MOOCs: wheels come off the bandwagon

Massive open online courses (MOOCs for short) first mooted in 2006, surfaced with something of a pop in 2012. Intended to be open to all with Internet access, they promised a renaissance of higher education with the ’best’ professors, educational technologies and materials, flexibility, innovative assessment and accreditation (if chosen), no entry requirements, and very low cost at a time of relentlessly rising fees for conventional study. And they did not require attendance, although certificates of successful completion may be a currency for acceptance in conventional HE. They could be about literally anything at a variety of levels and involving a range of study times. By the end of 2016 MOOC programs had been set up by more than 700 universities worldwide, and around 58 million students had signed up to one of more courses. The general business model is described as ‘freemium’; i.e. a pricing strategy whereby a product or service is provided free of charge, with a premium charged for certification. There are innumerable variants of this model. The top providers are mainly consortia linking several universities and other academic and cultural entities. Futurelearn, although wholly owned by the formerly world-leading distance-learning distributor the British Open University, has 157 partners in Britain and globally. Its venture into the field involved its investing several tens of million UK pounds at start-up, which some believe was the source of its current financial difficulties.

The 11 January issue of Science published a brief account of the fortunes of a range of MOOC providers (Reich, J. & Ruipérez, J.A. 2019. The MOOC pivot. Science, v. 363, p. 130-131; DOI: 10.1126/science.aav7958) using data from edX that links Harvard University and MIT. The vast majority of learners who chose MOOCs never return after their first year. Growth in the market is concentrated almost entirely in affluent countries, whereas the model might seem tailor-made, and indeed vital, for less fortunate parts of the world. Completion rates are very low indeed, largely as a result of poor retention: since 2012 drop-out rates in the first year are greater than 80%. In the data used in the study both enrollments and certifications from 2012 to last year rose to peaks in the first three years (to 1.7 million and 50 thousand respectively) then fell sharply in the last two years (to <1 million and <20 thousand, respectively). Whatever the ‘mission’ of the providers  – was it altruistic or seeking a revenue stream? – the MOOC experience seems to be falling by the wayside. Perhaps many students took MOOCs for self-enlightenment rather than for a credential, as their defenders maintain. Well, the figures suggest that few saw fit to continue the experience. Surely, if knowledge was passed on at a level commensurate with participants requirements in a manner that enthused them, a great many would have signed up for ‘more of the same’: clearly that didn’t happen.

The authors conclude with, ‘Dramatic expansion of educational opportunities to underserved populations will require political movements that change the focus, funding, and purpose of higher education; they will not be achieved through new technologies alone.’

Read more Miscellaneous commentary

Fieldwork and geological education

In March 2013 EPN carried an item connected with the abandonment of field training at week-long summer schools by the UK’s Open University. After 40 years of geoscientific summer schools connected with courses at Levels-1, -2 and -3 anonymous performance statistics were available for thousands of students who had studied those OU Earth Science courses that offered summer-school experiences in the field, first as compulsory modules (1971-2001) then as an optional element (2002-2011) and finally with no such provision. The March 2013 item compared statistics for the three kinds of provision. It should be noted that the OU once had possibly the world’s largest throughput of degree-level geoscience students for a single higher educational institution.

After 2001, pass rates feel abruptly and significantly; in the Science Foundation Course the rate fell from an annual average of 69 to 54%, and in level-2 Geology from 65 to 55%. This was accompanied by a significant decrease in enrolment in equally and more popular geoscience courses that had never had a summer school element. The second statistical drop was of the order of 30 to 40%. It seemed that residential schools played a vital role in boosting confidence and reinforcing home studies, as well as transferring practical field skills. After further falls in enrolment since summer schools were removed from the curriculum in 2012, the OU is in the process of completely revising its geoscientific courses and attempting to substitute virtual, on-line field and lab ‘experiences’. Time will tell if it ever manages to reach its former level of success and acceptance

