Moocs and the Bottom of the Pyramid

Moocs, Massive Open Online Courses, are provided for free to large amount of participants. Tuition and assessment are peer based. They are not really Open Educational Resources as they are only offered in certain periods and the materials are not available for (re)use in different educational situations.

As a economist, I realize that what irritates me is the way these courses are labeled massive by those who offer them. A course becomes massive because a lot of people participate in the open version, not because the teacher decides to offer a massive course as Steve Downs says in the introduction to the Change Mooc. Some course have a proven track record, Artificial Intelligence of Stanford has been a success, so have the courses of George Siemens and Stephan Downes on Higher Education. Perhaps other open online courses have been less successful (in numbers of students), but also less prominent in the publicity. Of course, Moocs and other online courses will be criticized for offering a Tata Nano versus the classroom BMW (Amanda Ripley in Time US).

George Siemens’ interview on MOOCs and Open Education by Andreia Inamorato

The free offering of courses from outstanding universities as MIT, Stanford and others make good quality education available in places where otherwise no education would be accessible. Furthermore, the massive character of these courses open the possibility of applying a “Bottom of the Pyramid” kind of financing for education.

One of the more interesting business models of Moocs is the supply of a paid-for degree course, together with a free non-degree version without expert tuition. Adding to this the possibility of asking a small fee for a certificate stating that the person has participated in the program, and the possibility to sell the program to third parties, these opportunities broaden the global participation, educating the bottom of the pyramid. For example, Sui Fai John Mak shows on his blog a figure consisting of three kind of markets he expects to emerge from the present Moocs (see below).

Yet another way the philosophy of the Moocs can be combined with the philosophy of Prahalad is by asking yourself what kind of education these people need. Is it possible to rework online distance courses in such a way that institutes in the neighborhood can build programs around these ODL’s so students can take formal assignments and get formal degrees. The combination in thinking about delivering to the point courses at affordable fee, compensating the costs through the amount of students and working together with local organizations for the formal recognition of the degree.

Of course such a development has the danger of unification of education in it, the McDonaldization; “MOOC’s may provide access to a world-class education, but the product is prepackaged and standardized. And, because it is readily available, it risks diminishing both the diversification of the higher-education sector and the advancement of globally engaged students and institutions”. If Moocs become the baseline in education in developing countries, the content of education will become the same everywhere.

When there are a large amount of people interested in participating in these kind of courses, the development costs per student will be very low, whereas other institutions can use the course to offer a degree based on the Mooc, tutoring and local assessment. Again, this makes education available for people who cannot afford regular education. Another observation of Amanda Ripley, based on her experiences in Pakistan was that “ at this stage, most MOOCs work well for students who are self-motivated and already fairly well educated. Worldwide, the poorest students still don’t have the background (or the Internet bandwidth) to participate in a major way” . In the TimesHangout, Amanda Ripley remarks that it are only the higher income students in developing countries can afford to participate in Moocs.

Concluding, in themselves Moocs will not solve the differences in education level around the world. There are too much problems concerning these online courses, associated with the low success rates of students, the lack of formal degrees. But also problems with the potential participants, as a lack of money for broadband internet and other income related problems and institutional problems, for example when Pakistan closed down YouTube blocking an anti-Muslim movie, they also blocked the access of 217 students to the massive, open online physics course (again according to Ripley).

However, I think that Moocs and other ODL-courses can be instrumental in providing education in places where otherwise no good quality education is available (whether in developing or developed countries). If it will be a success depends on the conditions which will be created locally. If other institutions adopt the Moocs, if governments are supportive of these kind of educational materials it is possible that this kind of education can provide a stimulus to better education. On the side of the Moocs, they could be made available around the year as open educational resources instead of just an additional outlet for existing education.