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Incredible MOOCs? How to Foster Recognition for Online Courses

Joe Shreeve

28 November 2014


One of the great insights of the economist Michael Spence was that qualifications serve as 'signals' to employers. A higher education degree, for example, can signal that the graduate in question not only understands the course content, but also that he or she is the kind of person who has been given entry to - and finished - the course.  


Now, a new wave of 'signals' are becoming available to those who want to improve their employment prospects. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are ubiquitous in both technology and education news. Many of the available courses are in traditional academic subjects - with backing from large universities like Stanford and the University of Edinburgh - but earlier this year the French government embarked on a €5 million programme to develop vocational MOOCS. The development is part of a wider shift, in which more and more people are turning to non-traditional methods to acquire skills. YouTube is no longer just for cat-videos; it is now densely populated with 'how-to' guides on everything from electronics to cabinet-making.


A key challenge, though, is this: what do these courses signal to employers and how can we ensure that non-traditional modes of learning are recognised appropriately? 


There is a tension, arguably, between what makes MOOCs valuable to those taking them and what would make them effective signals to employers. For example, the beauty of MOOCs is their accessibility. The fact that a diverse student body has not yet been fully realised - research found that 80% of MOOC participants already had an undergraduate degree - does not diminish their potential to revolutionise access to education. This stands in tension with an element of signalling in traditional qualifications - the selective admissions procedures of many institutions, which (are perceived to) admit the candidates with the highest potential. It is crucial that any changes made to MOOCs must be made with minimal compromise on the openness that makes them valuable to learners.


One solution, employed by some of the larger MOOC providers, is to make courses easy to enter but hard to excel within. Of the 150,000 students taking an MIT course in Circuits and Electronics, only 340 earned a perfect score (one of whom was a 15 year old from Mongolia).


This can be complemented by offering participants certificates for their achievements. Online courses give rise to plagiarism concerns, which have been circumvented with solutions which are often ingenious; from Coursera's 'signature track', which recognises the typing style of students, to 'online proctoring', in which students are verified by webcam. 


More could be done, however. The Research Base is currently undertaking a review of National Qualifications Frameworks (NQFs) - the systems which, among other things, codify and bring order to the jungle of qualifications that exist within a given country. By aligning the content of MOOCs to units within existing frameworks, employers would be able to see how achievements in online courses compare to more traditional qualifications. In most cases, a single MOOC is likely to equate to a unit and not a full qualification; although developments from MOOC providers to offer course sequences have made the prospect of full qualifications more plausible.  Prototypes for how qualifications frameworks can attempt to bridge gaps between the online and offline world already exist (e.g. in the Transnational Qualifications Framework for the Virtual University for Small States of the Commonwealth).


Research also has a crucial role to play. Few studies have investigated how employers view MOOCs, and those that have often contain key gaps: what do employers want from MOOCs and how can courses reflect their needs? How does receptivity for MOOCs and what employers want vary across geographical and sectorial boundaries?


The link should run the other way, too; researchers, as well as investigating  employer needs, could do more to feed back existing findings about MOOCs to employers and other key stakeholders. MOOCs are inherently suited to collecting vast swathes of data - every click from every user can be recorded and analysed. This data has formed the basis for a lot of research, much of which reflects positively on online learning - such as the finding from one recent study that an online course in physics was more effective than a classroom-based version.


MOOCs - though they are undoubtedly innovative and valuable - have not yet been harnessed for their full potential. Skills gaps around the world are exacerbated by the inaccessibility of training. MOOCs, if they can become effective signals - attractive to employers and aligned with traditional training and qualifications - could help students to become qualified workers that the world needs.




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