MOOCs – Enough of the sensationalism, will they really affect Higher Education?

By Matt Cornock

I have avoided writing a post on MOOCs (massive open online courses) for far too long. Partly because many other people have written about them already, and partly because I fear I might just write a diatribe. I’m not against the concept of MOOCs I hasten to add (I’d love to develop one), but against the way that MOOCs are being proclaimed by those who don’t know better as the game-changer of higher education. So, be prepared, this could get messy!

Enough sensationalism

With journalists suggesting that MOOCs are to universities what Amazon is to high street bookshops, the higher education community cannot ignore this ‘revolutionary’ mode of course delivery much longer. But how ‘revolutionary’ are MOOCs anyway? Formal degree programmes that run wholly online have been around for decades, utilising the same technologies as MOOC platforms. The major difference is the lack of cost to the participant and the ‘open’ nature of the programme (interpret ‘open’ as you like).

Perhaps it is no coincidence that MOOCs are only one letter away from ‘mooch’, but what participants must realise is that there is a massively obvious omission of credit for most of these courses. There are a number of key differences between MOOCs and degree/credit-bearing programmes, including the level and depth of participation of tutors and students, support provided by the institution and rigorous assessment and feedback. Generally, they don’t have the same quality assurance or credibility in the workplace as full qualifications and as such are not equivalent to degrees and formal certifications.

You cannot teach ten thousand, but you can lecture at them

Whilst the proponents of MOOCs champion the ability for a single academic to be able to “teach” hundreds of thousands, the argument remains whether this is true ‘teaching’ with an understanding of your learner, or simply a more elaborate one-way knowledge dump akin to a glorified academic book club. For me, as a champion of online learning, my main concern is that the experience participants may have of MOOCs may tarnish their view of online learning. Take for example a MOOC which is based around recordings of 50-minute lectures. This style of course is typically what you would experience on campus, yet on campus there are more opportunities for one-to-one conversations with the lecturer, fellow students and backup from supporting resources. Online learning models that are based solely on replicating the face-to-face environment lend themselves to poor and isolating learning experiences as they do not acknowledge the different methods adopted by distance learners (for example: study time is less structured and often in smaller chunks, guidance needs writing very clearly as ‘on-hand’ help is not available, encouragement of participation and teasing of ideas from students cannot utilise non-verbal cues and prompting as in a classroom).

There is a place for MOOCs

It’s not all doom and gloom. MOOCs do offer something for the masses (again, interpret ‘massive’ as you like – most course marketers do). The packaging together of learning materials that would otherwise be scattered across the internet provides a structure for learners. The cherry-picking of the most appealing and effective learning objects and curating them into a structured learning experience will have clear appeal to the informal learner who wants a little bit of formal learning. This to me is where MOOCs really stir things up. It’s not going to replace the formal learning that is offered by degree courses (as suggested by the media) but it will offer a level of structure, guidance and interaction for the informal learner.

As such, I think that MOOCs appeal to a particular group of people who are already willing to learn and spend the time to process and engage with materials. For this fomalisation of informal learning, there needs to be a motivation (perhaps a business need, career development or personal interest). There is a high degree of self-motivation required to actually sign-up, consume and participate in a MOOC, especially with the knowledge that there is little hope of hand-holding through the tough times. No wonder that MOOCs have such a high drop-out rate (see Edinburgh’s MOOC report). In essence, the people who participate in MOOCs are probably the people who are likely to consider full courses anyway.

MOOCs will never be a viable replacement for the Googler, the person that dips into the internet to retrieve that surface-level knowledge (from Wikipedia). These people don’t want to time the time to learn in depth, they want the web to be their memory, feed them their understanding and give them an answer (regardless of its credibility or integrity). How do we shift the casual Googler to wanting to take part in more structured learning on a subject of their own interest?

MOOCs don’t have to be valueless to institutions

Linked to this problem, one of the major issues that universities face is how to monetise MOOCs in a sustainable way so that the income generated (perhaps from ‘certificate of completion’ fees) equates to the time and energy spent creating, maintaining and facilitating them. One argument is that MOOCs are a powerful marketing tool, providing a taster of a course to entice people to return to higher education and buy into a full degree course. Yet the experience of learning is so radically different between MOOCs and campus courses that institutions run the risk of mixed expectation setting. As mentioned above, MOOC participants are probably self-selecting also to be ‘the keen ones’.

Perhaps the value of MOOCs isn’t monetary, but comes from the ‘massive’ nature, assuming your course is actually ‘massive’ and you don’t just have a few hundred people (in which case it’s an OOC, don’t call it massive, please!). Having a vast number of people interested in your subject could offer a rich source of research and participation data, a wide variety of views and opinions from different backgrounds. Using the technology to communicate with each other or harvest this information through learning activities and surveys and then feeding this data back into the course (for example through case studies or comparative data of the cohort against research-based evidence) would enrich the experience and add unique value to that course. A MOOC that doesn’t take back as much as it gives is surely missing a trick?

This could be the way that MOOCs cause a change in higher education. Not by opening up free knowledge transfer (that platform already exists, it’s called the web), but by making the contributions of the casual learner become part of the course itself. Simply by bubbling the enthusiasm and interest in a subject, involving the learner in the subject and relating it directly to them as an individual – but in a massive way – could then educational institutions permeate informal learning and have a role in the age of instant-access knowledge?

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