MOOCs – a revolution in education or just an instrument for promotion? (Part 1)

Written by Ljupcho Gjavochanov



The year is 2020, and you are in front of your computer, searching for a master’s program. There is an advertisement on your top choice university’s Web page about a MOOC postgraduate program that the university is offering, and which is of a particular interest to you. After getting all the information needed, you decide to apply through their MOOC online platform. Finally, you can get the opportunity to earn a degree in just a few months, taking all the classes and exams through the internet, from your home!





Sounds unbelievable? Well, it depends on your viewpoint. MOOCs or Massive Open Online Courses are either the future of education or just a marketing tactic used by universities. One thing is for certain: “they are the BUZZ of the moment in the education sector and universities across the world are falling over themselves to be with the trend” (Funnell, 2013).  

The purpose of this paper is to provide an answer to this dilemma by analyzing the universities as brands, which are using MOOCs as a product to recruit international students, understand global demand for online learning, and form competitor strategies to compete on a global stage (Australian Government, 2014). But let us start from the beginning.

MOOCs 1.0

The initial form of the MOOC trend was introduced in 2002/2003 as Open Educational Resources (OER), developed as digital university materials (lecture videos, e-books) and available free of charge (Falconer et al, 2013). However, the lack of interaction between students is the main disadvantage for these types of learning methods. To overcome this problem, in 2008, a new idea was elaborated in the shape of Massive Open Online Courses, which enables an active participation in the learning process through virtual chat rooms and quizzes, rather than just simply gaining access to information (Hoy, 2014). 





Throughout the years this idea became so popular that New York Times declared 2012 as the “year of the MOOC” (Fischer, 2014). What makes MOOCs special is not only that hundreds of thousands of students can interact online in the same time, but also the endorsement they carry by one of the most prestigious universities in the world (Funnell, 2013; Gallagher & LaBrie, 2012). A clear example of this popular trend is Stanford University, which gathered 160.000 online participants only for the first introduced course (Waters, 2013). This trend is described by Peter Norvig, now Director of Research at Google Inc., stating:

“We challenged ourselves to create an online class that would be equal or better in quality to our Stanford class, but to bring it to anyone in the world for free”. (Norvig, 2012) 

Educational outreach or a race for profit?

Having in mind the increased popularity of MOOCs, we have to ask ourselves a crucial question: is this technology-based online educational model developed to improve the current educational system or it is a product designed just to market university brands globally? (Jona & Naidu, 2014).  





One point of view supports MOOCs as the future of education for the following reasons:

  • Unlimited participation and open Web access to education, promising new insights on teaching and learning from analytics of millions of students (Jona & Naidu, 2014).
  • Providing learning opportunities for developing countries (Macleod, 2015).
  • Access to higher education for the increasing number of “non-traditional” students, who tend to be older, working and have families (Longstaff, 2014).
  • As broadband access increases globally, the use of online social media has become impressive. Facebook reports 864 million active users; Twitter 284 million users; and Linkedin 332 million registered users in 2015. This enforces the fact that people have become comfortable in developing personal and professional relationships online, interacting with different platforms and applications (Australian Government, 2014).
  • Development of the “Social Student Model”. Today, it is all about instant communication. Instead of waiting for the teacher’s response (either via e-mail or during next class session), the student receives the desired information easily and promptly, by asking classmates via Skype, Facebook or other social media (Bernhard et al, 2013).





