MOOCs and education on a learning curve

Learning curve

Access to business education has never before been as broad or as easy, with digital technology and 4IR driving the change

Learning curve

All the talk at the president’s awards gala for the Institute of IT Professionals South Africa (IITPSA) in November was about the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). It was a gathering of IT geeks. You’d expect that. But more and more, the conversations turned from the wealth of opportunities to the lack of high-end skills.

‘Well managed, 4IR has the potential to improve the quality of life for the world’s population and [for] South Africa to remain competitive in the global economy,’ says Taki Netshitenzhe, Social Responsibility/Community Award finalist and chairperson of the Vodacom Foundation.

‘There are immense opportunities for South Africa to leapfrog and address all societal challenges in various industry verticals that support service delivery and the Sustainable Development Goals.’

For that to happen, however, the required skills need to be in place, and professionals have to be – and stay – educated. As many at the IITPSA event pointed out, digital technology is providing a solution to that challenge. Awards finalist and Ligbron Academy e-learning and innovation deputy CEO Frans Kalp said he was ‘seeing major disruptions in the South African education system as a whole and especially higher education. To name one, I can see a huge shift from traditional teaching to more online teaching by using video conferencing for online schools and universities.’

The numbers back him up: MoocLab’s World University Rankings indicate the overall offering of MOOCs (massive open online courses) in global higher education has grown by more than 85% since 2015, with in excess of 70 million people taking courses across the main platforms (Coursera, edX and FutureLearn). Research for Markets expects the global MOOC market to grow at a CAGR of 38% between 2019 and 2026, raising the estimated market value from $4.3 billion in 2018 to $65.48 billion in 2026. AMA Research calls the MOOC market ‘the biggest opportunity of 2020’.

That’s just MOOCs… And those estimates came before the novel coronavirus sent us all into lockdown and self-isolation. Between January and February, as COVID-19 started spreading across Asia, Coursera saw a 47% increase in enrolments in China and Hong Kong and a 30% increase in Vietnam.

Online business education is experiencing a boom time, too – whether through MOOCs, through remote executive education, or through people signing up for short courses (free or paid for) to deepen their knowledge, expand their skills or simply pad out their CV.

But while individuals may have a desire to deepen their understanding of how business works, companies also have a responsibility to upskill their employees. This prompts an important question. In its recent Disruptive Tech survey, online educator GetSmarter asked respondents whether they saw continuous learning as a ‘personal strategy’ or a ‘business responsibility’. About 70% said it was the individual’s responsibility, which should then prompt further questions about access, quality and motivation. MOOCs, for example, initially grew out of a demand for people who couldn’t afford a university education to have access to the world’s best teachers and courses. In 2012 Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology each invested $30 million in establishing edX, while Apple’s iTunes gave anybody with a smartphone or a computer access to a wealth of lectures and courses. But it didn’t take long for reality to sink in: MIT found to its horror that online courses had an average dropout rate of about 96% over five years.

Added to that, a Harvard Business Review study found that 75% of managers surveyed were dissatisfied with their companies’ L&D (learning and development) function, while just 12% of employees said they actually applied skills acquired in L&D programmes to their jobs. Economist Bryan Caplan suggested that employees were seeking business education not so much to learn useful skills for their jobs but to signal to their boss that they were sufficiently upskilled to deserve a promotion.

That’s why many online schools – and business schools especially – now either charge students for enrolment or offer online degrees through established universities. Coursera has since signed deals with more than 2 000 companies that use its platform for employee training.

In SA, the quality of online training is generally quite high. UCT recently had five of its MOOCs included in the Class Central list of the Top Free Online Courses of All Time, which is based on tens of thousands of user reviews. It’s a remarkable achievement, given that MIT and the University of Sheffield are the only other universities to have five courses each in the Top 100, and that the list features courses from 53 universities in 18 countries.

‘It’s a nice acknowledgement,’ says Sukaina Walji, online education project manager at UCT’s Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching. ‘For UCT, as a university with fewer resources compared to others globally, it’s not an insignificant achievement. For me, the biggest significance is that there is African content and African teaching and learning out there that is available to anyone globally.’

She adds that while MOOCs in particular are not a replacement for a university degree, ‘doing a MOOC is an opportunity, a window, into a new discipline or a new field of work in a very accessible way’. Walji picked up on that theme of access during her keynote address at the 2019 Apereo Africa Conference. ‘The importance of digital technology […] is around increased flexibility, scale and access,’ she said. ‘Worldwide, universities are under pressure to cut costs, and digital technologies like the internet and web tools offer new opportunities for teaching and learning.

‘Although it’s unequally distributed, more people are interacting digitally for all sorts of things – communication, shopping and banking, particularly using cellphones. Higher education [institutions] have changed as a result of digital technology. And all of this is impacting on a range of possibilities for classroom teaching.’

That idea – of approaching e-learning as one would e-commerce, mobile banking, streaming entertainment and so on – is supported by EI Design’s 2020 report on e-learning trends. ‘Into the second decade of the millennium, the e-learning methodology has matured since its advent in the early 2000s,’ it states. ‘The industry is giving more importance to what learners are looking for and aligning it with what can be delivered. Organisations have started putting more importance on the value that a given learning strategy brings to the table rather than the hype.

‘There is a dramatic change in what modern learners want. They want the learning to be in sync with their lifestyles, and it should be integrated seamlessly into their workday. As an extension, they want learning designs and experiences to echo the way they access Google or Amazon or Netflix.’

Anne Trumbore, senior director of Wharton Online, a strategic digital learning initiative at the University of Pennsylvania, echoes this in a recent online post, noting that while business schools are uniquely situated to respond to the changing world of work, they are mostly cautious in adapting management education to satisfy the coming needs of students, workers and organisations. She adds that ‘this circumspect approach begs the question: will MBAs educated today using methods from the past be employable for the jobs of the future?’.

Trumbore says that many business schools around the world are now using technologies such as robotic process automation, chatbots and so on, while others are collaborating with corporations and other schools on the same campus. But universities still face what she describes as ‘multiple barriers in creating truly personalised learning pathways’, including data privacy issues, lack of staff talent, faculty resistance and lack of institutional funding’.

Meanwhile, she adds, ‘corporations and platform providers are working much faster to invent and adopt new AI technologies to improve and validate skills acquisition and learning. Degreed, Skillsoft, Coursera and others are using data science and machine learning to help customise education, while some corporations are partnering with Microsoft and Google, as well as smaller companies like Filtered, to create AI-powered customised learning’.

AI, machine learning, platformisation, digital disruption… These are all elements of 4IR that the IITPSA award finalists were warning about. Yet, as Trumbore says, the schools and platforms that provide business education are using those same tools to improve outcomes, enhance learning and drive motivation among students. They’re learning – and teaching – as they go.

By Mark van Dijk
Image: Gallo/Getty Images