A year or two ago a number of people who wanted to grab a bit of public attention in higher education claimed loudly that MOOCs (‘massive open online courses’) were the future, and that all universities would have to go down this route. One English university vice-chancellor predicted that universities which did not embrace MOOCs would ‘risk being left behind’. Nobody, not even the co-founder of major MOOCs provider Coursera, could say what business model was supposed to under-pin this revolution, and often the rhetoric sounded more like revivalist preaching than educational strategy – but the hype continued to roll and seemed to have the capacity to persuade rational commentators that MOOCs were the future. Not even the really annoying acronym seemed to be able to put people off.
So a couple of years later, what do we see? MOOCs are still around, but thankfully the over-excited breathless rhetoric has calmed down. Thousands of courses were developed, but in most of these the overwhelming majority of students dropped out before completion. Few people now think that MOOCs will turn higher education upside down. Nobody is arguing any more than all universities must offer hundreds of MOOCs or perish. More importantly, most now accept that a university course with thousands of students that generates absolutely no income cannot be the way forward for the system. What we have instead is a growing movement to consider how online learning can be used to improve pedagogy and how online courses can provide a viable income stream.
The obvious way forward of course was to focus on the online aspect of MOOCs, and to be more realistic about student numbers and funding. Some universities (e.g. Georgia Tech) are now charging a tuition fee for such courses, though admittedly the fee is rather lower than for the ‘normal’ on-campus programme. Providers like Coursera are now looking for corporate customers to invest in courses. More generally, the much more reasonable agenda now is to find ways in which the MOOCs experience can support new developments that will bring higher education of good quality to larger audiences and how these participants can be properly supported.
There is no question that online learning will be a major part of the future. It is right to suggest that some disruptive change may improve what universities do. It is reasonable to argue that the traditional model of higher education cannot be the only way to offer teaching and learning. But it is also good not to get carried away by each new bit of hype.