MOOCs: Sustainable Pride or Pain?

Can higher education be sustainable if it is hosted solely on the Web? Has the paradigm shift in education affected other academic norms? Can you make sense of the silly over-the-top image of books coming out of a laptop? 

Analysing changes the Web has made to higher education may provide the answer.

Traditional face-to-face higher education remains reliant on Cartesian reductionist and Newtonian paradigms [1]. Basically, this means that many higher educational institutions (HEIs are lagging behind companies who operate online when it comes to the issue of a completely sustainable society and education [1]. For HEI’s the problems usually take the form of outdated curriculums, lag time in current research implementation, reduced academic accessibility and limited institutional outreach [1].

So, why has the Web constituted a paradigm shift in higher education? More importantly, is the shift sustainable on a National scale?

The rise of the Web has had considerable cultural and behavioral changes to human societies. It’s resulted in a multitude of new software and technologies which has expanded to include all disciplines. An example of the technological paradigm shift can be recognized by the emergence of MOOCs in 2011 [2].

Originally produced by Stanford University, MOOC’s, or massive online open courses, have become a tautology both in education and on the Web [2]. As you can imagine, that sort of popularity has resulted in a storm of articles and posts debating whether MOOCs may be a phase, whether they may pose a threat to academia, or even whether they have any positive learning outcomes at all [2].

MOOCs are all very well as online education, but where does that fit into sustainability of higher education? In order to answer this we must look at three aspects that make up the paradigm shift in education.

Technological Shift

Education has been undoubtedly influenced by the Web, and in some cases outsourced to it.
The underpinning of the educational paradigm shift is ultimately due to the effects of the Web and the new services, tools and accessibility it offers [3]. Although traditional higher education has incorporated use of the Web, developments in technology and software throughout its existence, the Web can now host an entirely online education [3].

MOOCs as an example of this mark a new era for the ‘outsourcing’ of learning environments, based on a series of technological developments shown in figure 1 below [3]. As a technological platform by design they have been shaped by social aspects, and as a result shape social aspects in return.

Figure 1 – A timeline of adaptive educational technologies beginning in 1990 [1].

Sustainability of MOOCs has been continuously contested, much in the same way changes to traditional higher education have been [3]. In my opinion I consider this a natural societal response – not questioning something that may impact a generation seems a bit stupid. Evidently MOOCs have impacted technological shift in education in a number of ways:

  • Development of new platforms
  • Increased user accessibility
  • New methods of supporting online social networks
  • Increased connectivity
  • Beneficial re-structuring of online learning environments

[3] [4]

Educational paradigm shift has therefore come as a result of shifting higher educational resources to the Web rather than simply as a result of the creation of the Web itself. By extension, MOOCs are not solely responsible for the paradigm shift either, but would not exist without the presence of the Web and fundamental online learning environments and technology. MOOCs as a socio-technical artefacts have many underpinning influences, but do not however have a dominant actor.

So, it’s more accurate to argue that it’s continued development of online resources, technology and integration that creates sustainable higher education. MOOCs are simply a product of this, which have contributed to a cultural shift.

Cultural Shift

Technology itself is used by individuals. As such social aspects shape the use and effectiveness of any given technology.

 In order for technological shift, there must also be a cultural shift regarding the use of new types of online education [1]. There are many debated theories about what these are, and no one single cause that explains why MOOCs took off in the way that they did [2]. Instead there are multiple push and pull factors which include:

  • Change in classroom social structure
  • Free to join
  • Offering a resource which requires nothing in return
  • A structured way to learn about a personal interest
  • 24/7 available content
  • No locational or social barriers
  • A plethora of different disciplines and topics
  • Academic standing from highly rated HEIs

[3] [4]

A dominant cultural theory that intrigued me was that of the Hype curve, shown in Figure 2 below. This speculates that it’s actually our own psychology that hypes up the expectations and benefits of MOOCs and online education when compared to traditional face-to-face study [4]. Online education might be perceived to be better than it actually is simply because it’s something new and different [4].


Figure 2 – A Hype curve proposed to describe the expectation of MOOCs from 2012 onwards [4].

After all, traditional education has employed the use of many online resources such as journals and videos, and technologies such as interactive whiteboards for decades – yet the perceived benefits of these have only decreased over time. I certainly cannot remember having using an interactive whiteboard that worked, or did not have any whiteboard marker on it by mistake.

In order for sustainable education HEI’s must keep learning environments engaging and accessible. Sustainability, then, is in the hands of the people who write curricula.

 Academic Shift

Academics are the architects of the MOOC environment, but are they really pioneers of the educational paradigm shift?

 Much in the same way as traditional education, academics have ultimate control over the learning materials and content of an online course [5]. A significant change with the introduction of the Web is that academics have greater accessibility to resources, more teaching materials, no locational boundaries and significantly less contact/teaching time with participants [5]. As a MOOC participant myself, I’ve often found myself stuck in a situation where I can’t simply email the person who runs the course for clarification. Although many students argue that to be the case even in face-to-face environments.

With such limited contact time and such huge sizes of MOOC classes, there is a question as to whether MOOC classes run by one or several academics can be sustainable in the long run.

 The use of the Web in the technological and cultural shift is beginning to affect academic thought and organisation [5]. In 2011 a study of 184 participants who ran MOOCs were surveyed at the beginning of their course – roughly 40% stated that they thought the course would be successful [5]. This leapt up to 80% in the second survey conducted after 6 weeks [5]. Academics, in a similar way to traditional higher education, are much more likely to tailor their courses further once they’ve been convinced that an online course can be sustainable.

Closing Thoughts

A paradigm shift in traditional education includes the ability to utilize online resources, course accessibility, innovative new learning environments and new technologies. Despite this, there is little significant difference between online and offline education in terms of the above three shifts (technological, cultural and academic), as many of the changes that occur today are a result of continued development in these areas.

MOOCs can never fully substitute a traditional face-to-face education: speaking as someone who is lucky enough to have had partaken in both traditional an online courses.

I believe that there are too many barriers for MOOCs to overtake traditional education, but certainly there is room for it to compliment it, and to be developed in such a way where online courses become more interactive and ‘classroom-like’. As the shifts previously discussed continue to evolve, education will as well. The sheer number of contributors and participants in education is an aspect that is only increasing with accessibility to the Web – and ultimately as long as this continues, there will always be sustainable education.


[1] R. Lozano, R. Lukman, F. Lozano, D. Huisingh and W. Lambrechts, Declarations for Sustainability in Higher Education: Becoming Better Leaders, Through Addressing the University System, Journal of Cleaner Production, Vol 48, Pp. 19-19, 2013.
[2] M. Vardi, Will MOOC’s Destroy Academia?, Communications of the ACM, Vol 55, Issue 11, Pp. 5, 2012.
[3] K. Masters, A Brief Guide To Understanding MOOCs, The Internet Journal of Medical Education, Vol 1, 2011.
[4] G. Van Dusen, The Virtual Campus: Technology and Reform in Higher Education, ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report, Volume 25, No. 5, 2014.
[5] S. Kolowich, The Professors Who Make the MOOCs, Chronicle of Higher Education, Vol 59, Issue 28, 2013.