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Quality Management E-book

Moocs and Quality as Transformation in Higher Education

Jon Maes


MOOCs, more formally known as Massive Open Online Courses, have attracted a lot of attention in the higher education industry despite their relatively short lifespan. Since their arrival in 2008, MOOCs have been praised by some as an innovative breakthrough while condemned by others as a harmful disruption. Embarking on a literature review that covers both sides of the debate, this essay applies Harvey and Green’s (1993) notion of quality as transformation to MOOCs as a means of furthering the discussion for enhancing and empowering students’ education experience.

Background Information

Although heralded by some experts as one of greatest higher education innovations in recent years, MOOCs are not entirely new forms of schooling. For instance, correspondence courses were pedaled door-to-door in the United States as far back as the later part of the nineteenth century (Clark, 1906). By the 1920s, it is estimated that four times as many people were taking correspondence courses by mail than the total enrollment of students at American colleges and universities (Carr, 2012a). In fact, each major advancement in communication technology—phonograph, movies, radio, television, the computer, web 1.0—has revolutionized education for its time and invariably altered the monopoly that brick-and-mortar classrooms have enjoyed in society (Carr, 2012b).

Additionally, MOOCs in and of themselves are not a completely original phenomenon. The massification era emerging post World War II has made stadium-like auditoriums commonplace with professors giving lectures to student audiences in the hundreds to thousands, especially for undergraduate general education courses at public institutions. Other MOOC precursors include the arrival of open universities in the United Kingdoms and Canada during the 1970s as well as the Open Education Resource movement that began in the 1990s. At the same time, online learning in the United States continues to flourish with 6.7 million students taking at least one course via the Internet in 2013 compared to only 1.6 million students in 2002 (Allen & Seaman, 2013, p. 17).

However, it cannot be denied that MOOCs have their place in history. They are certainly renowned for the scale of their reach and the rapid speed of their growth. With the term “MOOC” first arriving on the scene in 2008, it only took the New York Times until 2012 to proclaim the “The Year of the MOOC” (Parr, 2013; Pappano, 2012). The title was accurately applied when considering that in less than five years the most popular MOOCs reached enrollment rates in the hundreds of thousands per course offering in partnership with reputable universities such as Harvard, MIT, and Stanford (Pappano, 2012). By 2013, Coursera alone has boasted total enrollments upwards of five million with edX reporting over a million users (Fowler, 2013).

On the other hand, MOOCs continue to receive negative press because of increasing questions of quality. Some educators speak out against MOOC saying they are ineffective and detrimental to higher education. One criticism is substantial attrition rates with many MOOCs reporting 90% or more of their registered students failing to complete the courses (Haber, 2013). There are those that contend MOOCs are expensive and time consuming to design, implement, and maintain (Saltzman, 2014). Meanwhile, there is growing backlash against MOOCs teaching methods in claiming that they are didactic, depersonalized, and incapable of replacing residential education (Marcus, 2013; Parr, 2013). These are just a few of the arguments that naysayers make against MOOCs.

Notwithstanding, there are various indicators that suggest MOOCs are not a quickly passing fad. Aside from the exponential increases in student enrollments, higher education institutions investing in MOOC technology is still on the rise with tech giants like Google joining the field (Straumsheim, 2013). Overall, the number of American colleges and universities that have MOOCs has expanded to 2.6 percent since 2008 with another 9.6 percent in the planning stage (Allen & Seaman, 2013, p. 8). While the shape and level of integration that MOOCs will take is left to be debated, it appears that MOOCs are here to stay for at least the immediate future. In this event, inquiries into the quality of MOOCs becomes all the more imperative.

Defining Quality as Transformation

The theory of “quality as transformation” was coined by British scholars Harvey and Green in their 1993 scholarly inquiry Defining Quality. Despite being published over two decades ago, their insights are still held well-regarded in discussions about the quality of higher education today (Williams, 2014). Harvey and Green’s primary conclusion is that quality has different conceptualizations that are dependent on the observer and the context (Harvey and Green, 1993). In other words, there is no universal definition of quality that is applicable for all higher education settings because it is relative to the processes and outcomes prescribed for the intended stakeholders. From this perspective, Harvey and Green propose “five discrete but interrelated categories” of quality as exception, perfection, fitness for purpose, value for money, and transformation (1993).

Quality as transformation observes the qualitative change that students go through because of from their studies. Applied to higher education, Harvey and Green trace this conception back to Western philosophical traditions that consider the impact learning environments have on students’ cognitive transcendence or dialectical transformation. In this way, notions of quality are not limited to purely quantitative appraisals of university performance such as graduation rates, efficiency, or employability. Instead, students are the focal stakeholder in analyzing two related elements of quality as transformation. First is enhancement or the level of students’ personal growth, skills development, and knowledge acquisition. Second is empowerment, which involves the amount of influence that students have over their own transformation. These two elements break from product-centered, business-type perspectives in measuring quality by the amount of value, self-awareness, and agency that students gain from their education. For example, relying less on statistical analysis of inputs and outputs by looking at a broader range of aspects such as evaluations of the learning and teaching process.

