Nova workboard

a blog from young economists at Nova SBE

The MOOCs: the future of higher education?

1 Comment

The information and communication technologies revolution has also affected education. The emergence of the MOOCs (= Massive Open Online Courses) is a hot topic since 2011 even if e learning has existed for many years already. The concept is simple: it began with the most prestigious universities in the world, among them Harvard, Stanford or MIT. These universities set up online platforms so that every student in the world can attend a wide range of courses for free (edX, Udacity or Coursera to name the main ones). At first sight, this “revolution” looks exciting as it breaks the financial constraints students can face and then make at the same time the outcome of higher education efficient.

To be sure that the outcome is really efficient, two issues are still unsettled: the measurement of the benefit of such online courses and the remaining question of the degree that acts as a signal for students to find a job.

To my knowledge, there is no research paper that brings us some evidence that the MOOCs lead to a global positive return for participants. It is still too soon to draw conclusions. A measurement of courses’ completion rates would be much more relevant than a measurement of enrolment rates. In her paper, Crawford took the example of the edX MOOC ‘Circuits and Electronics’. “155 000 students registered for this course in February 2012, only 23 000 got points for the first problem set, 9 300 passed the mid-term, 8 200 sat the final, and 7 000 earned a final passing grade”, the completion rate is then about 4,5% for this MOOC, which is much lower than what we can observe for traditional higher education systems.

Moreover, the massive access to knowledge the MOOCs provide can pose the problem of the quality of schooling. Indeed, if too many students virtually attend a course, individual feedbacks are not available any more and the speaking time of everybody is reduced to none. The issue of quantity decreases the quality of courses even if Harvard professors teach them.

The second issue is about degree. Currently, students who follow a course on a MOOC can get a certificate of completion after passing a test they have to pay for. The first problem is that if the students want a proof that can act as a signal, it is not free of charge anymore. Indeed, if participants do not consider schooling as a consumption good they want to be able to provide a proof of their potential productivity to firms they apply to. If they are able to do so, how firms are going to react in front of a “virtually” certificate, does their screening device can be affected by this new parameter? Is it credible in our mind so far?

Are the MOOCs really going to revolutionize the world of higher education? As a very new concept, this opens a large debate and rules still have to be shaped. One thing is certain, the development of the MOOCs encourages the globalization of competition in the educational sector and higher education will be affected.

Elise Jaillant



  • Behrooz Parhami, “Too early for verdicts on MOOCs”, Communications of the ACM, Jul2013, Vol. 56 Issue 7, p8
  • Vardi Moshe Y., “Will MOOCs Destroy Academia?”, Communications of the ACM, Nov2012, Vol. 55 Issue 11, p5-5. 1p.
  • Cooper S. & Sahami M., “Reflections on Stanford’s MOOCs”, Communications of the ACM, Feb2013, Vol. 56 Issue 2, p28-30. 3p.
  • Crawford F., “Shaping the future of higher education”, Charter, Jul2013, Vol. 84 Issue 6, p14-18. 5p.

Author: studentnovasbe

Master student in Nova Sbe

One thought on “The MOOCs: the future of higher education?

  1. When estimating the impact of the MOOCs, the analysis of such low completion rates requires an adequate focus on the gap, in terms of socio – economic background, between the students enrolled in the program and the original target students.
    In US, (Carneiro and Heckman) “true credit constraint are not a binding issue in the admission to higher education… students from disadvantaged family backgrounds have a much lower probability of entering University” for “a lack of early educational investments”. In Australia, Cardak and Ryan showed that there is a positive correlation between family income and secondary level final grades. The co-movement of these variables may be explained by the evidence that high income families invest on their sons’ education from the early stages, where the investment is more profitable since education is a cumulative process. Given that secondary level attainments are often determinant for accessing higher education, wealthier students are more likely and, generally, more willing to enter universities. The idea of MOOCs to democratize higher education, serving the masse, clashes with this result, as people that pursue further studies in tertiary education, have, normally, a higher socio – economic background.
    In this light, one possible explanation for the very large drop – out rates is that many students, pushed just by curiosity, may enroll it to acquire additional information or to obtain research material; they have not strong incentives to complete these courses.
    Regarding the analysis of the signaling power of the program, the low completion rates significantly increase its value in the job market. Completing these courses may be a distinctive element, if they are seen as an integration of traditional courses of learning. This result holds, in particular, in a context where the increase in the enrolment rates for traditional tertiary education has reduced its signaling power.
    In terms of the quality of online courses, programs like “Udacity” are highly flexible, presenting classes in very short videos. In addition to this, the existence of forum to discuss lessons and the high frequency of the interactive questions posed by the teacher can partially bridge the gap of a limited students interaction with the professor. Still, there is a concern with the absence of a direct student contact with teachers and peers.
    The educational results for “homeschooling” could be used to analyze whether interactions with peers play a role in explaining the students’ achievements in online courses. For instance, the paper of Martin-Chang, Gould and Meuse shows the result that well structured homeschoolers achieve higher results compared with students from public schools. However, the educational outcomes of homeschooling are still controversial. On the other hand, Wozniak and Silveira have showed the result that an effective student-to-student interaction may allow to develop a critical thinking of the subjects studied.
    For all the mentioned reasons, it could be concluded that MOOCs cannot be a substitute of traditional tertiary education, but they may function as a valid complement of it.

    Silvia Sarpietro – 676

    “Human Capital Policy”, Carneiro and Heckman, 2003, NBER Working Paper No. 9495;
    “Participation in Higher Education in Australia: Equity and Access”, Cardak and Ryan, 2009, The Economic Record 85(271);
    “Online discussions: Promoting effective student to student interaction”, Helen Wozniak and Sue Silveira, 2004;
    Udacity website:;
    “The impact of schooling on academic achievement: Evidence from homeschooled and traditionally schooled students”, Martin-Chang, Sandra; Gould, Odette N.; Meuse, Reanne E; June 2011, Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science.