María Dolores Castrillo started her presentation at the UNED in Madrid on 13/12 “How to run an online language course from a massive perspective” with her translation of the following quote from Thomas Friedman’s article “Revolution hits the universities” (New York Times):

“Nada tiene mayor potencial para liberar a más gente de la pobreza. Nada tiene mayor potencial para poner en marcha a miríadas de cerebros…”

“Nothing has more potential to lift more people out of poverty — by providing them an affordable education to get a job or improve in the job they have. Nothing has more potential to unlock a billion more brains to solve the world’s biggest problems. And nothing has more potential to enable us to reimagine higher education than the massive open online course, or MOOC…”

She chose to include the first part of this quote “[the] potential to lift more people out of poverty” since MOOCs are free and open for everyone to take. Someone in the audience added to the quote “intellectual poverty then”, given that, it’s true that MOOCs are free but let’s not forget that they are to be taken totally online and although the digital era in education seems to have expanded across the globe, “the happy few” are the ones who are fully taking advantage of all these changes and many people in developing countries continue to have limited or no access to computers or internet, and even education. So, who takes MOOCs then? Are they really meant to be for everyone or just for an elite group?

Two studies from the University of Pennsylvania reveal that 80% of the people who take university MOOCs already have a degree of some kind and only 4% of them actually finish the course. MOOCs are university level courses so they have a rigorous syllabus and expected study hours and assignments. Of course MOOCs are still a recent movement so there’s a lot of room for improvement in their development, delivery and completion rate.

Dr. María Dolores Castrillo has won a prize for a MOOC she delivered: Alemán para hispanohablantes: Nociones fundamentales. She shared some statistics with us from this course and the MOOC-COMA initiative from the UNED (Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia) in Spain that revealed that most people who take MOOCs do it for instrinsic reasons: “por amor al arte”. From all the people who completed her German for Beginners course, only 2,2% requested an optional official certificate for the course for which they had to pay. People who take MOOCs may already have a degree of some kind but they simply want to learn a new skill, satisfy their curiosity or take that course they never got to take in college.

When someone asked the speaker for her point of view regarding MOOCs being just for an elite group, she gave us a really interesting answer, what drove me to write this blog entry. MOOCs are there for everyone to take. It’s not that the university’s admissions office will check your file and even reject your application in some cases. MOOCs are open, free. “Es una selección natural”, a natural selection process. Nobody will tell you not to take the MOOC…

… but the MOOC can drive you away on its own of course. It’s true that the completion rates are really low in this study I mentioned but considering that many of the people who took these MOOCs already had a degree, then many of them are probably finding MOOCs where they can explore a topic of interest or refine a skill and they just sign up. Since it’s so simple to sign up. It’s not that they need the certificate in many cases, so the content of the MOOC is open for them to explore during the length of the course, even if they don’t complete it or turn in the assignments that are mandatory.

So not all MOOCs may be for everyone but this is something the student has to judge for himself/herself. MOOCs may be attracting just a certain group right now but the idea is there and it can potentially reach other groups in the future, with the right implementation of technology when needed. They are free after all and they certainly offer high quality education. The MOOC phenomenon has the potential to make higher education more accessible & affordable and therefore to open new doors for future employment.

For more info on this presentation by María Dolores Castrillo, click here.

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