Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs): Opportunities and challenges for learning

*Ammar Bahadur Singh


The purpose of this paper is to review papers on the promises and perils of MOOCs which are exponentially growing in Higher Education (HE) sector. Proponents of MOOCs see them as unprecedented learning opportunities enabled by technologies which could bring disruptive revolution in HE, while critics take them just an upgraded version of distance learning which could reproduce banking model of HE through instructor manipulation of technology in delivering learning contents. Research indicate that pedagogical practices in MOOCs are neither entirely new nor radically innovative. Learners’ experiences are also neither overwhelmingly positive nor negative. However, interests of higher education institutions and governments are growing concerning how to make use of educational potentials offered by MOOCs.

Key words: MOOCs, higher education, banking model of education


The acronym MOOC includes four aspects: the massiveness, the openness, the online nature and the course features. The massiveness simply refers to the massive number of learner participation in the course. The openness refers to free access to educational resources, open registration, open curriculum, open learning environments and open assessment process. However, some MOOCs (e.g. some MOOCs from Coursera) are not free and they charge registration fees. The online aspect indicates that MOOCs are delivered online. No attendance is required. The courses are usually a combination of video lectures, discussion/reflection forums, written and interactive online materials. Finally, the course aspect points out that MOOCs run for a specific time duration with emphasis on networking with peer learners. Thus, in short, MOOCs are free or minimal fee charging courses delivered online to a massive number of participants.

As mentioned by Bates (2014), there are two types of MOOCs: cMOOCs or connectivist MOOCs and xMOOCs or eXtended MOOCs (extension of traditional university courses). This (binary), classification of the MOOCs, in fact, holds the perennially unresolved debates of how teaching and learning ought to take place. The cMOOCs tend to have a decentralized, network based, non-linear structure that focus on exploration and conversation rather than instructor-provided contents (Margaryan, Bianco & Litteljohn, 2015). The xMOOCs focus on pre-programmed instruction (Schulmeister, 2014), content consumption (Ahn et al., 2013) and are overtly reliant on video-lectures contents and automated assessment (Bayne & Ross, 2014). While the cMOOCs emphasize creation, creativity, autonomy and social networking learning, xMOOCs focuses on a more traditional learning approach through video presentations and short quizzes (Siemens, 2012). The xMOOCs have now become a dominant model (Yuan & Powell, 2013) as they are easier for teachers to develop and deliver.

Rooted in the ideals of openness in education, MOOCs are said to build upon the “active engagement of several hundred to several thousands of learners who self-organize their participation according to their learning goals, prior knowledge and skills, and common interests” (McAuley et al., 2010, p. 5). The MOOCs have now turned out to be a new instructional form in HE for engaging a huge diverse mass of learners in the activities of online learning. Although the impacts and sustainability of the MOOCs are not explored yet, they have gained an influential ground in HE sector because of the competition of top universities from all over the world for providing MOOCs free of cost. They are also providing additional opportunities for learning anytime and anywhere learners like to learn. Despite the fact that MOOCs have a huge dropout rate (Breslow et al., 2013; Daniel, 2012; Ho et al., 2014; Jordan, 2014; Kolowich, 2013; Lyanagunawardena, Adams, & Williams, 2013), universities offering the MOOCs and learners who like to give a try to a MOOC have dramatically risen up. As the fastest growing technological developments, MOOCs have gained a 10 per cent increase since the launch of the first MOOC in 2008 (Toven-Lindsey, Rhoads & Lozano, 2015). Universities that do not offer a MOOC are likely to be viewed as traditional ones now. So, at least for a reputational cause, MOOCs seem to be an integral part of higher education institutions.

Positive views

Existing literature about MOOCs suggests that they bring an impetus to reform, research and innovation in HE. MOOCs will ignite “disruptive revolution” in learning practices and become a harbinger of the end of residential colleges, while others call MOOCs at best “mere marketing” or at worst an abject failure, singling out low completion rates (Harvard Gazette, 2015). Similarly, MOOCs have been termed in various ways, such as a ‘noble’ endeavour in bringing changes in HE (Caplan, 2013), potential forces “to provoke major shifts in educational practices” (Sharples et al., 2012, p.3) and “to unlock a billion more brains to solve the world’s biggest problems” (Friedman, 2013), disruptive technology (Yuan & Powell, 2013; Christensen & Weise, 2014), and a movement that threatens to fragment HE (Daniel, 2012). MOOCs are also claimed to minimize “barriers to learning and increase the autonomy of learners as they create, engage and share in global interactions” (McAuley et al., 2010, pp.55-56), and  provide institutions with opportunities for “expanding access to HE to all”, creating space for “experimentation with online teaching and learning”, enhancing institutional reach and reputation, and analysing and exploiting the large and potentially valuable datasets that MOOC activities produce (Yuan & Powell, 2013, pp.8-9). They also strengthen retrieval learning and enhance learning outcome and performance through the “exposure to other students’ approaches”, which help learners “to develop their ability of ‘self-learning’, to identify their strengths and weaknesses that would contribute to the development of professional skills” (Glance, Forsey, & Riley, 2013, p 5). They foster both academic and skill-based learning (Miller et al., 2014) and cater the needs of ‘knowledge workers’ in keeping abreast of their skills and serving the continued professional development (Liyanagunawardena, 2015). Thus, top universities around the world like Harvard, MIT, and Stanford are rushing to provide free online courses for all via MOOC platforms such as Coursera, edX, Udacity, FutureLearn, and so on. Such moves have enhanced the importance and popularity of MOOCs. The MOOCs have now become HE buzzword (Siemens, 2012a).