On the contrary, the other point of view describes MOOCs as a strategy for building and extending the university as a brand, and a product which serves only one purpose - to market and showcase university’s world-class offerings (El-Hmoudova, 2014). The following arguments support this claim:

  • Marketing MOOCs is just one of the ways to deal with shrinking budgets and rising costs of education. Data collected from the US higher educational sector and many OECD countries points out a significant rise in the tuition fees accompanied by an increase of the student loan debt, which only in US is around $1 trillion dollars.  (El-Hmoudova, 2014; Head, 2015; Australian Government, 2014).
  • According to a survey conducted by Babson Survey Research Group, which included 3000 institutions, nearly 30% of respondents reported using MOOCs as a way to increase institution visibility, and 20% said they used it as a tool to attract more students (New, 2014).
  • Majority of the MOOCs are not accredited and do not offer certificate of completion (Daniel et al, 2015). The imperative for universities is just to be present in the MOOC sphere having in mind that they are slowly losing their monopoly position as “knowledge gatekeepers”, as other education providers entered the MOOCs business (Daniel et al, 2015; Longstaff, 2014).  One clear example of this is Coursera, a leading provider of MOOCs, which reached 1 million users in just four months, outpacing social network giants as Facebook or Twitter (Ehrlich & Rutgers, 2013). Additionally, other players outside the university sector have also joined this trend, like Apple’s iTunesU and Google’s CourseBuilder, an open source platforms for building MOOCs (Australian Government, 2014).
  • Universities are using data-mining from MOOCs to perform content marketing strategies. Just like Amazon, Netflix and Google use their customers’ previous purchases to recommend products, higher education has applied the same concept (Australian Government, 2014).
  • Complementary to the previous point, according to Dellarocas and Alstyne (2014, p.25), MOOCs are nothing but platforms built to offer free service and information as a bait to attract students for their offline programs. For example, Tumblr offers blogging and social networking for free, and then charges for using the analytics. Taken from a MOOCs perspective, the marketing tactic is obvious: “Teaching a man to fish allows us to sell him a boat”. 

Perhaps one of the biggest critics for the current MOOCs model is presented by Baggaley (2014), who compares massive open online courses with supersizing in the fast food industry (junk food marketing) :

  • Profit motives. In the 1950’s , McDonald’s identified that its customers are not willing to pay for more than one meal at a time, but will pay extra for a larger size, thus developing a marketing strategy popularly called “supersizing”. By the same token, MOOCs are used to spread the idea that supersizing the number of students in a single course is the best alternative universities can have right now.
  • Marketing strategies. During the 1980’s, McDonald’s developed the “value meal”, suggesting value-added bonus through larger portions. Similarly, MOOC advocates managed to persuade educational institutions that increasing the number of students produces an educational value meal (Baggaley, 2014).  

Apart from this, there is much bigger problem which undermines the current MOOC model. Several authors (Hoy, 2015; El-Hmoudova, 2014; Fischer, 2014) explain that even though MOOCs are designed to engage thousands of students at the same time, the average completion rate is less than 10%. Hence, the lack of relevant user experience, no incentive in the form of certificate of completion and lack of personalized learning process will result with just a student curiosity of gaining some information, but with no desire in completing the course (Daniel et al, 2015). As an example, San Jose State University, USA, has recently suspended its MOOC project after the majority of students who took that course failed on the final test (Hoy, 2015).  Fischer (2014, p.150) will sum up the current MOOC model with the following quote:

“In fact, the absence of serious pedagogy in MOOCs is rather striking, their essential feature being short, unsophisticated video chunks, interleaved with online quizzes, and accompanied by social networking … If I had my wish, I would wave a wand and make MOOCs disappear, but I am afraid that we have let the genie out of the bottle.”

Moreover, Sinha (2014), after performing social network analysis (SNA) to analyze the MOOC model, points to another problem, a missing link between teacher and student which is a key factor in igniting interest throughout the course. Without that, MOOCs are considered only as a form of advertising with one simple message: “Hey, look, this is really interesting subject that you might want to study full time” (CareerFoundry Blog, 2015). 

Having in mind all these critics, it becomes apparent that MOOCs have become a product labeled with many ethical concerns regarding profit motive and student exploitation, instead of being a revolution towards improving online education (Baggaley, 2014).

However, with the latest developments in some of the world’s leading universities, we might be witnessing a possible game-changer in the MOOCs sphere.