The Impact of Massive Open Online Courses on the University Curriculum

by Marcelo Lazaroni

Andrew Ng, founder of Coursera and lecturer on Machine Learning, one of the best MOOCs I took so far.

Andrew Ng, founder of Coursera and lecturer on Machine Learning, one of the best MOOCs I took so far.


In 2011 the phenomenon of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) emerged with great visibility and promises of access to state-of-the-art knowledge at low cost and in a flexible format. In a society with increasingly higher educational needs, MOOCs seem to provide a solution which disregards financial, geographical and academic requirements, having the student’s willingness to learn as their only prerequisite. Today MOOCs are increasing in size and number, unveiling a new educational paradigm for the time-conscious information era.  As their stark difference with high-cost, comparatively inflexible university education becomes more evident, the question of the future of universities and the effect of this newfound model to their curriculum becomes more pressing.

In my presentation I aim to demonstrate that university education is recognised as being more than solely a collection of modules and that the new horizons presented by MOOCs demonstrate an effective and very efficient model to achieve student engagement and information retention that must not be neglected. I will argue that MOOCs will not replace universities and that the discussions they raise go beyond that of distance versus in presence education, addressing the learning and engagement patterns of a constantly connected generation. The insights provided by MOOCs cannot be ignored and will inevitably permeate the latter’s modus operandi as it in fact already have with certain aspects of these courses such as anytime, anywhere access to courseware already gaining space within UWL, being emulated by tools such as Blackboard, UWL Replay and access to It will be shown that this phenomenon should not be translated into a worry that loosely trained professionals may erode academic relevance, but that the future of academia will not be threatened by these courses, on the contrary, it will be enhanced through the appropriation of their insights. Once more education institutions are called to rethink their methods to best serve society’s needs in both the transmission and furtherance of knowledge.

MOOCs and the University Curriculum

In 2008 Stephen Downes and George Siemens offered the course “Connectivism and Connective Knowledge” online from the University of Manitoba, Canada. They made it available for whoever wanted to take part on it and an incredible number of 2200 people subscribed to the course. (Johnson et al., n.d.). Afterwards, the next notable event was in 2011 when the online version of the “Artificial Intelligence” module from Stanford University had 160,000 students and in the following year “Circuits and Electronics” was offered online openly by the MIT and gathered 155,000 students (Milheim, 2013). These are some early examples of what is now known as Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs. Two teachers of some of those courses, amazed by what happened when they made them available online founded their own companies dedicated to producing these kind of courses in this very specific online format; that is how Coursera and Udacity came to life. After them, Harvard and the MIT formed Edx and the Open University started FutureLearn.

For those who do not know how a MOOC is like, it typically is divided into weeks, each week containing a series of video lectures, reading materials and a multiple choice test. The video lectures usually figure a whiteboard with a hand writing on it and a teacher talking as if he were right at your side. The video pauses some times and asks a question about what was being said, to which every student must answer. This way not only one smart student answers the question but everyone. At the end of the course there is usually a peer-reviewed assignment.

The founders and partners of these companies have then gone out to evangelise about the benefits of MOOCs and the revolution that they were bringing about. The impact of some of those courses was truly impressive. For instance, the first Artificial Intelligence course from Stanford University, which was mentioned before, was completed by 23000 students. This is more than the combination of all other students of this subject area in the world (How free online courses are changing traditional education., 2013). This is because MOOCs are characteristically open; they are free and they do not have strict academic requirements, which means that you can sign up for the course regardless of your background. By being online they also do not place geographical constraints on their students and people from around the world can access them. Additionally, MOOCs have been given by the best Universities in the planet and promise to deliver education of the same level that their students are getting on campus. It is a promise of state-of-the-art knowledge taught by star professors for free.

This makes a stark contrast with UK’s higher education, and actually with post-secondary education almost anywhere, which inevitably have academic requirements for enrolment, a high cost, and place a geographical limitation by requiring students to be there. This may thus raise the question of whether making MOOCs the future of higher education is an offer you can’t refuse. Good education, for anyone, anywhere, for free.

But not so fast. MOOCs also have a series of disadvantages which may or may not be a problem depending on what you expect the MOOC to accomplish. Firstly, because there are so many students, teachers cannot coach them or asses their work. Students having difficulties have to look for help in the course forum and examinations are either peer-assessed or automatically evaluated by a program. This gives room for plagiarism as there is no way to know whether a student really did his work or paid someone else to do it given that no one knows the student. The assessment question is of crucial importance and given that there is no reliable way to assess students, MOOCs cannot provide credit bearing qualifications, only certificates of course completion. Although a solution is being sought, this means that at least for now MOOCs cannot substitute university education.

