Tuesday, 5 April 2016

A MOOC may not be the same as a College education but. . .

In my last posting I outlined some of the reasons why a MOOC (or a sequence of MOOCs) is not the same as taking a course at a 'traditional' college. Some readers might have thought this was a rather one-sided view and a little contrary to the spirit of this blog--which is, after all, primarily about MOOCS and similar opportunities--and they would have been right. The posting was based on an essay I wrote for a course where I had to contrast, rather than compare, so was deliberately unbalanced. So now I'll write the balancing article!

MOOCs* offer learners access to learning in a far more flexible way than any previous medium. Flexibility in terms of academically open access; there are no admissions tutors to convince, no mandatory prerequisites and no requirement to commit to a fixed programme of study. Flexible as to timing; even synchronous (or session-based as Coursera now term them) courses place only limited constraints on students--at most, deadlines for assignment submissions and an overall course end date. Flexible as to purpose; learners can take as much or as little as they want from a course. They can participate fully and 'complete' a course, just follow along with the lectures or merely dip in to cover a particular topic.

MOOCs fit in with students who can't dedicate themselves full time to studying because of work, personal or family commitments. They allow study wherever and whenever there is internet available (or whenever the student has planned ahead and downloaded materials). This is a whole lot friendlier than a previous generation of distance learning (as I experienced with the Open University here in the UK a couple of decades ago) which could easily involve watching television broadcast lectures at 2 or 3am!

The loss of social interaction which MOOCs, or any off-campus learning, almost inevitably involves is not seen as a loss by all students. Many find communicating via forums altogether less intimidating than face to face interaction--especially when peers often seem so much more experienced or knowledgeable--and flourish in the less threatening online environment. Personally, I have found the support offered through forums, both by peers and by teaching staff, to be far more useful than anything I received during my years of formal education.

So in many ways MOOCs do indeed live up to their ambitions of opening education to the world but with a few big limitations. Although there are many merits to MOOCs they are still not recognised or accredited academically (with a few notable examples such as the Saylor Academy's work in gaining accreditation through various means for its courses) or well known to employers. Also, assessment is still terribly lax and undermines credibility; as I have written on many occasions, any system that allows me to routinely gain 100% scores is really not rigorous enough. I can't end without mentioning the 'elephant in the room': money. Free and open worldwide access. . . but only if you have a unrestricted access to a computer and the internet--which eliminates a large swathe of the world's population. Free and open. . . unless you want a certificate, in which case you need to pay (Coursera and edX--although both now have financial support packages).

*I use the term 'MOOC' throughout for the sake of brevity but also include many other open access learning routes including Open Courseware (OCW), iTunesU and YouTube video lectures, and curated courses such as those offered by Saylor Academy

Saturday, 20 February 2016

Can You Really Get a College Education through MOOCs?

2012 was declared 'The Year of the MOOC' by the New York Times; the expectation was that MOOCs would have a disruptive impact on traditional higher education by offering the same learning experience but at zero cost. The last three years have found that conventional colleges continue to thrive and fees continue to escalate so maybe there wasn't such a revolution, after all. Many would argue that, whatever their merits, MOOCs do not, and cannot, offer the same education as found in conventional colleges or universities.

The first difference is the obvious one of social milieu. Students studying on-campus are part of a social group where the same cannot be said of MOOC students. While online learners may participate in forum discussions this is far from the same experience as students might have in face to face seminars or discussions with a tutor. Moreover, student life is more than just study; social development is a large part of the general learning experience in a traditional college environment. For many students this will be their first time living independently from home and family. College gives a fairly sheltered introduction to the 'real world' largely free from family and work responsibilities and moving in circles made up, in the main, of people of a similar age. Lastly, being part of a cohort moving through a course gives a sense of impetus and encouragement. Students are less likely to drop out of courses if they feel part of a group with a responsibility to that group. Clearly the social experience is very different for students on campus and those taking part in MOOCs.

