The Massive Open University

They were amateurish videos, often black and white, sometimes just a disembodied hand writing simple equations on a blackboard as a quirky voice from off screen gave well practiced short lectures highlighting the essential learning elements.

The pedagogy was revolutionary, university level material freely accessible by vast, unimaginable numbers - set to revolutionize education.

Yes, The Open University was a revelation when I discovered their late night television broadcasts as a callow teen, bored with O-level chemistry. Here was real learning, advanced material presented much better than at school (I had a bit of an issue with our chemistry teacher, we did not have good chemistry).

The Open University is almost 50 years old, it has hundreds of thousands of students, over a million graduates and is one of the largest universities in the world.
It provided cheap access for distance learning, mature students, people looking to get additional qualifications or learn new skills.

When later I got to university, over the holidays we'd see OU students come on campus to get that brief taste of "real university life" - and man did they work hard and party hard!
Many went on to complete their degrees in resident courses, or transfer to other universities, or move on to advanced degrees.

And through it all, enrollment in UK universities skyrocketed.
The OU did not undermine university enrollment or siphon students away from the campuses, it was part of the increase in enrollment and greater access for disadvantaged populations and reentrant students.

I liked the chemistry videos in particular, I still remember many vividly.

In practice I probably assimilated more material from the OU maths videos, though I chafed at the absence of really advanced maths. The physics videos I dismissed with a sneer, baby stuff, I was well past that level already.

Yeah, I've been reading up on MOOCs, just plowed through yet another special edition of the Chronicle, bookmarked more online articles and geared myself for another in-house meeting on the future of general education and role of online and blended learning.

There will be MOOCs.
Some will be good.

They will probably not disrupt higher education.
No more than the book did.
There are 20 million students in higher education just in the US.

There is a persistent pattern that ~ 10% of the students who dabble initially in a MOOC will complete it.
This is consistent with about 10% of students being driven enough to self-educate given access to resources, some skeletal framework and some free time - they don't need much else.
One of the good things about MOOCs is that the 10% who will do this are not always the same 10% who are ready at 18 +/- 1 to go to higher education. Portals for re-entry are generally a good thing.

MOOCs will also serve roles for learning rapidly changing material, your canonical "latest trendy comp sci lite must learn" stuff; MOOCs will leverage post-bachelor professional learning; and MOOCs will let some fraction of students learn the basics and the general stuff, often better than they could in high school or at whatever higher education establishment they had access to. All these are valuable and significant in terms of likely demand volume.
People who do MOOCs are generally very good practiced teachers, and will connect effectively with a good fraction of the students who stick with the course.

I will be surprised if MOOCs replace universities - or even substantially make a dent in enrollments.
I think MOOCs will likely help to increase interest and demand in higher education, in the long run, on average.
"Here, try a MOOC, it is free! You'll like it!"

Further, the current demand for MOOCs is distorted by pent up demand. Even with access to the whole world, the rate of demand for some courses will taper off a bit and reach some steady state.
That is fine. But, administrators will not react well to initial enrollments of 100,000++ plummeting to mere 20-30,000 per offering...

People who think MOOCs will totally disrupt universities generally misunderstand the purpose of university: it is not for job training, mostly, there are some institutes of higher education which focus on vocational training but most universities only do so incidentally or through their professional schools.

This does not mean all will be happy happy as the MOOC fad passes through: the leverage of the MOOCs will lead to some efficiencies that will displace teachers; eventually, hopefully, that efficiency gain will lead to more long term education demand, but the transition may hurt, badly, in places.

Or I could be wrong, and MOOCs could be a totally disruptive force, and the universities are collectively cutting their own throats, leaving us soon with a couple of hundred star lecturers and the few thousand administrators critical to the operation. World wide.
Of course we only need each star lecturer once, then they also will be done.

That will be interesting.

Why Cheaper Computers Lead to Higher Tuition - Steven Pearlstein

Haircuts and the Cost of Time - GOPlifer blog

College Education and Costs Therein - Scalzi

Clay Shirky on Higher Education and the MOOCs - Printculture

My Department and MOOCs - Doc FreeRide

Open Letter From SJSU Philosophy Department on MOOCs

Measuring Baumol and Bowen Effects in Public Research Universities

The Open University has about as many students as the largest institute of higher education in the US, in a country with less than a quarter of the population.


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A single book presents all the information a student will need to understand introductory physics. Such books have been published for years, yet students still pay thousands of dollars to go to universities. One reason: merely reading a book and understanding the content does not give one an entry to a job, or graduate school. Receiving a diploma from a university, certifying that the one has mastered some material, does give one an entry.

In the same way, learning from a MOOC presents all the information one needs in introductory physics -- but does not provide the certification. MOOCs are just another form of books.

If universities begin counting completion of a MOOC -- at no charge -- towards credits which can yield a degree, THEN the game has changed. But if universities provide only a congratulatory E-mail -- "Well done! You passed our class!" -- and no course credit without $$, then MOOCs are no more disruptive than books.

By Michael Richmond (not verified) on 07 May 2013 #permalink

Yup, and I know people - about 10% of university students (ie not 1% and not 100%) who can master SOME courses just from reading a book.
Done it myself when confronted with the Lecturer From Hell.

But I'd still go back to university and I'd recommend to my kids that they go to university.

A root cause of the push for commodization of higher education is the conflict between educated elites understanding the need for an educated workforce and continuing education on the one hand, and the resistance to subsidizing outgroups to compete with the established ingroup.

This is bang on Steinn. I've thought for years that MOOCs are just the O.U. scaled up. There's a lot of chatter about MOOCs, but this really isn't new. Look at the data- the O.U. is great, but it didn't kill Unis.

Unis will change, sure, but they always have. Priest training factories<< perpetuating advantage for wealthy/nobility<< diploma mills to perpetuate advantage for the middle class + revenue generation from central govt. research $$$.

N keeps going up, but that just means diplomas with the right stamp are worth more. R1s can't afford to lend their name to MOOC diplomas because it dilutes the brand value. Generic diplomas are worth less. MOOC diploma worth least.