Critical views

On the contrary, the sceptics claim that MOOCs are not conceptually as revolutionary as they seem to be. They are the enhancement of online learning, which has been expanding rapidly since the start of the millennium with distance education (Butcher & Wilson-Strydom, 2013). MOOCs will solve global scarcities in education is ‘a cruel myth’ (Laurillard, 2014), and their arrival is a means of reproducing, rather than reducing inequalities (McGhee, 2012). Haggard (2013) questioned their scalability, sustainability and educational quality, identifying the absence of a workable business model as the single biggest challenge to providers. Daniel (2012) also argues that rushing of elite universities in delivering xMOOCs does not suggest that they are particularly talented in online teaching and it is a myth that non-credit bearing courses will address the challenges of expanding HE in developing countries, and professors distinguished for their research output are competent to create online courses without help. Much of the pedagogy that xMOOCs are using now is already well known in distance learning and their complete rate is too low (Waks, 2016). However, there are possibilities MOOCs will improve teaching and encourage host institutions develop distinct missions.  MOOCs have also been criticized for narrowing the learning scope, removing a human element from the processes of teaching and learning, replacing reflection from the student learning process, manipulating the knowledge they present and consequently limiting the connection with social and cultural aspects of knowledge acquisition (Cooper, 2013). Cooper further comments that the concept of knowledge presented by the MOOCs can be limiting learning to the transformation of information based on the outdated behaviourist pedagogy and the MOOCs run the risk of reducing assessment to merely understanding concepts. Furthermore, MOOCs do not improve the nature of learning but only change the form of learning and do not address the type of learning needed in the 21st century (Bogost, 2013; Bates, 2014a). The MOOCs, particularly the xMOOCs largely reproduce the banking model of HE (e.g., Freire, 1970) through video lectures and digitized resources and automated assessment (Morris, 2014).

Is MOOC pedagogy relevant for teaching and learning in higher education?

It is likely that the MOOCs can bring global learner cohorts together for information or knowledge sharing, connection and interaction, and open up opportunities to foster self-directed learning. They also provide fertile learning environment for knowledge sharing and creation and can be handy digital resources for referential learning. Additionally, they can promote lifelong learning culture and extend reach and access to educational opportunities. MOOC platforms like FutureLearn, Cousera, edX, and so on, are bringing together different institutions from all over the world with different scholars and experts for delivering the course contents. Institutional and staff collaboration is the key to designing better pedagogical patterns which results in effective learning (Laurillard, 2002, 2012). Collaboration among different institutions and instructors contributes to effective development of teachers’ dispositions, knowledge and skills which in turn may result in creation of better teaching and learning materials. This trend will certainly enrich the professionalism of instructors and hence the quality of MOOCs. In addition, MOOCs can positively impact HE in two different ways: “improving teaching; and encouraging institutions to develop distinctive missions that will include considerations about openness and access for different groups of students”(Yuan & Powell, 2013). However, video-based learning in the MOOC, which characterizes xMOOCs, has long been in the practices of distance education. Even though videos can be watched multiple times at their pace, it is not necessarily the best way for every person to learn (Prensky, 2011), and pre-packaged instruction does not seem to result in meaningful learning (Morris & Stommel, 2013).  Pedagogy of xMOOCs is better suited for learning knowledge domain that can be mastered through repetitive practice (Bates, 2014). In the hub and spoke model of the xMOOCs, the faculty/knowledge remains at the centre and the learners are the replicators or duplicators of knowledge (Siemens, 2012), which may eventually lead to the reproduction of the banking model of education.

