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Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs): not disruptive yet, but the future looks bright


MOOCs are a fast‑growing trend in the educational landscape. In the short term, MOOCs aren’t a threat to traditional tertiary education providers, and in fact might never be a threat, even in the long term: MOOCs and traditional education might not be a zero‑sum game. People whose primary learning motive is certification or in‑person networking might still pay the higher cost of traditional programs. However, providers of MOOCs are branching into new business models. In addition to the revenue from providing fee‑based platform services to traditional universities, MOOCs are currently collecting modest fees from certification options, as well as from partnerships with employers to provide targeted learning programs, which might become material in the medium term if the enterprise MOOCs market is the first to take off. The US Department of Education’s decision to provide funding based on demonstration of competencies rather than hours spent in the classroom suggests that at least one government is willing to start endorsing non‑traditional education approaches in the face of mounting pressure to do something about the looming student debt crisis.

MOOCs don’t provide the same on‑campus experience and social component as bricks and mortar institutions. However, the percentage of students over the age of 25 is increasing faster than the percentage of students under the age 25 as life‑long learning becomes a requirement for continued employment. These older learners might be less interested in the campus experience that is so appealing to 18‑22 year olds, and might prefer being able to learn on their own time and turf: particularly as the perceived isolation of online learning is mitigated by new social media elements.

MOOCs seem well placed to meet the needs of the next generation of learners, who are increasingly disillusioned with the idea that a degree is necessary for success, more comfortable with multi‑media content delivery, and increasingly averse to student debt. While MOOCs might not be a significant presence in the traditional for‑profit tertiary education market today, colleges and universities need to take the MOOCs threat seriously and learn how to harness it, much like traditional media and music companies have benefited from embracing digital content.

As MOOCs become larger and better credentialed, they could become a disruptive force, especially because of how cross subsidization works in for‑profit tertiary educational institutions today. The current financial model for most high tuition tertiary education is that courses in the first and second year tend to be very large (with thousands of students in a lecture hall listening to a single professor), while third and fourth year classes are very small (less than 50 students). Yet the tuition is the same because the first two years effectively subsidize the cost of the final two years. However, MOOCs seem particularly well suited to replace first and second year classes. If students take those classes through MOOCs, and then transfer into a traditional tertiary school for the final two years, colleges and universities may become almost entirely uneconomical, unless they raise tuition for the later years to reflect their true cost (more or less double the current levels).

One of the key positive aspects of MOOCs is the educational opportunities they provide to those who would otherwise not have access to tertiary education, due to factors such as cost, distance, language, and the need to work. MOOCs can be a game changer in those instances, and in developing nations won’t have the same kind of installed base of incumbent educational institutions to compete with for credentialing status. Also, there is an opportunity in those nations for governments to support MOOCs in the same way public universities are supported in many developed countries.

Middle East perspective

The environment and conditions for MOOCs to develop and gain prominence in the region are certainly in place. We are seeing this unfold already with the warm reception that new AMOOC platforms such as Edraak, Rwaq and Menaversity have received.

However, a series of obstacles in the region need to be overcome if they are to become more significantly disruptive in the longterm. Culturally, the MOOC concept is still relatively new. A wide range of Western universities already provide MOOCs whereas local universities are still in debate or at most in discussion phases. There is also the fear that Western universities could use MOOCs to promote their own content and views at the expense of eroding Arabic content and culture. With top Western brands such as MIT, Harvard and Stanford leading MOOC development and offering their own MOOCs, foreign content could be seen as superior, which could make them further dominant and possibly even overshadow AMOOCs.

In terms of employability, switching careers is also not widely accepted by regional employers, so there is still little career pathway flexibility here. Employers prefer students who are qualified through full time, rather than part-time or online courses. Certification and accreditation is also given more importance rather than actual knowledge and learning131. Such traditional views limit the practical disruptive impact MOOCs can really have as a preparer and facilitator for labor mobility.

Whilst the low-cost aspect of MOOCs is very appealing, their impact on earnings prospects is arguably even more important. Education is not only an investment of money but also of time. For Arab students, the return on their money and time invested in terms of subsequent earnings could be the key factor that will ultimately decide whether MOOC adoption in the region will be wide scale, or simply more limited at a supplementary and interest level.

For MOOCs to fly, they need to be developed and presented in the right way. They must be supported and recognized by local governments, employers, educational institutions and ultimately by Arab students themselves. Coordination is therefore needed between the ministries of labor, higher education and the private sector (sector boards and chambers of commerce) to actively integrate and utilize MOOCs as an enabler of employment. For example, selected MOOCs could be made mandatory for GCC nationals as part of nationalization programs in agreement with the private sector to address skills gaps. Students in turn could be tested by their prospective employers on the MOOCs they have undertaken, to ensure they have actually acquired the skills needed from their MOOCs, rather than passively going through the motions for compliance purposes. Blended MOOC learning alongside traditional instruction can also enable personalization of the learning experience and free up classroom time. Teachers can shift from mass teaching more towards one-to-one tuition, a style which is more suitable for Arab students, who, unlike their explorative American counterparts, want more interaction and direction to know exactly what to do and how to do it.

The need for an accreditation body for MOOCs is also a vital element for its success. Setting up a dedicated accreditation body would provide recognition of the value offered by such courses in addressing structural gaps in skill sets across the workforce. The evolution towards a national credential system, supporting the notion of a “Learning Passport” would enable students across the region to identify occupational competencies and industry competencies in demand and structure their educational choices accordingly. As students move through the workplace, the Learning Passport would serve as a vital reference to document continuing learning efforts of the individual and improve mobility based on industry relevant skills garnered. MOOCs would complement traditional learning courses by helping to address specific skills needed to perform a job in the industry.

So can MOOCs work in the Middle East? The Arab youth have already demonstrated their ability to rapidly adopt new technology. With the right support and recognition, AMOOCs can be the next step in the region’s digital, economic and social development.

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