So, discovering that The Geological Society of America had surveyed attendees at its Annual Meetings (Petcovic, H.L. et al. 2014. Geoscientists’ perceptions of the value of undergraduate field education. GSA Today, v. 24 (July 2014), p. 4-10) piqued my interest. Almost 90% of those polled agreed that field studies should be a fundamental requirement of undergraduate programmes; very few agreed that becoming an expert geoscientist is possible without field experience. Field courses develop the skills and knowledge specific to ‘doing’ geoscience; teach integration of fundamental concepts and broaden general understanding of them; inculcate cooperation, time management and independent thinking that have broader applications. Fieldwork also has personal and emotional impacts: reinforcing positive attitudes to the subject; creating a geoscientific esprit de corps; helping students recognise their personal strengths and limitations. Then there is the aspect of enhanced employability, highlighted by all categories of respondents.

Set against these somewhat predictable sentiments among geoscientists are the increasing strains posed by cost, time commitment, and liability, as well as the fact that some potential students do not relish outdoor pursuits. Yet overall the broad opinion was that degree programmes should involve at least one field methods course as a requirement, with other non-compulsory opportunities for more advanced field training

The production of geoscientists: a cautionary tale from the Open University

Despite global recession, worldwide job opportunities for geoscientists are increasing faster than the number of available applicants. In the US the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts 21% growth in this sector in 2010-2020 (Perkins, S. 2011. Geosciences: Earth works.  Nature, v. 473, p. 243–244). That figure does not include jobs freed-up by retirement: the demographics of employed geoscientists in the petroleum and mining industries are skewed markedly to the over-40s, peaking at age 50.

The American Geological Institute’s Geoscience Workforce Program has reported that the regions that produce most geoscience graduates, the US, Europe, Russia and China, are not meeting their domestic needs let alone global requirements. The demand stems from the traditional petroleum and mineral industries that are booming, together with the renewable energy sector and growing concern about environmental hazards and impacts attending global warming.

An editorial (Rare Earth scientists) in the December 2012 issue of Nature Geoscience is headlined, ‘Not enough young people enter the geosciences. A passion for the subject should be sparked early on.’ It then comments that the decline in young people studying the geosciences at school stems from Earth science not being taken seriously, under-education of their teachers and budgetary sacrifice of geoscience to preserve the more ‘traditional’ science subjects. The leading article concludes, ‘On an increasingly vulnerable planet, governments need to teach the young people of their country an understanding of the Earth’s basic make-up and dynamics, along with inspiring a fascination for its age and beauty. How else can we expect humanity to survive the Anthropocene?’

Open University
Creative work on the Open University campus (Photo credit: ianonline)

For over 40 years the Open University has been a key UK educator in geoscience. Since 1971 a total of about 170 thousand, mainly British students have studied at home through the OU for a science-based degree. Discovering tectonics, Earth structure, geology and palaeontology through studying the Science Foundation Course must have been a thrilling experience because since 1972, when the OU began to offer a level-2 course in Geology, around 30 thousand of its science ‘beginners’ decided to find out more; an average enrolment of 760 per year. The OU’s Department of Earth Sciences added more level-2 courses so that by 2000, students could also study economic geology (The Earth’s Physical Resources – 18 500 students from 1974 to 2009, averaging 544 per year), planetary science (The Earth: Structure, Composition and Evolution- 14 100 students from 1981 to 2005, averaging 590 per year) and Earth-system science (Earth and Life –7121 students from 1997 to 2006, averaging 712 per year).

After 1981 Open University students could, and many did, aim for a geoscience-oriented degree that also took in three, more advanced, level-3 studies. These were Oceanography (12 121 students from 1989 to 2012, averaging 505 per year), stratigraphy (The Geological Record of Environmental Change – 7968 students from 1976 to 2012, averaging 295 per year) and Earth’s internal processes (Understanding the Continents – 6994 students from 1976 to 2012, averaging 259 per year).