But assessments are not the only reason for that. Among other disadvantages of MOOCs we see the difficulty to contextualise the content with the students’ environments, the unfeasibility of adequate group work in this online setting, and a great criticism has been their high drop-out rate. In the “Circuits and Electronics” course from MIT mentioned before, for example, only 9,000 out of the 155,000 students completed the course (Milheim, 2013). This, however, must not be mistakenly thought to be so because the course was bad or too difficult; there are many reasons why people take these freely available courses apart from earning a certificate. Actually, interestingly, many people who take these courses already have a degree and may be taking them to refresh their memory or may be interested in sections of the course.

Nonetheless, a critical problem with MOOCs is that they are currently unable to attract a stream of revenue capable of funding themselves or the organisations that make them available. Companies like Coursera, Udacity and EdX are not making money, they are losing a substantial amount of money.

But even losing this money and having these drawbacks these companies are still receiving funding and more and more universities are engaging with the idea and contributing with courses. Why? Because it is being massively adopted and people are really learning. It is hard to tell who were the ones that really learned it and who were the ones that didn’t, but people that apply themselves learn well and enjoy the process because engagement is strong with this one. These courses have gained such great visibility because they are able to capture students’ attention and engage with them in a novel and effective manner.

Now, the novelty of the method is not a product of any new principle or insight into how learning and teaching works. On the contrary, it is the application of known learning paradigms into a technological context. We know what works and what does not work in education already as we have all heard of “active learning,” “peer learning,” “flipping the lecture,” etc. MOOCs are just an online implementation of what works. The reason MOOCs are so popular, however, is not solely its active search for an appropriate implementation of common knowledge about teaching, but its impact is maximised by a passive omission of Higher Education institutions in doing so. Although we know how learning occurs and effective methods to teach, the truth is that academic pedagogy can be not very good and classes can many times amount to a lecturer giving a monologue even though we know that that is not a very effective method to achieve information retention (Vardi, 2012). With MOOCs learning is now more fun and, very importantly, quicker.

Sebastian Thrun, founder of Udacity

Sebastian Thrun, founder of Udacity

This configures a better way to achieve student engagement and knowledge retention. This could only be achieved because of technology. Technology is intrinsically disruptive as it seeks to provide better ways to do things that were already being done before to then achieve new things; thus, its goal is to make things obsolete. One of the reasons some lecturers do not like MOOCs is the fear that they may be made obsolete. And that is a very reasonable fear as resource thirsty institutions may start to offer some modules online to save money, thus hiring less PhDs and making graduate or undergraduate students course advisors (How free online courses are changing traditional education., 2013). So will lecturers be or not be made obsolete, that is the question.

Technology’s solutions have advantages and disadvantages that must be pondered. Soren Kierkegaard, a Danish Philosopher, spoke about a character which he called the ironist, a purely negative character that would not posit anything but only negate. He would undermine the present state of things bringing a crisis to it and out of this crisis, a new paradigm would emerge, establishing itself as the new standard. The ironist, however, had no idea about the new paradigm; he didn’t propose or expect it, he was only aiming at bringing about the crisis, undermining the status quo; he was merely destructive. That is technology. It shows the points of lack and omission in the current educational system, pointing out what is wrong, but do not propose a viable solution; it is now the role of the University to plan a new structure to support these findings. Once a paradigm has been undermined we cannot go back to it anymore, we must face its shortcomings and seek a new model. When technology progresses we cannot ignore it, we must appropriate it, make it ours and progress from that point. There was an epoch when calculations were done by hand by people. When electronic calculators came about there was no point in ignoring it by fear of losing the job, people had to make use of it and improve their roles. Likewise, Universities must not hold on to their current state but embrace this new advance making good use of it.