In a similar vein, there is a big difference in the people enrolling in conventional courses and MOOCs. Students to the former need to go through a competitive application and admissions process and to meet specific prerequisites. By contrast, MOOCs are, by definition, open access; there are no mandatory prerequisites and anyone can join simply by clicking a link. A consequence of this is that while college students will all have broadly similar educational background, MOOC students will range from those with little or no experience of higher education, or the subject matter, to those already holding higher degrees. This makes for a very different experience in discussions where those with prior knowledge may come to dominate whereas in a conventional situation all learners would be on a more level playing field. Students in MOOCs will also come from very different social and cultural backgrounds. A MOOC may have students from all continents, ranging from school age to those in retirement, from every possible cultural, linguistic and political background. While this may make MOOCs discussions more interesting and challenging, this is still a big difference from the relatively homogeneous student body found in most in 'normal' universities. 

Possibly the biggest difference between MOOCs and conventional study is in the nature and quality of learning activities. Students in a normal college course would expect to participate in a number of different learning activities such as lectures, seminars, and tutorials, practical work such as lab, workshop or studio sessions, and written work such as essays and exams. MOOC students have a far narrower range of opportunities. Video lectures replace live lectures but without the ability to interact with the instructor in real time. Quizzes form the majority of assessment, where in a college course they would typically be a relatively small part. Written work, where undertaken, is much shorter and peer-assessed rather than getting feedback from a qualified assessor. Finally, the quality of assessment in MOOCs and conventional courses is radically different. For a student in a normal college situation, assessments are typically a once only opportunity. You sit a quiz or an exam, get your grade and move on. For MOOC students the situation is almost always far more generous. Almost all courses allow assessments to be repeated a number of times, some an unlimited number, and most give detailed feedback on which answers were wrong each time. This means that those who make the effort to record their answers each time are almost guaranteed a perfect score. MOOC students undertake a narrower range of activities, face less rigorous assessment and have little opportunity to complete substantial written work.

Some of the differences between MOOCs and conventional courses are positive; the wider and more diverse mix of students can make for a stimulating discussion and the expertise and knowledge of some peers can provide superb support. However, MOOC students tend to miss out on the social aspects of both formal and informal learning and the learning activities open to them do not match those of students in more typical college situations. While MOOCs may offer great opportunities to learn they cannot be directly equated with courses undertaken in conventional colleges or universities. Where MOOCs must really shape up if they are to be taken seriously is in the rigour of their assessment. While I don't want to appear over modest, the fact that I've achieved 100% in so many courses says more about the standard of assessment than my inherent ability.

Monday, 8 February 2016

Open2Study: Resting or Comatose?

I have written before about Open2Study (or O2S as I'll refer to it) so I'll confine the introduction to a very few words. O2S is an Australian MOOC platform, owned by Open Universities Australia (OUA). It offers a range of mainly introductory 4-week courses to a very tightly controlled format making it an ideal first stop for new MOOC learners.

O2S was launched in March 2013 and I was among the early adopters completing my first course (Teaching Adult Learners) in June. It's initial target was to have 50 courses on line by the end of 2013 and it pretty much achieved this having opened the latest courses for enrolment in late 2013 for a first presentation early in 2014. Early results were promising with a steady, if undramatic, increase in student numbers and an enviably high completion rate; research published on site indicated 30% completion which was some 4-5 times better than other platforms. There are a number of reasons why this rate was so high which I might come back to another time but the short length, introductory level and limited assessment doubtless contributed.

As 2014 progressed I began to have some concerns about the platform and these were shared by a number of other students on the (rather ramshackle) community forums. There were, for example, a number of platform issues which had been raised but remained unresolved months later (and, indeed, are still outstanding over two years later). No new courses were or have been released since the initial roll out of 50 and one of that batch, The Art of Painting and Drawing, was withdrawn under mysterious circumstances. There was no public announcement or explanation of its withdrawal but a staff poster some time later reported that it was for 'quality reasons'. It seemed fine to me when I took it but then I'm no artist!

