Massive Open Online Courses

Publication Details

Internationally, a number of emerging technologies and associated developments are becoming available that could have far‐reaching effects on the delivery of tertiary education. One of these developments is Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).

The opportunities MOOCs present include the ability for institutions to extend their brand and reach to large international audiences, experiment with innovative pedagogical approaches, an ability to offer niche provision at scale, and a potential reduction of costs. Its challenges and risks include that they are not widely recognised as formal qualifications, the absence of an established business model, and their pedagogical approaches.

We have developed this paper as the start of a conversation between and among government agencies, institutions, employers and learners on the appropriate policy settings and ways to support the introduction of these emerging technologies in the delivery of tertiary education.

This paper also supports the 2014 Innovations in Tertiary Education Delivery Summit, being held in Auckland on 5 and 6 June 2014, which looks at the future of tertiary education and the role of technology in it.

Author(s): Avinash Shrivastava and Peter Guiney, Tertiary Education Commission and Ministry of Education.

Date Published: May 2014

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Executive Summary


Internationally, a number of emerging technologies and associated developments are becoming available that could have far-reaching effects on the delivery of tertiary education and tertiary education institutions’ operation, particularly their infrastructure requirements. These emerging technologies include mobile devices, virtual or augmented reality, simulations, gaming and social media, and associated data analytics. They can also achieve economies of scale in tertiary teaching and learning.

This paper examines one development, the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), rather than doing a general overview of emerging technologies. The paper focuses on MOOCs because of their potential to disrupt tertiary education and the significant opportunities, challenges and risks that they present. MOOCs are also the sole focus of this paper because of their scale and the involvement of the elite United States (US) universities.

It is intended that this paper will be the start of an ongoing dialogue between and among government agencies, institutions, employers and learners on the appropriate policy settings and institutional operations so that these emerging technologies can more effectively support  tertiary education. This process is likely to evolve over the duration of the New Zealand Tertiary Education Strategy 2014–2019 (Ministry of Education, 2014) and potentially beyond.

MOOCs phenomenon

MOOCs have their origins in previous distance education delivery, online learning ventures and the Open Educational Resources movement. However, there are important differences including the large numbers of learners, the involvement of elite institutions and the trialling of alternative revenue schemes. Unlike earlier online efforts, MOOCs are also typically fees-free, generally do not offer formally recognised credits and often do not have any prescribed teacher–student interactions.

MOOCs are now being offered primarily through US-based consortia but are also being established in other countries. In New Zealand, three institutions have recently become involved with MOOCs: Massey University, through the Open Universities Australia consortium, the University of Auckland, via the United Kingdom’s FutureLearn consortium, and the University of Waikato (an internal effort focused on a specialist area of provision).

Implications of MOOCs

The impacts of MOOCs could be far reaching because they can disaggregate teaching and learning processes, including assessment, and offer new services. This unbundling could, for example, allow learners to undertake a fees-free course while paying for assessment and accreditation. In respect of new services, the largest MOOC consortium is offering identity and assignment verification for learners.

For tertiary institutions, MOOCs present various opportunities, including the ability to extend their brand and reach to a large international audience. MOOCs allow institutions to experiment with innovative pedagogical approaches to improve their provision. They allow niche provision to be offered at scale, which can make them financially viable. MOOCs can also potentially reduce costs.1

New Zealand institutions that have high international rankings in particular subjects or disciplines can offer these through MOOCs to a large international audience as an entrée and use them to attract learners. MOOCs allow institutions to engage more easily in collaborative ventures where resources and expertise can be pooled and allocated more efficiently to support improved learner outcomes.

For learners, MOOCs can provide alternative pathways to ‘just-enough, just-in-time and just-for-me’ knowledge and improved connections to employers. They offer cheaper alternatives to traditional university qualifications through fees-free models or ‘hybrid’ models, such as the MOOC master’s programme offered by Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech), which reduce the cost and time to complete the qualification.

For employers and employees, MOOCs can effectively support lifelong learning, continuing education and professional development. They also allow for more customised provision to be delivered in a timely manner that can reduce the costs associated with off-site training.

As with many changes concerns have been expressed about MOOCs. Generally these focus on the potential impacts of MOOCs on the workforce, pedagogical approaches and delivery models. Teacher-learner interaction, learner networking and social capital, and lack of structure, particularly for inexperienced learners have also been raised.

A way forward

So what do the New Zealand Government and institutions need to consider about technology-enabled learning and MOOCs to support more effective institutional operations (including teaching and learning environments)? The overarching questions that government, education agencies and the sector need to consider are:

  • What will tertiary education delivery look like in 2030?
  • What kinds of opportunities and challenges do technological developments, including MOOCs, present to the current policy, regulatory and operational arrangements for tertiary teaching and learning in New Zealand?
  • How can New Zealand make the most of the opportunities and manage any associated risks and challenges?


  1. According to a McKinsey Global Institute (2013) report, mobile internet use could generate a 10-30 percent productivity gain in tertiary education and training by 2025.

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