Of Microsoft and MOOCs: Creating Value Out of Free Education

Online learning instructor with monitor head

In early March, Microsoft announced on its Born to Learn blog that it had joined forces with edX, an online education portal that offers a growing collection of "massive open online courses," a format known as MOOC for short. Microsoft has already released its first batch of free MOOC content through edX.


Online education has been around since the very early days of the Internet. The goal of the relatively recent MOOC movement is to offer high-quality, college-level courses to people who don't have the physical or financial means to attend an actual campus.


edX is a pioneer in the MOOC movement. The group was created in 2012 as a non-profit organization with joint oversight by Harvard University and MIT. The software platform developed by edX for its MOOC delivery has been released as open source software called Open edX. The release of Open edX has made course development a much less expensive proposition for interested parties.


Several major U.S. universities such as UC Berkeley, Cornell, Rice, and Purdue have contributed MOOC content to edX. According to its press release, Microsoft is the first corporate contributor of courses to edX.


Microsoft's edX announcement comes as a bit of a surprise, since it has already established a MOOC-like offering via its own Microsoft Virtual Academy. MVA has a selection of hundreds of free, self-paced training courses in Microsoft technologies, and offers user-friendly features like the ability to create personalized learning plans, and a points-based course completion incentive system.


Why is Microsoft duplicating a portion of its free training efforts through edX?


One clue can be found in the type of courses Microsoft has created for edX — many of the courses are based around Microsoft software development. It's no secret that Microsoft is trying to expand its once impressive developer community, which has declined in recent years due to poor internal business decisions, and the lack of a thriving mobile platform like Apple's iOS or Google's Android.


In the end, Microsoft is offering free education through edX and its own Microsoft Virtual Academy in order to encourage the next generation of Microsoft-centric developers and technicians.


Empty lecture hall suggesting class size

There is a critical issue, however, with the MOOC education movement: very low completion rates. Most of the online evidence indicates that MOOC completion rates are less than 10 percent on average. Students are prone to sampling multiple courses, rather than taking a full course from start to finish.


This is not surprising when you consider that most MOOC content is 100 percent free. When a student isn't paying out of pocket for a course, they can essentially "drop it" without any financial consequences if they decide they don't like it, or if they find the difficulty level to be too challenging. And because most MOOC users are not taking part in an official program, there is less incentive to maintain the discipline required to complete every course.


It's a bit of a Catch-22. MOOC education needs to be free in order to make it available to the widest audience possible. But because MOOC is free, the user's level of engagement suffers, resulting in poor completion rates.


Microsoft has tried to address this issue on the Microsoft Virtual Academy by offering a points reward system for completed courses. These points have no value in the real world; there are no frequent flier miles or shiny objects to be attained. The points are purely for a student's personal feeling of achievement, and for geek status. The top points holders are prominently displayed on the MVA site.


With its edX courses, Microsoft decided to try something different. If a student completes a course and is willing to pay a small fee, they can receive a Verified Certificate of Achievement that documents their success. This is not an actual Microsoft certification, but rather an official nod that the student has completed a Microsoft-created MOOC.


This is a clever approach, for two reasons. It gives students a carrot to encourage them to complete the course, and it adds a modest paid component that increases the student's perceived value of the course.


Will MOOCs eventually become the de facto standard for delivering IT certification courses? While more certification-related MOOCs will appear over time, it will likely act as an adjunct to traditional classroom (virtual or physical) training. Distance training is an excellent option, but it is best used in conjunction with human interaction to achieve higher completion rates and better learning effectiveness.


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About the Author
Aaron Axline is a freelance technology writer based in Canada.

Aaron Axline is a technology journalist and copywriter based in Edmonton, Canada. He can be found on LinkedIn, and anywhere fine coffee is served.