In the two years that have passed since O2S last released a new course there has been very little evidence of activity. In fact, about the only signs of life seen are sporadic blog postings and the fairly regular appearance of staff posters making consistently reassuring sounds on the community forums. When challenged, they told me that it had always been planned to follow the initial roll out by a period of review--but two years? Moreover, although it might not be apparent to students there was a lot of improvement work going on 'behind the scenes'--but surely after two years we should have seen some results from this work?

What worries me is not only the dearth of new material but also the failure to address very long standing maintenance and functional issues. A couple of examples may help to make this clearer. O2S uses a badge system to encourage students (so-called gamification) but there have been problems with the issuing of some categories of badges since at least summer 2013. There was also a chat facility on the site which was taken off-line 'temporarily', due to performance issues--again over two years ago. On a functional front, the community forums lack a working search function or any way to sort or filter posts. All these problems have been repeatedly acknowledged by O2S staff but there is no obvious movement towards a resolution. While improving the forums or reintroducing the chat facility might conceivably require some substantial effort, fixing a broken badge issuing algorithm seems like the work of an afternoon. Is there really anyone behind the staff usernames on the forums and blog posts?

As with many issues in MOOCs and open education generally, I suspect the answers are down to money. As I mentioned, Open2Study is operated by OUA. Since there has been no attempt at monetization I can only assume that O2S is intended primarily as a promotion tool and lead generator--that is to say, it will raise the profile of the contributing universities and direct more students to their (paid) courses. Looking at the O2S site this certainly seems to be the case. Every course has links for 'further study' which jump straight into OUA course applications and every page has a header bar with links to OUA, OTI (Open Training Institute--also owned by OUA) and e3learning (owned by... well you get the idea). In another indication of poor maintenance, many of the university course links are broken leading either to discontinued courses or simply 404 missing page reports.

So what is going on? 2013 was a busy time for OUA with the launch of O2S being swiftly followed by the acquisition of e3learning (a corporate and compliance trainer) and the launch of OTI (a vocational training provider). I have to wonder whether they were over-ambitious, whether they were in danger of losing focus on their core activity of coordinating enrolment in their constituent universities and whether O2S failed to live up to expectations in terms of producing new students for them. Given that the majority of O2S students are foreign (ie not Australian residents) most will have limited interest in pursuing studies with OUA (even though many courses are offered internationally). Moreover, student numbers have plateaued over the last couple of years with most courses attracting around 500-1500 students per presentation which is tiny compared to the likes of Coursera or edX. Maybe OUA is wondering if the returns justify the cost.

Open2Study serves a niche which is not particularly well-addressed by other sites. It's courses, although technically fairly limited, are easy to access and have a very regular format which, I think, makes it especially attractive to new learners--even if they do subsequently move on to greater challenges elsewhere. It would be a pity to see the site close or drift into stagnation but I'm far from confident in OUA's continued interest in or commitment to the project. To be fair, providing free education to a worldwide audience does not feature in any part of OUA's charter or aims so maybe we shouldn't be too harsh if they choose to 'pull the plug'.

Saturday, 30 January 2016

A Review of Coursera's New Platform

Now you may be thinking that I'm a bit late as Coursera's 'new' platform actually came on stream over a year ago but there are a few reasons for posting now: the old platform is to be completely phased out by the end of March, there were still changes being made throughout 2015, I wanted to complete a few courses myself and, finally, I haven't actually posted on this blog for over a year!

The platform changes will be most striking to students who are familiar with the older system but there are also some changes announced in recent weeks and months which will impact all students. I'll try to separate the changes in the interface from policy changes as far as possible.

So today I will look at the user interface, existing students will notice a complete change in look and feel. The old platform was effective but not terribly 'slick'; it did the job but wouldn't win any prizes for graphics design. Here's a shot of an old-style course:

The course was navigated using the strip on the left to access lectures, quizzes, peer assessments and forums. It was quite easy to use (once you knew what you needed to do) although the options could vary a lot as instructors were free to move and rename options. The big problem was that the system did not really integrate different learning resources; videos were pretty much stand alone and, in many courses, were the only resources. Where instructors wanted to include readings or even instructions various workarounds had to be used, such as having weekly 'course pages' which linked to the resources.