The video lectures as primary approach of transmitting contents and automated quizzes as main tools for assessment, epitomize the “banking model of education” (Freire, 1970, p.71) where education becomes an act of depositing in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor or transmitter of knowledge. Since a large number of learners with different expectation and needs, from different parts of the world can join the MOOCs it is hard to figure out and pay attention to “the needs/interests/expectations of individual learners, and reliance on automated testing will push higher academia further into the banking model of education forcing students to become passive, uncritical repository of teacher-owned knowledge” (Hai-Jew, 2014, p. 341). This increase “a danger of the relegation of education to a mere exercise of technology” (Freire, ibid., p. 75).  However, MOOCs are claimed to go against Freire’s banking model of education as they are free and open to everyone, and students take a leading role in the learning process. MOOC learners are not taken as ignorant minds to be filled, but rather as individuals who have some information to share and contribute to the learning process.  But the fact is that teachers have a sole authority in decision making and curating the whole process of teaching and learning. The learners have to fit into the teacher-tailored process and answer the question raised by the mentors. Such practices rather reproduce the banking model of HE (Morris, 2014) as a teacher can control the whole process of learning through the design of the course. Furthermore, attempts to credentialize the MOOCs are more likely to enhance the banking concepts of education. Furthermore, MOOCs are criticized for being non-credit bearing courses. Most learners consider that credentials are important. They confirm to a prospective employer that one has a baseline skill set and grades also indicate things to employers. However, a large portion of MOOC learners are either undergraduates or graduates and they do not actually need credentials for hunting a better job. Attempts to credentialize the MOOCs will make them look like a formal degree course and spoil the very nature of openness, massiveness and cost-freeness as the host universities have already started selling the MOOC degrees. Many MOOCs in edX, Cousera, FutureLearn, etc., have recently started charging tuition fees for some of their courses and recognizing them as formal university courses. This can lead to reproducing the banking model of higher education. This may also result in using technology as a means of controlling global learners rather than empowering them by enabling their agency of self-determination and self-directed learning. MOOCs offered by big platforms like Coursera, edX, FutureLearn, etc., resemble xMOOCs, which can be good at the transmission of information but are based on outdated behaviourist pedagogy and reduced to assessing the more understanding of the concepts (Cooper, 2013; Bates, 2014b; Yuan & Powell, 2013) and their success needs to be evaluated with respect to how efficient they are in imparting knowledge (Schulmeister, 2014). On the contrary, the cMOOCs are projected to empower individual learner as the contents of learning are emergent, generated and contributed by learners (Ahn et al., 2013), and learner autonomy is the focal point (Mackness, Mak, & Williams, 2010), but they are not mainstreamed yet (Morrison, 2013).

Finally, the demographics of MOOC analytics show that the great majority of learners are those who already have university degree and are highly qualified professionals as opposed to the disadvantaged global community of learners to whom the MOOCs were originally intended for who have no access to good higher education (Laurillard, 2016).  In addition, who will supply resources to the teachers for creating high quality MOOCs if MOOCs fail to retain the learners and administrators fail to generate the sources of revenues for delivering the MOOCs?

MOOCs in Nepalese context

MOOCs are very new to Nepali universities. No Nepali university has offered a MOOC till date; however, Nepali students can join many MOOCs as many international MOOC platforms like Cousera, edX, FutureLearn, etc., are lunching several courses. TU and KU have already started offering flexible online bachelor’s and master’s degree courses (Pageni, 2016) which can be seen as a positive sign for future MOOCs. These online courses are like formal degree courses as they require academic qualification for admission, and learners’ assessment is done as conventional tools. To augment and expand open and flexible learning opportunities, government of Nepal has already passed legislation for Open University, which may cater for the needs of the people to acquire knowledge in their desirable fields.

There are several benefits that MOOCs can offer to Nepali society. Firstly, they offer open and free learning opportunities with open educational resources to everyone which can promote and enhance life-long learning opportunities. This can result in building and enhancing the society of knowledge which is fundamental to economic transformation of the country. Secondly, MOOCs can make higher education affordable and inclusive. Everyone without any academic requirement for the admission can join and learn MOOCs with no or minimal fees. Thirdly, MOOCs also provide teachers with immense opportunities for enriching their professionalism by being connected to the community of leaners and they can learn how contents can be better developed and delivered online. Fourthly, if MOOCs are developed in local languages based on local needs and demands for knowledge and skills, they help people explore and promote ethnic knowledge and skills which further assist ethnic community to sustain economically. Thus, societal needs and demands for knowledge and skills need be explored and analysed before creating and delivering MOOCs. Adopting conventional methods of teaching and learning in MOOCs may not meet local needs of people for knowledge and skills.


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(*Ammar Bahadur Singh is a Research Assistant to Professor Anders Mørch at the Institute of Pedagogy, University of Oslo, Norway after receiving his M. Phil. degree in Higher Education from the same university. Mr. Singh has also got an M. Phil. degree in Childhood Studies from Norwegian University of Science and Technology and a Master’s degree in English Education from Tribhuvan University, Nepal. His research interests focus on online learning environment, teaching and learning in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), and higher education policies and management. He can be reached at )


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