At a time when higher education is under pressure to produce more college graduates to meet the demands of future workforce needs, the dropout rate in U.S. institutions is the highest it has ever been. Massive open online courses (MOOCs) provide an opportunity to expand access to postsecondary and adult education. This chapter explores access, retention, and recognition issues in relation to MOOCs. It argues that formal education models of curriculum design need to be refined to take advantage of the massive open online space. It concludes by describing a conceptual model that proposes an integrative learning analytics approach to support student retention and achievement.
There is a growing consensus that in order to be competitive in the global workforce, students need to gain skills that address digital literacy, collaboration and communication, creativity and innovation, problem-solving, and responsible citizenship (Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2008). The report on College Learning for the New Global Century (Association of American Colleges and Universities [AACU], 2007) also provides a framework that focuses on essential learning outcomes. Much like the Framework for 21st Century Learning, the essential learning outcomes for postsecondary education involve the application of knowledge through the development of students’ intellectual and practical skills, personal and social responsibility skills, and integrative learning skills (AACU, 2007). In the U.S., these demands come at a critical time, as the U.S. is currently experiencing the largest college dropout rate in American history: 46% of students who enrol in higher education do not graduate within six years (Shapiro & Dundar, 2012). Carnevale, Smith, and Strohl (2010) projected that by 2018 the U.S. economy will add 46.8 million jobs to rebuild after the 2007 recession; however, “nearly two-thirds of these 46.8 million jobs will require workers with at least some college education” (p. 13). By 2018, postsecondary programs will still need 3 million college graduates to fulfil labor market demands (Carnevale et al., 2010).
With this in mind, many higher education institutions have expanded their course offerings via online programs and embraced massive open online courses (MOOCs) as one way of meeting the demand for college graduates. Since 2011, more than 600 MOOCs have been designed and developed by over 115 institutions from around the world as part of three dominant groups currently offering MOOCs: Coursera, edX, and Udacity1. A key reason touted for offering MOOCs is to enable those who do not have access to formal educational opportunities to gain access to quality courses and faculty expertise. Issues such as cost, location, and time restraints are the main access challenges that open educational opportunities are addressing. Though open education has provided greater access to higher education, some of these gains have been “neutralized because the field is unable to keep pace with the economic and political barriers impeding access to the academy” (Olcott, 2013, p. 17). Despite the potential democratising effect MOOCs could have on postsecondary and adult education, problems such as retention, assessment, and access remain unsolved. These problems are directly related to recognition challenges in MOOCs. Through our review of a range of course offerings, it became apparent that recognition of individual success in MOOCs is in its infancy, and therefore remains malleable. Current models are based on traditional higher education approaches such as having the option to audit a course, or participate in a recognised or verified certificate track. However, unlike accredited institutions that have to meet certain standards, what an individual MOOC certificate means is variable. Some MOOCs offer certificates of mastery while others offer certificates of completion or achievement. Even MOOCs within the same higher education institution are inconsistent in terms of what a certificate means since the decision in setting the certificate parameters falls primarily on the instructor. It is critical that these types of recognition challenges be resolved if MOOCs are to accelerate the time it takes for students to graduate, and expand access to those who would not have otherwise been able to receive quality affordable education.