The old platform didn't work very well with self-paced courses which, as I predicted a long time ago, were set to become a bigger feature of Coursera and so we move on to the new (or current) platform; it certainly looks more professional:

It also integrates all learning elements into a single sequence so that students are guided, in this example, from the syllabus to an introductory video then on to pages describing the required resources and so on to further videos etc. This is far more structured than previously while still allowing the student to dip in at random if they prefer.

There are, however, some features that just don't work as well in the new platform. Downloaded videos, for example, don't have an identifying file name--they are all just 'index.mp4'. Now for the majority who simply stream the lectures this won't make any difference but there are a sizeable minority who don't have access to fast enough broadband and will need to download. There are also many who choose to archive courses locally as they go (remember there is no guarantee that courses will continue to be available in the future). For either group the lack of useful file names means an extra bit of pointless work which is made worse by the tendency to have more and more, shorter and shorter videos.

Discussion forums were always one of the most important features of Coursera. They have sometimes been a little rowdy but never dull and you could almost always get a near immediate response from a fellow student. For some reason, discussion forums seem to have been sidelined by Coursera in the new platform. some courses have even abandoned them altogether. This seems very odd.

In terms of overall operation there have been changes in grading and in peer assessments. Grading has been simplified. In the past, in order to pass students needed to reach an overall target score which was made up of different elements such as quizzes, exams and peer assessments each of which could have a different weighting. This reflected the way that conventional university courses grade. Since Coursera always lacked a progress page (in contrast to edX) it was up to students to work out for themselves whether they were passing a course. The new platform simplifies this tremendously: to pass a course you must pass every element. This is actually more rigorous than the old system which allowed students to fail individual assessments but still pass. Now it could be possible for one student to score 90% overall but fail (because you didn't pass one assessment) while another student passes with 60% (by meeting the minimum pass level on every assessment). However, in practice there is really little reason for a student to fail an assessment as most (in fact all that I've seen so far) allow unlimited resubmissions.

Peer assessments have changed a bit, I guess in order to fit the self-paced model better. In terms of operation, the main change is in the movement away from phases to a continuous model. No longer are there separate periods for submission and assessment; as soon as you have submitted your work you can go on to assess others. The biggest change, however, is one of principle: the process is no longer anonymous. Now I find this strange as anonymity in assessments is generally regarded as a 'good thing'. Previously students knew neither the identities of the those they were assessing nor of those who assessed them now both of these pieces of information are available.

There has also been a big shift in how courses are scheduled. Formerly, Coursera followed a model largely based on that of traditional colleges. Courses opened on a particular date, assessments and exams had definite ('hard') deadlines and the courses closed at the end until they were repeated (if, indeed, they ever were). The big advantage of this system was that as the whole group of students ('cohort' in educational jargon) were at about the same point they could offer each other more support and the instructors could respond to queries without potentially impinging on still-open assessments. The disadvantage for students was that they had to fit themselves around the timetables and could easily miss the start of a course which might not be presented again for a long time. The disadvantage for course providers was that material they had spent time and money preparing was, essentially, lying idle between presentations.

From 2014 Coursera began a shift towards self-paced courses. Indeed, all the courses initially offered on the new platform were self-paced. After running with this for some time and, apparently, considering offering all courses as self-paced they decided that there were too many students finding it difficult to motivate themselves without deadlines and that support was lacking in forums. The decision was made to introduce scheduled courses on the new platform but in a modified form: Although there were start and end dates and assessment deadlines, assessments would actually remain open right through the course. This meant that most of the advantages of cohort-based courses (which Coursera now calls 'session-based') would return while students had much more flexibility within the course structure. Pure self-paced courses still remain and probably make up the majority of the catalogue. Even these courses suggest deadlines for assessments but these deadlines can be ignored or even turned off. Sadly, self-paced courses often seem to give an impression of being preserved in aspic--unchanging and unsupported by instructors--and can give a rather sterile experience.