The time has passed when the retrieval of information was hard, time-consuming and expensive; when the teacher was the sole bearer of the content and of information about where to find the content. Which books should you read, which authors are doing the best work. It is hard to search that through books. You had to go to class and get the most of what you were getting there, because you were not able to get it anywhere else but with your teacher in the classroom. Then the internet came and gave access to content to everyone. Not only during a lecture, at any time; not only at university, anywhere. Information was finally within everyone’s reach, but the internet still didn’t provide the means through which people could assimilate the knowledge contained in this information, that is, it didn’t teach the content that it made available. It is as if you were given loads of parts and told that now you can build this incredible robot, but no one would give you an instructions manual. You had the parts but you could never accomplish building the robot. That is the relevance of MOOCs and the way in which they are revolutionary; they bridge this gap; they introduce an effective way to teach people the content that was made available to them. It can teach at any time, anywhere, teach well and in an engaging manner.

So will they at some point replace universities, then? Well, with great powers comes great responsibilities. Professor Susan Holmes, from Stanford University, said: “I don’t think that Online Courses can give you a Stanford education just as I don’t think that Facebook can give you a social life.” (How free online courses are changing traditional education., 2013).  To answer this questions we must understand that a university education is much more than just a collection of completed modules. More than inculcating knowledge into a student’s head, a university aims to provide a liberal arts education that will form a critically thinking person, someone able to write and express himself well It presents students with a new environment, that of academicism and research. For undergraduates, for example, nowadays it is a pivotal part of their lives that represents the coming out from underneath the parents’ wings and making the first, or final, steps towards independence

It is thus clear that MOOCs although excellent at conveying information cannot emulate the social aspects of Universities. We must see that for universities the impact of MOOCs is not their evacuation due to a stampede to online courses; the impact of MOOCs is the impact of their methodology. And that is the main point of my presentation; that the impact of MOOCs consists of the popularisation of their methodology and what it can accomplish. This is the point where technology was disruptive and undermined the former state of things. It now requires a new teaching paradigm. Why would I have to commute to a place to hear someone soliloquizing live if this could be recorded so I watch it anywhere I want? Why pretend that we still live in a time where there is no other way to convey this information other than telling it to me in person? Now there are good, effective ways to convey information online, sometimes better than in person. Videos intercalated with questions; lectures in pieces of about 10 minutes to avoid loss of attention; courseware available 24hours. The University must embrace and appropriate these methods and understand that they are very good at conveying information but also that this information is not relational. Asking questions, for example, is not good in online learning. Universities must find ways to strengthen the social aspect in classroom time, the interrelations part of learning. To call people into a room to give a one hour monologue is not good enough anymore. Making lectures available online will require classes to be better thought through and lead to better teaching (Rakera Tiree, 2015).

Dr. Ramesh Yerraballi and Professor Jonathan Valvano in a video from the course Embedded Systems - Shape The World, another excelent course,; this one from EdX.

Dr. Ramesh Yerraballi and Professor Jonathan Valvano in a video from the course Embedded Systems – Shape The World, another excelent course,; this one from EdX.

The integration of those technologies is inexorable, as time passes standards grow higher and higher and anything below those standards will sooner or later stop being tolerated. The University of West London is adopting some of those technologies already such as 24 hour access to courseware through Blackboard, access to classes online with UWL Replay and I had one module in which content revision consisted on the completion of courses on Codecademy. Thus this methodology will penetrate through academic teaching and a better use of time will be accomplished with a transference of knowledge that is more effective, having the shortcomings of online education, such as assessments and the social aspect, being supplemented by the university’s physical resources. There is still a lot of room for improvement in the usage of online tools and the format of the classroom. Partnership with companies that offer MOOCs should be considered envisaging to offer additional modules online and thus create a more diverse and diversified curriculum.

It is now responsibility of the University and its lecturers to build a solid way to integrate this fantastic tool into academic teaching, recognising that in a time of continuous improvement, things will never be the same again.

I would like to read some words of Karl Marx on the revolutionising of production, but that fit very well with the evolution of teaching:

Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind. (Marx and Engels, 2005)

As new, more effective and efficient ways of doing things are proposed, the unsettledness of change may corner us into preferring the stability of the good old fashioned way of doing things. But we must not be afraid of change, as it will happen regardless of our fears; and even if we try to ignore them, they will be back.

I would like to end on the note that the issue under discussion must not be misunderstood to be that of distance education versus classroom education. The Open University has shown the feasibility of quality distance education already. It is ranked as one of the top 5 UK universities in student satisfaction and in the latest Research Assessment it was ranked in the top third of UK higher education institutions with 14% of its research as world leading. (“The Open University,” n.d.)

Bibliography and References

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