, because there are enough materials and forms of discussion available online - informally, without registering for courses. Why should employers prefer applicants who take courses rather than study independently without a given course? This is also an indication that the signaling effect of MOOC certificates can gain weight over the content.