So how do I feel about the changed platform? My first impression was not very positive; it seemed that presentation was being put ahead of usability, however, after working through a few courses I can see some of the stronger points, such as the better integration of mixed media. I think that for many of us the change in platform is too intimately linked with other, less welcome, developments in Coursera (which I'll address in another post) which colour our impressions. This is very similar to the situation over at the Saylor Academy where their move to a new platform also coincided with a major  restructuring. The new Coursera platform has the potential to deliver more structured courses and to handle better a mix of lectures and readings. The reasons why it may fail to fully deliver are part of another story which I'll come back to later.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Is the Quest for Accreditation a Worthwhile Aim?

Over the few years of the MOOC revolution, one thread has run throughout: the quest for accreditation or credit transfer. Every survey indicates that students would welcome formal credit for their on line courses but when such schemes are available diminishingly few ever take them up. So how can we square this apparent paradox and does accreditation actually matter?

The problem is that most MOOC students have absolutely no intention of using the courses they take in any formal academic situation--even if it were possible. The research suggests that the overwhelming majority of students already hold first degrees and a significant proportion hold higher degrees. I suspect that most answer positively when asked about accreditation simply because it seems like a 'good thing'. Maybe I don't want or need it but others might.

Another factor that may be driving apparent student support for accreditation is one of quality assurance. If a course is accepted for credit by a reputable body then that gives some confidence that it meets objective academic standards. Even if we are only taking courses for fun or personal development it gives us a nice warm glow to know that it is valued by others.

There is one other reason, rarely commented on, for the relative lack of interest in credit transfer and that is the US-centric nature of such schemes. At best, most schemes achieve an ACE (American Council on Education) recommendation which basically suggests colleges might want to consider giving credit for a course. However, this applies only in the US and so is pretty meaningless to the large section of students who live elsewhere. I should add that pilot schemes here in the UK have fared no better; a MOOC run by Edge Hill University (coincidentally, where I completed my graduate teaching qualification), the first to offer UK university credits, failed to persuade any of its students to pay for the certificate--not even the participant who subsequently enrolled on a full degree program at Edge Hill (for which he paid £9,000 per year).

For all the reasons outlined above, I have been quite dismissive of accreditation, noting that it added little value in employment terms and was irrelevant to most students. However. . . as those who have read my previous post will know, there has recently been a seismic shift in the landscape of credit bearing courses in the form of a full degree based fairly and squarely on free online courses. Now this may only be a first step (and, in fairness, I should add the Thomas Edison State College launched an Associate Degree programme, again using Saylor Academy courses, almost two years ago) but it suddenly brings into sharper focus the potential value of accreditation where that can form a significant part of a full programme of study. I still have reservations about the value of accrediting individual courses, even for those in or about to enter higher education but it is difficult to argue that a $5,000 degree doesn't offer good value.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Saylor Academy and the $5,000 Fully Accredited Bachelor's Degree

Back in the dawn days of MOOCs (ie 2012) there was much talk of the impact these disruptive innovations would have on the traditional academic world. Four years later and there was little sign of this coming to fruition. . . until 12 January. On that date Saylor Academy announced a new partnership which signalled a radical rethink in the costs of acquiring a fully accredited Bachelor's degree. For just $5,000 it is now possible to gain a Bachelor's degree issued by a recognised US university. Wow!

The programme is a rather complicated patchwork of input from three different organisations: Saylor Academy, who provide half the course content overall, Qualifi, a UK-based award issuing body who will accredit the Saylor courses (and provide their own courses in the third year), and City Vision University who present courses in the second and final years and award the actual degree. Given the difficulties in getting courses recognised and the added complication of credit transfer between bodies in different countries it took bold vision on the part of all three partners to put together this package.

