The Simulacrum of Massive Open Online Courses representing Open Educational Resources

This research essay is authored by Isabella Winkler, student in the master program Business Education at Universität Innsbruck and participant in the 2017 edition of the course “Open Organizations and Organizing Openness“.

(Foto: Pete, CC-BY 2.0)

Globalization and digitalization are keywords which characterize today’s society. The process of digitalization and dissemination of data has already found its way into education. It is one of the biggest concerns when talking about modernizations in educational systems (Dobusch & Heimstädt, 2016). One primary goal of recent education is to make knowledge accessible anywhere, anytime and for anyone. As a result education becomes egalitarian and contributes to the public’s welfare. In his educational ideal Humboldt already registered that it is the state’s duty to make knowledge available for everyone even for the poorest (Gaisbauer, Kaperer, Koch & Sedmak, 2013). Going one step further beyond open access for everybody the UNESCO has come up with the conception of Open Educational Resources (OER). “OER are teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use or re-purposing by others.” (Atkins, Brown & Hammond, 2007, p. 4).

What also came along with this Open Education Movement were Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) in the segment of higher education. Since 2008 these educational opportunities offered by universities and commercial organizations have shaped the educational infrastructure. The number of MOOCs has rapidly grown in the last ten years because educational institutions have to fulfill the needs of potential students and to meet the requirements of the fast changing educational market towards learner-centered and individualized learning methods. MOOCs are online courses which provide each person free access to university level education without paying a fee and without the need to fulfill certain admission requirements (Yuan & Powell, 2013). Though, at this point it raises the question: To what extent does the ‘Open’ in Massive Open Online Courses correspond to the ‘Open’ in Open Educational Resources or do MOOCs not overcome the hurdle of providing only Open Access instead of Open Education?

At first it seems that the access to MOOCs is totally unrestricted regarding the attendance number of self-learners, their prior knowledge and their income. Thus, everyone receives the same chances to participate in the offered online courses. However, many MOOCs create simulacra of openness, because they are only free when it comes to the initial registration to the course. If the autonomous learners ask for additional tasks or certified assignment they have to pay fees. These payments lead to the exclusion of course participants who do not have the money to afford such additional achievements. Yuan and Powell (2013) stated in their study that self-learners have to pay for nearly every MOOC which was analyzed regardless of whether they are provided by non-profit or for profit organizations. One concrete example is edX the non-profit online course platform conducted by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University. Most of the supplied courses can only be completed with a certificate in return to a low fee, if the online student has reached a certain degree of knowledge regarding a topic. Another example mentioned in the text is the commercial MOOC provider Coursera. On their online learning platform they offer free course material from four prestigious partner universities (Stanford University, Princeton University, University of Michigan and University of Pennsylvania). The online learners have to pay if they want to gain access to additional course material, the help of personal instructors or certificates from the universities (Yuan et al., 2013). These examples make clear that money or more specifically course fees can be seen as physical boundaries that restrict participation.

Another aspect that bounds the attendance of a high number of self-learners is their elementary knowledge. Although MOOCs advertise that anybody can participate in the courses independent from his or her socio-economic and educational background, online students need a high prior knowledge and a high cultural capital to successfully complete a course as stated in Deimann (2015). The extremely high dropout rates provide evidence of this argument. The average dropout rates of free online courses offered by Coursera-UC Berkeley, Stanford and MIT are between 80 and 95 % (Meyer, 2012). One example given by Meyer (2012) was a software engineering course of Coursera where 50.000 online learners enrolled and only 3.500 of them, which is 7 %, finished. What can be seen from the empirical data is that Massive Open Online Courses are only massive in the number of students enrolled instead of students who successfully pass the courses. It also approves that people who do not have sufficient background knowledge, but to whom the courses are the most attractive and for whom open education should be offered, are excluded. On the contrary motivated and refined persons benefit from MOOCs. Deimann (2015) talks in this situation about the Matthew effect meaning that the ones who already have much get again something favorable. These examples confirm the quotation of Dobusch and Heimstädt (2016) that it is an illusion that with MOOCs everyone studies at Harvard as advertised by some online course providers.

What also verifies that it is illusionary to say that everybody can be a student of a well-known educational institution is that the participation in a MOOC only creates a ‘pseudo-belongingness’ to a university, because as an online learner you get excluded from real student life. This argument is encouraged by the statement of Dacin, Munir and Tracey (2010) who write about the example of the University of Cambridge emphasizing that studying is much more than just the transfer of knowledge. Especially the student life at prestigious universities is characterized by a strong shared identity and unique rituals outside the lectures, for example, college dinners (Dacin et al., 2010). As a long-distance learner via internet you do not have the opportunity to celebrate such festivities as well as traditions and you get excluded from the community of students who physically attend a university. Their sense of community is much stronger and the prestige of having studied at an elite university increases and strengthens their powerful position.

What also makes me doubt the allocation of Massive Open Online Courses to Open Educational Resources is that the open and free access to MOOCs, is in most cases, restricted by copyrights. OER are defined as teaching, learning and research resources which are released under an open license to bypass intellectual property rights. This means that the ‘Open’ in OER contains the four Rs meaning that everybody has the freedom to reuse, revise, remix and redistribute educational materials (Dobusch et al., 2016). In contrast most of the provided and often commercially used MOOCs refuse their participants the modification of the published learning materials as quoted by Deimann (2015). However, the freedom of modification is a key requirement of digital and open education. Online course platforms like Coursera, Iversity or edX only provide free access to educational resources, but do not contribute to an egalitarian education for the common good in the sense of openness in Open Educational Resources (Deimann, 2015).

As we can see from this is that the ‘Open’ in Massive Open Online Course is completely different from the ‘Open’ in Open Educational Resources as also confirmed by Dobusch and Heimstädt (2016). MOOCs do not overcome the hurdle of providing just free access to online learning resources to an unrestricted number of persons and without admission restrictions. However, most MOOCs feature hidden boundaries like fees or expect a certain level of motivation and knowledge of online students to complete the courses. In addition the educational materials are to a great extent copyright reserved, hence not arbitrarily modifiable. These aspects show that MOOCs do not represent a pattern of Open Education because education is only open if there do not exist technical or juridical restrictions which hinder the reuse, the revision, the remix and the redistribution of knowledge through each person. What Wiley (2012) determines as problematic when mixing up MOOCs and OER is that people consider themselves satisfied with open in terms of free access instead of aiming at openness in the sense of Open Education and in the end not caring about it enough. Accordingly, this pretension may ask for further investigation. To conclude I want to sum up my remarks with these few words:

Digital is not the same as Open
Free is not the same as Open
Open is not the same as Open


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