Is the MOOC / Coursera Model the Future of Higher Education in Canada?

A lot has been written about the rise of Coursera and MOOC’s (Massive Open Online Courses) over the past year.  Increasing numbers of prestigious universities are offering online courses for free to anyone in the world with an internet connection, spare time and motivation.  Is this the direction that higher education in Canada will take?  I don’t think so. Except for a small number of courses on the fringes of academia, MOOC’s will not go mainstream in Canada.  Why not? Because hybrid classes – a mix of web based recorded lectures and exercises, so professors can spend more time in class interacting with students – are more effective and less costly than traditional lecture based classes. Here are three reasons why MOOC’s will not become main stream in Canadian Higher Education:

#1 As far as I can tell, there is currently no evidence that MOOC’s are as effective as traditional lecture based classes or hybrid classes.  The two positive things we know for sure about MOOC’s as they are currently being run, is that they are much less costly, and are more accessible to people who do not live close to universities.  My sense is that eventually studies will show that MOOC’s as they are currently run, are less effective at achieving learning outcomes than hybrid courses, and lecture based courses.

#2 Student interaction, socializing and networking are something that MOOC’s will have a hard time replicating.  Friendships and relationships formed in by students are they earn their degrees can be as important to the success of students in the long run as the degree itself.  In addition, while hard to quantify, I believe that a significant amount of learning at Universities happens between classes and in social settings on and off campus.

#3 Hybrid classes (or flipped classrooms), in at least some disciplines, are significantly more effective than traditional lecture based classes. From wikipedia: “Flip teaching [or a hybrid class] is a form of blended learning which encompasses any use of Internet technology to leverage the learning in a classroom, so a teacher can spend more time interacting with students instead of lecturing.” Hybrid classes are not only more effective, but in the long run will cost less for universities to run because of the lower use of classroom time. There will still be papers and assignments for professors and teaching assistants to mark for each student, but less time in classrooms mean that universities and colleges can serve more 50-100% more students without adding additional classroom space.  Hybrid classes are not yet common in higher education, so there is significant room for disciplines to take advantage of the cost savings and learning outcomes.

Universities in the US and Canada are currently under enormous pressure to reduce the cost of educating students. The extremely low long term costs associated with running MOOC’s must be tantalizing to university administrators.  While tantalising, they will not work as well as hybrid courses, or even lecture based courses in most disciplines, especially where lab time and experimentation are important.  There is also the issue of how universities can make money while running MOOC’s. One option is to offer the MOOC’s for free or low cost, and then charge fees for testing and credentialing to pay for the courses.

MOOC’s are currently being experimented with at major universities around the world, however I believe that they will only displace traditional lectures at institutions where cost constraints are so severe that they have no other choice. Fortunately most Canadian universities and colleges are not in that position. That is why I believe they will pursue the Hybrid or Flipped classroom model, as they offer the potential to reduce the cost of higher education (for governments at least), and improve learning outcomes for students.




  1. I agree that online learning is not the same as traditional learning. However, we need to make sure that we are not confusing cause and effect with correlation. The students who take advantage of online learning are not necessarily the same as traditional students. The people who did well in high school and move on immediately to university are not the same as those who jump into the workplace after graduation, then return to school to get a degree. Those who have worked for awhile are not about creating lifelong relationships at school–they’re already doing that at work. Online learning is reaching a group of people who did not have access to university education before.

  2. #1: To date there’s no evidence either way. If we compared all students who enrolled in a conventional course, an equivalent flipped course or an equivalent MOOC, we would probably find that the MOOC students learned less. If instead we considered only students who had completed all course requirements and passed the exam, the differences might disappear. And of course if we instead normalized learning by its total cost or by its cost to the student, the MOOC learning would be better.

    #2: Again, I don’t think there’s any data showing that the friends and interactions students make at university are more important that those they’d make in any other social situation.

    #3: Sure, flipped classes may be better than conventional ones. But how often are their face-to-face components worth the difference in tuition between them and MOOCs?

    If students find that they can get most of the learning they want for free, universities will have to work a lot harder to increase the value of their products.

Leave a Reply