Let's look a bit more closely at the details. Firstly, it should be said that there is only one major on offer--Business--although there are two optional tracks, Business Enterprise (Entrepreneurship) or Business Management in the third year. Next, this is planned as a four year programme of study but there is considerable flexibility to extend or reduce the timescales. Finally, payment is modular; you only pay for the courses as you take them and there are no registration fees. This means that the first year costs only a few hundred dollars. This gives a low risk entry point for those who have been out of education for a while and want to test the waters but could provide valuable evidence of commitment to potential sponsors.

The programme relies heavily on Saylor Academy courses. Ten are to be taken in the first year, five in the second and a further five in the fourth year. These courses themselves are entirely free and all required (electronic) texts are supplied free of charge. There is a fee for the remote proctoring (invigilation, in UK terms) of the exam for each course. This service is provided by an independent organisation and currently costs $25 per exam (but this may well increase a little--which is why the official figures seem to be a little higher).

Qualifi endorse the Saylor courses and rolls them into recognised UK qualifications (which means the student also collects a Level 4 Certificate and Level 5 Diploma along the way). The fee for this and the production of a transcript is $100. They also run the third year of the degree programme comprising six instructor led courses in one of two tracks: Business Enterprise or Business Management. This costs $800 for accreditation and course support.

City Vision University pop up in the second year where they provide five instructor led courses (which, incidentally, also completes the required programme for an Associates Degree if that is as far as you want to go) costing a total of $1,300 for tuition. They reappear in the final year with another five senior-level courses costing $2,000 and, of course, also issue the Bachelor's Degree to successful students.

Now that all seems a bit complicated so I'll offer two summaries. Firstly the course schedule:

  • Year 1 
    • 10 x Saylor courses
  • Year 2
    • 5 x Saylor courses
    • 5 x City Vision courses
  • Year 3
    • 6 x Qualifi courses
  • Year 4
    • 5 x Saylor courses
    • 5 x City Vision courses

And the costs:

Associate’s Degree Cost
$600 Saylor Proctoring Fees
$100 Qualifi Credit Endorsement and Transcript Fee
$1,300 City Vision Tuition: 5 Associate’s Degree Courses
$2,000 Total Two Year Cost of Associate’s Degree

Bachelor’s Degree Cost
$2,000 Cost of Associate’s Degree
$800 Qualifi tuition & accreditation + Athena support for Year 3
$200 Saylor Proctoring Fees in Year 4
$2,000 City Vision Tuition for 5 Courses in Year 4
$5,000 Total Four Year Cost of Bachelor’s Degree

Saylor courses are self-paced and can be taken at any time. Qualifi offer multiple presentations per year and City Vision's 8 week courses run five times per year. So, in principle, students could take longer than the schedule suggests or work faster and complete in a shorter time. However, remember this is effectively a full-time study load. Saylor courses, for example, have guidance times of 110-120 study hours which makes for 25-30 hours per week in the first year.

I was amazed when I saw this programme first announced. The total cost is around a third of the tuition fees for a single year at a conventional university here in the UK! Nothing I have heard since from Saylor or City Vision (both of whom were kind enough to answer some of my questions) has changed my view that this is really an astounding opportunity. Entry is open, there are no prerequisites or admissions selection processes, it is available worldwide* (at least to anyone with internet access), costs are modular and the first year costs are less than the price of a coffee and muffin per week (at least here in the UK), City Vision have also confirmed that they do not plan to have any cap on registration numbers. In total students can gain UK Level 4 and 5 Diplomas, a US Associates Degree and a Bachelor's degree--and all from the comfort of their own home.

I admit that I am sorely tempted if only for the novelty value of having a US-awarded degree on my CV!

* I am guessing that US sanctions may exclude students from one or two countries but I've not yet had that confirmed. I'll update this if I receive any more information.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

The Changing Face of MOOCs

It has been a little while since I last posted (two years--really?) and so it is not surprising that there have been a number of changes. What is perhaps more surprising is the relatively slow rate of evolution. Given all the excitement engendered by the launch of the first MOOCs (the New York Times called 2012 "The Year of the MOOC") we might have expected to see an explosion in the number of courses and student enrolments, innovative approaches on both existing and new platforms, and a growing acceptance of MOOCs by both colleges and employers. The reality has been rather less earth-shattering and distinctly more incremental.

