The six-week Loughborough University MOOC on Innovation and Enterprise ended this week. The final session addressed developing a business plan and helpfully provided learners with an introduction to the key issues in business plan development. However, rather than critique this particular course, a more interesting question is to think about the Futurelearn platform it was built on and consider how it compares with the competing platforms.
The Futurelearn platform is majority owned by the Open University and is still a prototype. Compared to Coursera and Udacity, the leading US for-profit MOOC platforms, the current Futurelearn provides little functionality for students to interact with each other. Learners can post messages on message boards linked to pages, but this triggered little discussion. Several of these were in response to questions set by the educators, but the educators did not engage in the discussions and learners were not receiving feedback on their comments. Pedagocically the hardest part of MOOC design is finding a way to provide feedback at low cost. Getting learners to review each other’s work is the obvious solution, but this still leaves the problem for the educators in determining how they can assure the quality of these co-learner assessments.
The implicit business model behind Futurelearn, as with other MOOC platforms, is that the costs will be funded by getting some completing students to pay for a certificate on finishing the course, in this case £24 for a statement that the Innovation course has been completed. The value of MOOC attainment and completion certificates is unclear and it is likely that only a small proportion of initial enrollers will complete and be willing to pay for a certificate, so commercially viable MOOCS will indeed need to be massive courses to cover their fixed costs.
If the financial viability of MOOCS is doubtful, with numbers enrolling falling as the hype subsides and the market becomes crowded, it might be that the motivation of universities in developing MOOCS is not to end up with financially sustainable open courses, but rather this is an opportunity to develop the processes to deliver high enrolment short-courses, with the expectation that MOOCS will evolve to a higher quality paid-for model. Collaterally, involvement in delivering MOOCS makes universities look more socially responsible and forward-thinking, although the public relations buzz around launching a MOOC has fallen and I am not certain that the quality of the Innovation MOOC has enhanced Loughborough’s reputation too much. But in the longer term it is another step in standardising education and splitting the sector between developers of content and deliverers of content. Strategically leading universities have a clear view of which side of that divide they want to end up on.
The most interesting insight that can be drawn from the explosion of interest in universities in developing MOOCS is that it shows how little universities can predict how technology and competition are going to disrupt their business model of bundled degrees. This model has changed little in a hundred years, but could change radically if higher education becomes unbundled and learners start collecting focused credits like Panini stickers. Salary statistics show the value of having a degree, but if the degree can be unbundled into all of its components where will the value lie and who will profit from it?