Who benefits from MOOCs?   no comments

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My proposed title for this assignment is ‘Who benefits from MOOCs?’. These ‘Massive Online Open Courses’ have been in the ed/tech news quite a lot recently, and the University of Southampton has also got involved by joining the Open University’s collaborative Future Learn project with a number of other UK universities. Actually, the phenomenon first appeared back in 2008 at a university in a Canada, but in quite a different form to the more well-known courses promoted in some high-profile American universities.

Whatever their (fairly brief) history, these courses have aroused considerable interest in universities, the media, and investors, perhaps because of the number of potential participants (for ‘participants’ read ‘punters’?). Some courses, it seems, have indeed attracted large cohorts of students – an MIT course in electronics registered 155,000 learners last year, though far fewer (around 7,000) actually successfully completed it (Daniel, 2012).

But what can students (whether they complete or not) take away from their experience? Hopefully they learn some interesting things along the way, and possibly make some useful connections with like-minded individuals. However, for those that complete such courses, obtaining certification or formal recognition of achievement is problematic in a number of ways. It is difficult for institutions to ensure the integrity of tests results, and few universities recognise completion of MOOCs in terms of academic credit.

What’s more, designing and implementing online courses is not cheap, quick or easy (even though many optimistic departmental managers seem to imagine that a simple ‘cut and paste’ job on existing face-to-face course materials will do the trick). A key feature of MOOCs is their second ‘o’ for ‘open’ (which entails, according to most commentators, free). To provide meaningful, effective and attractive online courses is not simple (hence Les’ efforts to tap our ideas in recent FoWS lessons?) and yet universities will presumably need to justify the substantial use of resources for their construction.

So, if the completion of a MOOC has questionable value to a student facing university admissions departments or prospective employers, and universities themselves have to invest in their development, but give them away for free, who benefits from MOOCs?

I’d like to approach this question using ideas from economics and philosophy:


Although economics is often associated with the allocation of resources in business and private enterprise, public goods such as education are significant factors in the models which economists use to understand societies, economies and human activities within them. However, phenomena such as MOOCs constitute a fairly radical shift in the way education might be conducted and delivered (free to users, huge potential cohorts, geographically unconstrained, difficult to certify). This shift raises a number of questions:

  • How do these new courses challenge our understanding of supply and demand in higher education?
  • Knowledge is “a public good par excellence” (Gupta, 2007), but who should provide the resources to enable such massive and open access to knowledge?
  • How might a ‘social cost-benefit analysis’ of MOOCs be effectively conducted in terms of a student cohort which is geographically dispersed across national boundaries?
  • In what other ways might the potential economic benefits (or drawbacks) of MOOCs be analysed?


From the range of sub-fields included within this discipline, I think epistemology and existentialism may provide interesting ways in which to analyse my research question. Epistemology deals with defining knowledge and attempting to understand the ways in which humans can acquire it. It might be interesting to look at the ways in which people perceive and value knowledge which is given away for ‘free’ by universities, as these institutions have previously put conditions and restrictions on student access to the knowledge which universities possess. This idea relates to an important concern in epistemology, namely the sources of knowledge.

From my brief survey of some basic literature, it seems that there is little consensus on a precise definition of existentialism. However, its fundamental concern with the individual, free will, and the individual’s responsibility for their own actions and the consequences of them may have relevance to this subject. It might be interesting to explore an existentialist view on the ways in which individuals can benefit from participation in MOOCs regardless of the (lack of) incentive of accreditation for their achievements – an existentialist might argue that it is enough to participate in such courses sincerely and with passion.

The lack of value placed on participation in or completion of a MOOC (by universities/employers/society more widely) could be seen to be in line with the existentialists’ view of the external world’s ‘indifference’ to individuals – though this does not, for them, necessarily entail any disincentive for an individual to continue striving within an indifferent world.


Daniel, J. (2012) Making Sense of MOOCs: Musings in a Maze of Myth, Paradox and Possibility. JIME. 18 pp. 1-20 Available from: http://www-jime.open.ac.uk/jime/issue/view/Perspective-MOOCs [Accessed 12 Oct 2013]

Gupta, D. (2007) Economics – a very short introduction. Oxford: OUP

Temple, C. (2002-2013) Existentialism. Philosophy Index. Available from: http://www.philosophy-index.com/existentialism/ [Accessed 11 Oct 2013]

Temple, C. (2002-2013) Epistemology. Philosophy Index. Available from: http://www.philosophy-index.com/philosophy/epistemology.php [Accessed 11 Oct 2013]

Written by Steven White on October 14th, 2013

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