The Google Plus logo

Two key learning trends you might have missed this year: MOOCs and OA

It’s the time of year when bloggers reach for that well known standby, the end-of-year roundup. But rather than rehash some headlines you’ve already seen, perhaps it might be more useful to look at a couple of important developments in Higher Education that might conceivably have passed you by, Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and the open access movement.

Though certainly not in the mainstream of L&D preoccupations at the moment, these could turn out to have major significance for the future of organisational learning. And both, in their different ways, went nuclear this year.


Massively Open Online Courses are courses delivered over the web to potentially thousands of students at a time. They’re growing like wildfire. The New York Times called 2012 ‘The Year of the MOOC’, and Clay Shirky has highlighted them as a major disrupter in higher education (Napster, Udacity, and the Academy).

Though egalitarian in spirit and related to the open educational resources (OER) movement (of which more later), this is not exactly a grass-roots phenomenon. Ivy League colleges in the US such as Harvard, Princeton, Yale, MIT and Stanford have led the charge, and elite institutions around the world are piling in on a weekly basis.

MOOCs have been around for a while, but a watershed moment came late in 2011 when over 160,000 people signed up for an ArtificiaI Intelligence course offered by Sebastian Thrun (Google VP and Fellow, part-time Research Professor of Computer Science at Stanford) and Peter Norvig. Thrun went on to launch Udacity and the startling success of his AI lecture encouraged a slew of startups, among them Harvard/MIT’s nonprofit edX, which now has 370,000 students, and the for-profit Coursera founded by Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller (also from Stanford); up to 1.7 million and apparently growing faster than Facebook.

MOOCs don’t currently offer recognised qualifications. However that could change. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is funding a project to evaluate the suitability of courses in MOOCs for academic credit, which could result in qualifications equivalent to a pukka college degree. That’s the dream: a world-class education made available to a huge and globally dispersed mass of people who might never in a thousand years envisage entering Harvard, MIT or Stanford as enrolled students. The developing world energised and transformed by mass availability of free online learning content.

And with all that valuable content up there online and easily accessible, don’t you think businesses and other organisations are going to want their employees to benefit too? You can bet on it.

Threats and opportunities for L&D

By the standards of the corporate e-learning market, the MOOCs we are currently seeing use a fairly simple (if not primitive) instructional model for online learning. Not surprisingly, perhaps, since it is academics who are largely making the running by taking their physical-world classes online. It’s basically lectures plus tests plus books.

However, in focusing on the video lecture as their basic building block, these academic pioneers have digested the lesson of YouTube (not to mention the Khan Academy) and tend to keep the lectures snappy and bite-sized, interspersed by online tests. In some circumstances, lectures are supported by ‘social wraparounds’ like online networking and physical world study groups, though such non-scalable services are not generally supplied by the MOOC provider.

MOOCs currently have extremely high drop-out rates (95% Is not untypical) – much higher than would be tolerated within the organisational context for e-learning, but with a bit of imagination you can see this type of learning resource fitting in with a well-designed learning architecture, where more ‘hand-holding’ and motivational support can be laid on.

Voila, a new source of free (or at least cheap) online content. This has to be good news for L&D professionals.

More worrying, perhaps, for L&D, is the vision offered by Donald Taylor of MOOC resources in competition with workplace learning: ‘In a few years’ time you may be asked to justify your training course against one provided by Harvard, by a local college in Hyderabad and by an online training company in Singapore’.

Whichever of these futures seems the more likely, there are at least two reasons to put MOOCs in your personal SWOT analysis for the near to medium future – either as threat or opportunity.

Open Access (OA)

No content, of course, is entirely free, and the copyright issues raised by MOOCs are knotty ones. Rules of ‘fair use’ designed around small class numbers taught behind ivy-covered walls do not necessarily apply when the course is open to all on the internet and has five-figure enrolments. Licensing deals often have to be struck with the educational publishing houses that own the copyrights, and responsibility for negotiating these deals is tending to devolve to institutional librarians – largely because they have of experience of doing just that. However, the lessons they have learned from those negotiations have often been hard ones.

Librarians tend to be perceived as having got the fuzzy end of the lollipop from publishers in the past, and have been closely involved in a development which seeks to redress the balance. I’m talking about the other disruptive development that has rocked the world of higher education this year – open access journals.

For those who don’t know, learned journals are the default means of scholarly communication in science and the humanities, and a source of highly profitable business for large publishing houses such as Elsevier, Springer and others. For quite a while there have been complaints from the bodies funding scientific research that content they pay academics and researchers to generate is sold back to university libraries by these publishers at prices that have risen consistently above the rate of inflation. Since Elsevier, for instance, is one of the most profitable companies in the world, this situation can be seen as an unfair subsidy to the private sector on the part of non-profits and government – and a barrier to the spread of knowledge.

The clamour has grown as more and more of this publishing has happened digitally, but as with MOOCs, 2012 turned out to be a watershed year, with UK and US governments throwing their weight behind the burgeoning open access movement.

In January 2012 Tim Gowers, a Fields Medal winning mathematician at Cambridge University, stated that he would no longer submit to or review papers for any academic journal published by Elsevier. His protest snowballed and by April, newspapers were referring to an ‘Academic Spring’. At about the same time the Welcome Trust, one of the world’s largest funders of science, weighed in with an announcement of its own open-access publishing platform, and plans to compel the academics it funds to publish in open access journals.

In July the UK government, itself a substantial funder of research, accepted proposals put forward in the Finch Report and said it expected to see a transformation to open access by 2014. The very next day, the European Commission (EC) launched a similar proposal.

Ten years on from the Budapest Open Access Initiative, credited as the first public articulation of the concept of open access, OA is no longer just an idea touted by long-haired academics, but government policy – and the talk is now of an extension of the same idea to cover textbooks … which brings us neatly back to MOOCs, since almost all of them have recommended reading lists.

A MOOC cannot have any mandated reading, since that would represent a barrier to access, but for the same reason some are now beginning to call for all resources used in MOOCs to be open access. Here the same logic is invoked as with journals – that those who have funded the creation of educational resources should not stand by and let publishers erect barriers of cost and copyright protection when it come to disseminating that knowledge as widely as possible for the common good.

The spirit that animates the pioneers of MOOCs is a manifestation of the wider desire to open up education to a world beyond the small minority within developed economies who can currently afford it – a spirit that is leading to a lot of push-back on the power of academic publishers. Could MOOCs be the next battleground for the heated clashes that have been seen this year over open access journals? Are MOOCs, potentially at least, the new Napster?

… And what exactly will be the outcome of all this for workplace learning? Here the blogger might be tempted to serve up that other staple of the season; a numbered list of New Year’s predictions – only this one is not so rash. All that can be said with any certainty is that while the prime intended beneficiaries of MOOCs might be the poor and disenfranchised of the developing world, many types of organisations will surely find ways to benefit from a sudden flood of high-quality, easily accessible learning content made available at low cost or no cost.

At the very least, 2013 looks likely to be an interesting year for Higher Education.