MOOCs and the potential for unbundled higher education provision

One of the catalysts that inspired this research project is the seemingly disruptive influence of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) on Higher Education provision and the potential for ‘unbundling’ that MOOCs offer. Globally there is an increasing demand for Higher Education, and MOOCs, which offer a form of flexible educational provision at scale, have been labelled as having the potential to transform Higher Education particularly as they evolve into different forms of provision such as being offered as accredited courses or  involving organisations other than universities. The New York Times declared 2012 as ‘The Year of the MOOC’ (1) and Anant Agarwal, president of the MOOC platform edX said ‘I like to call this the year of disruption and the year is not over yet’ (2). MOOCs were hyped as the means to reach those students who could not afford a traditional route to education, particularly Higher Education.

Evolution of the MOOC landscape

There are many reasons why Higher Education Institutions have become involved in developing and offering MOOCs: as a business opportunity to expand their market potential; to raise awareness of an institution’s research and teaching excellence and broaden the brand globally; to entice students through a free course to a more formal paying course; to widen access to those unable to pay or attend face to face; and for some, simply to not miss out on offering this new form of provision. As John Mitchell, the vice-provost at Stanford responsible for online learning stated: ‘I think everyone agrees there’s something very exciting going on here. So how do we as a university participate in that?’ (3)

Some five years on from ‘The Year of the MOOC’ hype, have MOOCs had their day? After the headlines of 2012, there are more critical and nuanced interpretations of the impact of MOOCs and their purported disruptive potential. Completion rates remain extremely low, although whether completion rates should be a measure of success is debatable considering the low barrier to enrolment, requiring just a click, and the wide-ranging motivations for enrolment amongst MOOC learners. Nevertheless, MOOC participants on the major platforms, Coursera, edX, Udacity and FutureLearn, tend to be predominantly the middle class and middle-aged educated elite, who have already passed through university; some 75% of learners enrolled on the FutureLearn platform have a degree. It is unlikely that such MOOC learners will enrol in a formal university degree having done the MOOC. The contention that MOOCs benefit the  ‘haves’ rather than the ‘have nots’ has some truth, but it is worth considering other impacts of MOOCs in the Higher Education space, especially as universities and other organisations continue to produce MOOCs in large numbers.

MOOCs have contributed to the global discussion on teaching and learning provision, and research and evaluation of MOOC participants has yielded interesting insights into who is accessing this form of open learning, how it can be structured and delivered, and whether education should and could be ‘open’, meaning ’free’ or low-cost. MOOCs are widening the reach of universities, which are broadening their horizons geographically to reach a global audience and a new demographic – an older, educated, working or retired audience that are accessing MOOCs for professional or lifelong learning purposes. These learners might not need to obtain a degree, but they are interested in lifelong learning and CPD (continuing professional development), and universities and MOOC platforms have responded to these insights with new services and products that take aspects of MOOCs and re-imagine new forms that might  be considered ‘unbundled’.

In August 2016 Coursera launched ‘Coursera for Business’ to provide professional development courses. Udacity has a strong focus on training for industry with its ‘Udacity for Business’ section with the tagline ‘Take your workforce and your company into the future’, and its nanodegees, defined by Buzzword as “a course of study which is much shorter than a university course and focuses on the skills you need for a job, especially computer-related skills” (4). For example ‘Learning to code’ is a nanodegree taken over 5 months at a cost of $399 or $99 a month. Other platforms have developed their business models: for example, FutureLearn has recently launched a paid-for option – an upgrade – to enable unlimited access to the MOOC materials rather than for only two weeks after the course has ended, something that was previously free, even while the certificate was available for a fee. In the name of ‘giving the learner what they want’, FutureLearn has packaged this with the certification, while “credit-bearing MOOCs” have a higher fee if the learner wants to earn those credits. For example the Environmental Challenge program of five courses from the University of Leeds, UK, provides 4 stages to gaining an award. 1. Complete all courses, 2. Buy certificates (@£59 per upgrade= £295), 3. Pass a final assessment (£200), and 4. Earn an award. A learner can take some or all of the five courses and pay no fee if they don’t want to earn credits or have unlimited access to the course materials. As these examples and others show, MOOCs as provided on the major platforms appear to becoming less ‘free’ as the platforms are experimenting with where to place the paywall, and this does affect the ability to provide access for those who cannot afford traditional higher education. This particularly affects participants in developing world contexts, for whom relative incomes, exchange rates and lack of credit card ownership provide barriers to purchasing the paid-for elements of courses (although Coursera continues to maintain a Financial Aid option, which is predominantly used by developing world learners).

MOOCs and developing world contexts

When this research proposal was developed just over a year ago, the University of Cape Town was the only African University to have partnerships with the main MOOC platforms (Stellenbosch and Wits have since begun such partnerships). Partnerships with the main platforms have yet to gain a foothold on the continent generally although a number of African MOOCs are offered outside of the main platforms. The MOOC approach is being used in developing countries to provide education at a lower cost. For example, Kepler, although of US origin, is a non-profit Higher Education program that operates a university campus in Kigali, Rwanda, and has integrated MOOCs into its offerings (5).

Sanzgiri’s work on MOOCs in India focuses on MOOCs provided by NPTEL (National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning), which can be used by learners to provide up to 20% of degree credit. The demographic of Indian learners on NPTEL MOOCs compared to Indian learners on FutureLearn MOOCs is much younger and less educated, precisely because they are using the MOOCs as part of their formal education. They might well prefer NPTEL MOOCs because the certificates are £8, whilst still very expensive for most Indian learners, is very much cheaper than FutureLearn certificates. (6)

Outside of the offerings of the major MOOC platforms, the MOOC approach is being adopted and adapted in many developing countries to provide more affordable and locally-focused provision. A key focus of this research project is to uncover whether and how these digital ‘solutions’ can widen access and inform new forms of educational provision, and reach those students who would otherwise have been excluded from Higher Education due to rising fees or personal circumstances, and whether that early hype that they could be the means to reach those students who could not afford a traditional route to education, particularly Higher Education has materialised. In looking at both South Africa and England, these two very different contexts provide useful insights into the relationship between MOOCs as a form of digital provision and changing Higher Education offerings.

  3. In Daniel, J. (2012). “Making sense of MOOCs: Musings in a maze of myth, paradox and possibility.” Journal of Interactive Media in Education, 3. Available at:
  6. Sanzgiri, J. 2017. A Comparative Study of Indian Learners in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Presentation at FutureLearn Academic Network, Open University 16th June 2017.