Who needs MOOCs in the UK when digital education is already big business?

Due to its current business model, the “MOOC revolution” will not happen in the United Kingdom, where cross-border digital learning is already a well-established revenue stream for many universities. Any “open” and “massive” qualities will make it impossible for free and unaccredited MOOCs to seriously compete in Britain’s profit-driven market for both domestic and transnational learning. Written by Philippe Roesle, Project Officer at the Swiss Embassy in London

In the United Kingdom, international education is synonymous with big business. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) estimates that in 2011 education exports were worth £17.5 billion to the UK economy, making it the country’s fifth largest services export sector. Over 75% were generated through tuition fees and living costs of international students physically studying in the UK. 8%, or £1.4 billion, were generated by transnational education programmes (TNE), which allow students to study towards a UK qualification without leaving their home country; programmes, or in some cases even providers, cross national borders, not necessarily the students. In its 2013 industrial strategy report paper, BIS explicitly emphasises its ongoing support of TNE programmes, particularly in the domain of quality assurance and in the stimulation and facilitation of the development of technologies which underpin digital learning. The increasing sophistication of information and communication technologies (ICT) in the TNE sector, such as virtual learning networks, has been enabling British universities to easily share resource materials, lectures and reach out to a nearly infinite pool of potential students. On first glance, the UK’s higher education institutions’ digital learning efforts are not dissimilar from MOOCs, but key differences prevail: the business model of distance learning in TNE is not only more lucrative to universities and the UK economy as a whole, it also rests on more solid pedagogical and educational foundations than contemporary MOOCs. In return for an enrolment fee, TNE offers its students a credited education which is largely undistinguishable from that of a brick-and-mortar institution and therefore widely accepted in the global job market. By contrast, the UK’s own MOOC platform mostly provides unaccredited knowledge, which is not acknowledged by employers and does not contribute directly to the UK’s economy. The UK’s new MOOC platform will not revolutionise the UK’s education landscape, mostly because its current model emphases knowledge over education. Instead, Britain’s MOOC platforms are already establishing themselves as a means to attract prospective fee-paying talent from across the globe to the UK.

Digital learning and transnational education in Britain

In the aforementioned strategy statement, BIS commits itself to continuously support universities, colleges, English language teaching providers, independent schools and private education companies to deliver education overseas. In addition to growing the international education sector, TNE should benefit the UK by entrenching its position as a centre of educational excellence, while encouraging overseas talent to work in, and do business with, Great Britain after their studies. TNE encompasses a wide variety of delivery modes, including distance and e-learning, validation and franchising arrangements, strategic partnerships and other collaborative provisions. In the domain of higher education, twenty UK institutions have established franchise campuses overseas, for example Nottingham University in China and Malaysia. Others have established local partnerships, such as the University of Southampton which has a twinning programme with three Chinese institutions specialising in finance and economics. Overall, 570’000 higher education students are studying for a British higher education degree without leaving their home country. Around 115’000 students have chosen the digital learning route. Since the early 2000s, digital learning has been an established transnational tool for targeting new learners and opening up new revenue streams for many British higher education institutions. In comparison to setting up franchise campuses or strategic partnerships, TNE digital learning platforms benefit from low set-up costs, as the majority of the course is modelled on existing courses; any additional costs are mostly kept to updating the virtual platform, marketing and, where necessary, local providers’ support. Crucially, digital learning charges tuition fees between £4000 and £9000 per student, depending on institution, course and degree. Students save on transportation, accommodation or visa costs, and they do not necessarily have to cut down on their current professional obligations. TNE allows students to download course materials, access their assignments and submit coursework via university-specific virtual learning platforms. Furthermore, students do not have to miss out on the benefits of personalised institutional support. Through the virtual environments, but also via telephone and e-mail, distance learners are encouraged to connect personally not only with their tutors or module convenors, but also with their fellow students around the world. The University of London International Programmes, which includes University College London, the London School of Economics, SOAS and King’s College London, is the UK’s largest provider of distance and flexible online study, supporting 52’000 students in over 180 countries, including around 450 in Switzerland. The University of London’s scheme merges digital with traditional learning, by giving digital learners the option to supplement their experience by attending local in-country partner providers or by visiting relevant summer school courses in London. In total, 124 institutions are currently offering accredited digital learning undergraduate, postgraduate and doctoral degrees, which have exactly the same status as equivalent degrees awarded to physically enrolled students. And, just like their peers, digital learners must demonstrate that they fulfil predefined education levels and have a certain level of English language proficiency prior to commencing their course.

FutureLearn: the UK’s response to Coursera, Udacity, EdX, et. al.

