What are the value of MOOCs? Are they an opportunity or a threat, asks Carolyn Lewis

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) have been around for a while, educating many people for a lot less money than more traditional methods. They provide great opportunities for life-long learning, particularly for those who face barriers to education.

They generally do not lead to a formal qualification, although some institutions do offer credit by exam. But with many courses offering only automated or peer grading, the real objective is to get people to learn, something that must be applauded.

Enrolment is completely open so it’s quick and easy to get started. Most content is provided by the institution, using links to resources already freely available on the web. Content can be varied, but it has been said that some courses rely too heavily on video lectures — not the most engaging way of learning.

Support comes mainly from a student’s peers, with tutors and or mentors online to answer questions. But there is a significantly lower ratio of educators to students, with some quoting 100,000 students to one teacher. MOOCs use a connectivist approach — each student responding with detailed answers to course questions.

Are MOOCs successful? It depends on your perspective. Many students drop out — but as enrolment numbers are often in the hundreds of thousands, it could be argued that even a small success rate is worth celebrating.

How can FE and HE institutions afford to design and develop MOOCs and then share them free?”

For example, about 46 per cent dropped out at the first stage in one Massachusetts Institute of Technology MOOC that had more than 150,000 sign-ups. Around 5 per cent passed the final exam.

Clearly, participants need to be highly motivated and able to learn on their own with little support, which is probably why there appear to be few young adult learners. According to the Cousera website, more than 60 per cent of those taking MOOCs hold postgraduate degrees.

What is their future in the UK? The increasing cost of university tuition and the introduction of student loans for mature learners in FE could make them extremely popular.

But how can our FE and HE institutions, many of them facing funding cuts, afford to design and develop MOOCs and then share them free? It is true that offering something free can lead to further participation in other costed provision, but an initial investment has to be made. Can our universities, colleges and training providers afford to do this?

Caution is needed: we should recognise the challenges and potential impact of MOOCs on our educational organisations. They do offer opportunities, but I’d like to see them supplementing existing face-to-face and online courses, rather than replacing them.

We must not lose sight of the benefits and value of what we already do well. Once it’s gone, it’s difficult to get it back.

Carolyn Lewis, managing director of Vocational Innovation Ltd and eLearning Marketplace Ltd