Skip to main content
janice mulholland

Online learning is by no means a new phenomenon. Models for distance learning and open access education predate even the digital age, but MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses) platforms are captivating the attention of millions of learners around the world and of institutions who don't want to miss out on 'the next big thing.' These digital platforms allow huge numbers of students to access learning opportunities for free from some of the world's best colleges and universities. At a time when rising costs are seen as one of the largest barriers to higher education, MOOCs are a welcome addition and are seen to be opening doors otherwise unavailable. And the space is constantly expanding. Just in the last few weeks, a new MOOC called Futurelearn was launched in the U.K. and EdX announced a partnership with Google to expand their platform.

Involving masses of students around the world, one could argue that MOOCs are the greatest social innovation in higher education of this century. A social innovation refers to new strategies, concepts, ideas and organizations that meet social needs. The social need can be defined as access to education, whether for personal, societal or economic advancement.

Numerous studies show that access to a higher education is a vehicle for economic and social progress. With hundreds of colleges and universities opening their doors to offer free online courses to anyone with an Internet connection, it is difficult to imagine that the future of higher education will not be impacted by the opportunities offered by this digital technology to reach students in every corner of the world.

Before you jump on the MOOC bandwagon, some questions

Canada needs an online education strategy

The best technology is the one you already have

Move along, little is new about what MOOCs have to offer

But is the impact of MOOCs on college and university access real? While the popular belief is that MOOCs are opening access to learners around the world, and there is anecdotal evidence to support this, initial data shows that the largest concentration of those enrolled are English-speakers in developed countries. Also, according to data released by Coursera in May 2013, a majority of people taking Coursera courses already have a college degree.

So, early figures would suggest that MOOCs are not having the global impact on access envisaged. However, there is more work to be done and a lot of questions still need to be answered.

Much debate is ongoing around the learning value of MOOC courses and whether academic credit should be offered. The outcome of this debate will undoubtedly have an impact. Strides are being made to support the academic value of MOOC courses with the ACE College Credit Recommendation Service and degree programmes including MOOC courses either in part or full, such as Antioch University's blended Bachelor's degree or the Georgia Tech Master's in Computer Science.

People everywhere are looking for more affordable approaches to higher education and lifelong learning. MOOCs are seen as an answer. To some extent this is resulting in the unbundling of higher education. In fact, one man is attempting to complete a one year BA entirely through free online resources.

These digital platforms are giving hope for a higher education to millions around the world in a way that previous technologies have not allowed. Students' expectations are changing. Institutions are responding. Future models of learning will likely be a blend of traditional and innovative, or 'brick and click.' Once these keys are fully unlocked, the impact of MOOCs on higher education access globally will be exponential. In that way, MOOCs could even be seen as a social movement.

What do you think – are MOOCs over-hyped or will they become one of the greatest social innovations in higher education?

Janice Mulholland is an Education Manager for the British Council. Based in Washington DC, Janice oversees the British Council's Education work in the United States. She is also a contributor on higher education issues for the British Council's Voices blog.