How do MOOCs differ from existing digital learning in the UK and do they fit into the government’s transnational education strategy? In 2012, the Open University launched FutureLearn, the first UK-based platform for MOOC-providers. 26 British and 10 non-British universities have joined since. According to FutureLearn a total of 255’257 students have signed up for 21 courses in 2014, with 12.5% completing all of the e-assessments. Approximately 28’000 students have therefore finished a MOOC in a way which would merit full accreditation. In contrast to the TNE online programmes, FutureLearn’s MOOCs are free of charge, with some few courses offering optional documentation – a Statement of Participation and a Statement of Attainment – in return for £24 or £119, respectively. Unfortunately, FutureLearn is yet to publish how many students opted for one of these types of recognition. Contrary to the older MOOC providers in the US, who are tapping into innovative revenue streams, such as partnering up with corporate employers interested in accessing potential employees, FutureLearn, which is still in its beta version, is only beginning to explore its commercial possibilities beyond optional accreditation. CEO Simon Nelson has discussed ideas revolving around premium content, apps and personalised support, as well as corporate partnerships. In spite of MOOCs predictions to up-end the century-old higher education landscape, when compared to existing TNE online learning programmes, it quickly becomes apparent where the limits of MOOCs lie. For one, “hobby” learners seeking no accreditation whatsoever represent the largest group on most MOOC courses. Because they are free, enrolment is non-committal and attrition rates high. The second MOOC dilemma is best exemplified in one of the UK’s rare MOOC-for-credit offerings, a course on “Vampire Fiction” by Edge Hill University in 2013. In return for £200, successful learners could have chosen to purchase 20 credits. Out of the 10’000 students initially enrolled, 31 completed the course and not a single one opted to pay for the final exam. The module convenor, Ben Brabon put the high attrition rate and the distinct accreditation-fatigue down to the MOOC’s difficulty-level, especially for those learners who did not have the necessary academic prerequisites. In order to achieve academic legitimacy akin to that of universities, MOOCs would have to reduce their level of “openness” exclusively to candidates who fulfil required degree and language proficiency levels. Since MOOCs do not carry academic credit and are not selective, they take no responsibility for learning results. It almost seems that if MOOCs aspire to become an academic and commercial success equivalent to TNE e-learning programmes, they must forfeit their openness by introducing some form of pre-assessment of its participants. Or perhaps MOOCs are not designed for degree-seeking students, but primarily for lifelong “leisure learners” who may or may not complete the course. Phil Powell from Indiana University’s online MBA programme, sees MOOCs as an uncoordinated form of auto-didacticism: “MOOCs are basically the 21st-century equivalent of reading a bunch of books and saying you got a degree.” Powell touches on the main point which distinguishes a MOOC from a TNE digital course. While the latter offers an education, the former provides knowledge. The OECD distinguishes between three types of learning: formal learning which is organised along objectives and assessment, informal learning which is unintentional and lacks objectives, and non-formal learning which is somewhat coordinated but has few learning objectives. TNE digital learning is to be positioned in the first category: students are admitted into virtual learning environments, must pass exams and are awarded with a degree which is widely acknowledged. MOOCs, by contrast, are an example of non-formal learning which happens on the basis of individual initiative, but without any wider objectives or external recognition. Admittedly, FutureLearn is still in its beta phase and the direction in which it will develop is yet to be seen. If MOOCs are to develop a successful business model and establish themselves alongside TNE distance learning, they must figure out how to make concessions on two of their four eponymous features: their “massive” and “open” qualities. While this is not to downplay MOOCs contribution to democratising knowledge provided mostly by elite institutions, it would seem somewhat unlikely that FutureLearn’s MOOCs in their current format will significantly disrupt, let alone replace, Britain’s profitable higher education and international strategies landscape.

Whilst MOOCs may not reinvent the education landscape, synergies may yet further TNE digital learning

The real disruptive innovation in FutureLearn’s MOOCs is not in technology per se. Elements of virtual access to academic lectures and resources, peer interaction, wiki-type discussion forums, are all part of what British universities have long been offering. Instead, MOOCs disruptive element lies in its experimentation with new business models, that is, the transferal of costs from students to institutions. However, if revenue will eventually be FutureLearn’s goal, it must develop ways of awarding credit in return for a fee, which will either be paid for by the student, in which case MOOCs will merge with TNE or set themselves up as a low-cost, low-prestige alternative, or by partnering up with potential employers, in which case costs are passed on from student to institution to employer. In this case, MOOCs might compete with vocational learning institutions, rather than with universities. Either way, the “massive” and “open” part of massive open online courses may survive, but only alongside such fee-paying, credit-bearing options.

Nevertheless, MOOCs in their current form may yet play a role in the UK’s strategy for promoting transnational education. Indeed, there are potential synergies between open flexible models of delivery and conventional models of higher education. MOOCs might be drawn on as preparation- or “taster-” courses for students looking to study in the UK. As standalone courses MOOCs currently provide insufficient support to develop the same procedural skills expected of a conventional education by many students and later on by employers. British Institutions may find benefits, however, by considering how their courses can integrate independent prior learning pathways into a more rounded higher education experience. This approach may, in turn, allow UK universities to show-case their best academics to the world and thereby to present themselves as a centre for educational excellence. Although MOOCs may not revolutionise higher education in the UK, they may take on new roles for reaching out to international students and triggering their interest in digital distance learning, particularly in a time when the Cameron government has pledged to reduce net immigration to Britain, which includes students, from over 200’000 to less than 100’000.

MOOCs prioritise subjective participation over external arbitration. The long-term success of the nascent business model will depend on how they shift that balance towards qualifications that are recognised by future employers. It is otherwise hard to see how revenue streams will be sustainable. In its current format, FutureLearn is probably most effective in establishing the UK’s higher education brand and as a recruitment tool for both brick-and-mortar universities and their accredited TNE programmes. In an increasingly crowded market, that role is not unimportant for the UK’s education economy. Correspondingly, FutureLearn is offering a few MOOCs which already work towards increasing numbers of physically enrolled students, namely courses called “Preparing for Uni”, “A Beginner’s Guide to Writing in English for University Study” or “Study Skills for International Students”. Similarly, the University of London International Programmes has partnered with Coursera, a US MOOC platform, with that very strategy in mind. Its MOOCs offer uncommitted glimpses into the colleges’ regular digital learning courses, with the aim to attract fee-paying students. The university’s website openly states: “If you have completed one of the Coursera courses [created by the University of London] we hope that this will interest you to register for one of our International Programmes.”

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