OER14 homeApplication › Prof Andy Lane

Comparing the social, economic and environmental benefits of MOOCs with a massive ‘closed’ online course

Monday 11:30-13:00 (1), Marlborough Suite

Type: Short paper

Theme: MOOCs and open courses

#oer14 #abs33


Professor Andy Lane, Professor of Environmental Systems, The Open University, [email protected]
Sally Caird, Research Fellow, The Open University, [email protected]
Professor Martin Weller, Professor of Educational Technology, The Open University, [email protected]



MOOCs have become a much discussed development within higher education (HE) (Daniel, 2012). Various claims and counter claims about the role and benefits of MOOCs are being made in online media, including their perceived role to widen access to HE in both developed and developing countries; their perceived educational value for informal and formal learners; and the scope for novel teaching, learning and assessment systems and business models. In addition, the growing drive for HE to meet environmental as well as social and economic targets (Tilbury, 2011) also makes it important to consider whether MOOCs have better or worse environmental impacts than other models of delivering HE teaching and learning.


In the absence of newly generated research data this paper makes a considered historical comparison of published data on MOOCs with the data available from their nearest equivalents – formal online courses run by ‘open’ universities – and in particular The Open University of the United Kingdom (OUUK). It does so by building upon the available social, economic and environmental data and the analytical frameworks that have previously been applied to online courses from the Open University, in particular a pioneering online course entitled T171 You, Your Computer and the Net that regularly had thousands of students for each presentation (Weller and Robinson, 2002; Caird et al, 2013).


The comparison of available data in terms of social (widening participation), educational (satisfaction and competition), financial models and environmental impacts shows that many features of student behaviour on open and closed massive online courses are similar but that the biggest differences are in the levels of prior educational achievement and the rates of successful completion. MOOCs attract higher achievers but lower completion rates, in part due to them being free and a more optional transaction, whereas open entry, closed, massive online courses have many more lower achievers but higher completion rates, in part down to financial commitment but mostly to levels of structured support and guidance at a scale equivalent to a small ‘class’.

The findings of the Factor10 and SusTEACH projects showed that HE online and blended ICT-enhanced distance teaching models had lower impacts than face-to-face teaching models. As MOOCs also fit into the online model they will similarly have lower impacts, although the level of sustained participation by learners in MOOCs means apportioning impacts to teaching, learning and assessment activities and the attendant ICT infrastructures are harder although it is likely that MOOCs will have even lower impacts


The paper concludes that MOOCs, like OERs, are forcing a re-conceptualisation of how HE study is delivered amongst all universities that was previously mainly found in ‘open’ universities and that this needs to include assessing how they can serve the social, economic and environmental objectives set out within institutional, national and international HE policy. It also provides pointers as to where to direct further research in this area.


Caird, S. Lane, A. and Swithenby, E (2013, in press). ICTs and the design of sustainable higher education teaching models: an environmental assessment of UK courses. In Eds Caeiro, S., Leal Filho, W., Jabbour, C.J.C., Azeiteiro, U.M., Sustainability Assessment Tools in Higher Education – Mapping Trends and Good Practices at Universities round the World. Springer.
Daniel, J. (2012). Making sense of MOOCs: musings in a maze of myth, paradox and possibility. Journal of Interactive Media in Education, 20pp. Available from: http://jime.open.ac.uk/jime/issue/view/Perspective-MOOCs. [Accessed 26 November 2013].
Tilbury, D. (2011). Sustainability in higher education: a global overview of commitment and progress. In Higher Education in the World 4: Higher Education’s Commitment to Sustainability: from Understanding to Action. Series: GUNI Series on the Social Commitment of Universities Global University Network for Innovation (GUNI. Barcelona. Palgrave Macmillan).
Weller, M. and Robinson, L. (2002). Scaling up an online course to deal with 12,000 students. Education, Communication and Information, 1(3) pp. 307–323.


Further details

Keywords: Open educational resources; MOOCs, widening participation, environmental impact, policy and practice

Prof Andy Lane, Professor of Environmental Systems, The Open University

Twitter abstract: The benefits of MOOCs in meeting widely expected social, economic and environmental benefits can be compared to the expe