In this way the Open University became one of the world’s largest single providers of geoscience education, if not the largest: in the whole of the United States fewer than 3000 first degrees majoring in geoscience are awarded annually. Yet from its inception the OU’s Department of Earth Sciences had never claimed to be training professional geologists: had it been, its graduates would have significantly affected the world’s employment opportunities in the discipline. In fact that claim could never have been made, for one simple reason: distance learning for part-time students would always struggle to provide the volume of hands-on practical training that is the quintessence of this pre-eminently field- and lab-based discipline. Nevertheless the OU’s range of residential schools where practical activities were intensively provided for went a good way towards filling this gap.

English: Waterfall Geologists, from the Open U...
Open University students at the now defunct Geology summer school, inspecting a fault. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, to those unfamiliar with the realities of the OU milieu it will seem odd that in 2012 the world’s largest provider of distance learning axed all residential courses right across the science spectrum, including those in practical geoscience. But to those directly involved this move was the logical final step in a series of changes since 2001. Before that, for those courses that included a residential component attendance had been compulsory, except in special circumstances. Yet after 2001 university authorities deemed that the residential schools continue only as optional components for degree study and should carry an additional registration fee. Not surprisingly, in the case of the core level-2 Geology course attendance at the re-branded residential school declined to 30% after 2001.

Two other important developments attended this change in the Earth Science degree programme. After 2001 pass rates fell abruptly. For example, in the Science Foundation Course the rate fell from an annual average of 69 to 54%, and in level-2 Geology from 65 to 55%. Because residential schools played a vital role in boosting confidence and reinforcing home studies, equally as important as transferring practical skills, this dramatic fall in performance was only too predictable.

The other post-2001 development was an across-the-board fall in new registrants for Earth Science level-2 courses, especially in those that had previously not been served by residential studies: The Earth: Structure, Composition and Evolution from a pre-2001 average of 680 per year to 470 thereafter; Earth and Life from 866 to 558; The Earth’s Physical Resources from 795 to 456. The majority of those who enrolled for these courses having previously studied the core Geology course such dramatic declines are easily explained. Those who had opted out of the residential course missed its undoubted boost to confidence and enthusiasm, and reinforcement in basic geoscientific principles. More likely to underperform in the Geology course, they would not have felt equipped to deal with other level-2 courses, and ‘voted with their feet’.

Since its launch, The Earth’s Physical Resources course had been acclaimed by geoscience teachers internationally for having made economic geology fascinating rather than a chore. In 2005-7 it had been completely refurbished and rising registrations bucked the downward trend. Yet in 2009, it was axed with little discussion. Declining enrolment for The Earth and Earth and Life prompted management to withdraw both and combine parts of their content in a single course Our Dynamic Planet: Earth and Life. Launched in 2007, by 2012 it attracted a mere 217 applicants. In 2013 it too will be withdrawn from the curriculum.

In late 2010 the OU’s Department of Earth Sciences held a celebration of its 40-year existence; yet only a year later in 2011 the department that had brought plate tectonics, advanced palaeontology, unravelling past climates, physical resources; planetary science and much besides to the widest student audience ever achieved ceased to be. It was merged into a restructured entity called the Department of Environment, Earth and Ecosystems. There seems to have been a failure of nerve and leadership that may have important consequences not only for the future of geoscience as a discipline and among the wider public but for the very knowledge necessary for our national and human survival.  The future availability of remaining geoscience courses is uncertain, with all being expected to start for the last time within the next year or two. Perhaps some major transformation to meet increased needs for general public awareness of the way our planet works is being planned: let’s hope so and that any new offerings have as much impact as the earlier courses did before the start of the 21st century. It will be a hard task, as the Open University tripled its fees for students entering the OU system from 2012 onwards.

NOTE: (added 11 February 2013) The Open University has been offered the right of reply to this item.