In this first post of 2016 I'll just touch on a few areas of change and look at some broader issues. I'll return to discuss them in more detail in later postings. To capture two years in a few words, I would characterise 2014 as a year of consolidation and 2015 as a period of restructuring.

2014 saw very few significant changes in the MOOC marketplace. The two major players, Coursera and edX, continued to expand their range of courses. Among the smaller players Futurelearn, which had debuted in late 2013, collected more partners but failed to make a big impact on the world scene while Open2Study seemed to stall offering no new courses at all. Udacity had effectively left the MOOC field in late 2013 'pivoting' its offering towards paid vocational courses.

Both Coursera and edX had introduced versions of verified certificates in 2013 and continued to promote them in 2014. As the only successful revenue source for MOOCs to date this was particularly important for Coursera who were relying on a substantial raft of venture capital in order to keep afloat. Once again mirroring each other, both the major players had also introduced the concept of sequences of related courses building towards an overall certification, XSeries in the case of edX and Specializations for Coursera. 2014 saw the steady growth of such sequences. During 2014 these sequences were mainly constructed from existing or already planned courses.

So 2014 really saw nothing too dramatic happening. A few courses here and there gained (US) college accreditation but there were not the seismic shifts predicted by some in the education industry. So how did 2015 shape up? More of the same or some surprises?

2015 will, I suspect, be seen as the year when finances really started becoming a central concern. If in nothing else, this can be seen in the attitude of providers towards free certificates. By the close of 2015 both edX and Coursera had essentially stopped issuing free certificates. This can only be explained as being a response to the need to promote their verified certificates. The problem both had faced was that the verified certificates offered little advantage to students: colleges weren't interested in non-accredited courses and employers, frankly, didn't care so long as candidates had skills that they wanted. The only way to persuade more students to pay for certificates was simply to remove the option of free certification.

Coursera finally began to update its user interface and move, as I predicted a couple of years ago, towards self-paced courses. Although synchronous ('cohort-based' in Coursera's terms) courses continued to be offered they were outstripped by the growth of self-paced courses, many built on the resources originally produced for what are already being called 'traditional' MOOCs. The new interface looked a lot slicker but seemed to perform less well in terms of functionality. Forums, previously the heart of Coursera, were curiously side-lined (with some courses having no forums) while the peer assessment system was also changed to accommodate the greater flexibility required for self-paced courses. One rather odd decision was the removal of anonymity of peers; not only does the reviewer know the identity of the student they are assessing but the student also knows who marked their work.

Over at the Saylor Academy, a resource that is shamefully under-promoted, radical changes were underway. In late summer of 2014 it had been announced that there were some 'mainly cosmetic' changes coming up. By early 2015 it became apparent that these changes were 'root and branch' rather than cosmetic. Having rapidly expanded their portfolio of courses, built around the idea of duplicating the ten most popular US college majors, to over 300 they found that the money generously provided by their benefactor Michael Saylor simply didn't run to supporting such an ambitious programme.

Saylor decided, therefore, to cut down to around a third of the previous total focusing their efforts on two full college curricula (Computing and Business) and a selection of other courses for which they had been successful in obtaining accreditation. Although I am on record of being sceptical in regard to accreditation of MOOC courses dramatic events in the first weeks of 2016 (about which I'll write on another day) were to force me to reappraise my position. Saylor also moved the surviving courses on to a new Moodle-based platform and introduced a rather better forum system.

In some ways 2015 was disappointing for MOOC enthusiasts; free certificates disappearing, platforms shrinking (Saylor Academy) or apparently going into suspended animation (Open2Study) and still no real progress on accreditation (for those who cared) or a real answer to the ultimate question, "Who pays the bills?"

Maybe 2016 will be more exciting. . .