MOOCs and the Application of Quality as Transformation

Through the transformative lens offered by Harvey and Green, investigations into the quality of MOOCs seek to determine the extent that students are enhanced and empowered. This includes considerations of learning and teaching as well as students’ ownership in the education process. To this end, there are convincing arguments that MOOCs risk detracting value and depriving students of control over their learning.

From a pedagogical standpoint, there is no absence of reproaches against MOOCs. Even Downes and Siemens, the professors who are attributed with creating the first true MOOC, have publically denounced major MOOC providers for “simply repackaging what is already known rather than encouraging creativity and innovation” (Parr, 2013). They say newer MOOCs are no longer about experimentation and continuous improvement when the courses are composed solely of video lectures, old-style threaded discussions, and other repetitive sequences for learning, teaching, and assessment (2013).

Susan E. Lawrence, associate professor and Dean for Educational Initiatives at Rutgers University, agrees with Downes and Siemens. She charges faculty to distinguish themselves “as cultivators of the capacity for judgment and wisdom, not merely as purveyors of information” (Lawrence, 2013). Her main concern is that MOOCs disregard the traditional American undergraduate liberal arts educational mission that equips students with more than just content knowledge and occupation specific skills (2013). Higher education institutions must also give students opportunities to “grapple with enduring questions, think critically about values and beliefs…[and] practice moral decision making” to name a few of the competencies that employers are looking for (2013).

San Jose State University professor Thomas Leddy also holds the same reservations about the transformative quality of MOOCs. His concern is that the delivery methods of today’s MOOCs are a threat to literacy, which he considers to be the most important value of education (Leddy, 2013). More specifically, higher education institutions are charged with preparing students to not only read critically, but also to reflect and intelligently comment on the content they are studying. This includes both oral and written responses as well as interactive activities with the professor and fellow classmates. However, these essential skills cannot be developed by automated courses that have limited to no human contact. Nor are students adequately challenged when the method of assessment is restricted to multiple choice tests.

With these collective arguments in mind, a case can be made that the present MOOCs trend is neither enhancing nor empowering the student. MOOCs have evolved to become more massive than open with automation, standardization, and repetition replacing students at the center of the learning process. Online courses that are isolated and modularized will always have greater difficulty at adding value, which also raises related concerns for empowerment. Granted that MOOCs are open enrollment and provide diverse populations of students with access to courses that they would not be able to take otherwise. However, as Harvey and Green caution, having various education options to select from are “superficially liberating” if the courses do not provide a deep-learning experience (2013). In this respect, when MOOCs fail to challenge students intellectually or unsettle their preconceived ideas, they are not effectively facilitating students’ empowerment.

Conclusions & Recommendations

Even in the face of mounting criticisms, MOOCs certainly have the capacity for achieving higher levels of quality as transformation. Even Downes and Siemens’ original intentions when they created MOOCs were for an interactive and dynamic learning environment, despite recent signs indicating that these virtual classrooms are becoming more static and passive (Parr, 2013).

From the literature, the majority of pedagogical arguments against MOOCs condemn the platform without providing a viable alternative. This is not a constructive approach nor are MOOCs’ deficiencies justification for the abandonment of these projects all together. As such, what can be done to improve MOOCs for greater quality as transformation? There are no easy answers to this question. In short, it is an enormous undertaking that requires a concerted effort by actors at all levels of higher education. Outlining a comprehensive set of solutions is also beyond the parameters of this written assignment.

That being said, there are two recommendation that can serve as starting points for further discussions about how MOOCs can better enhance and empower students. First is shifting the focus of away from MOOC student attrition to give more priority for repositioning students at the center of the learning process. While six figure enrollments rates turning into four figure completion rates is a cause for concern, educators and administrators still have a responsibility to the students who finish MOOCs. This includes course designs that allow for more interaction, creativity, and assessment variety. Second, is returning MOOCs to their initial purpose. Accomplishing this means higher education institutions must be mindful of their rationale behind offering MOOCs. For example, MOOCs should not be used as tools for raising student enrollments and boosting a university’s brand. MOOCs should not be a cost cutting strategy for increasing the proportion of part-time, short-term professors that are detached and less invested in course outcomes. Ultimately, the closer that colleges and universities stay to the learners when planning and implementing MOOCs, the more likely that they will achieve superior quality as transformation.


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Carr, N. (2012, September 30). The Prehistory of the MOOC [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://www.roughtype.com;

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Saltzman, G. M. (2014). The Economics of MOOCs. The NEA 2014 Almanac of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://www.nea.org;

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