November 26 2012

MOOCs: The Future of Higher Education?

View infographic that accompanies this post.

In the UK we are used to accusations of being over-traditional and stuck in our ways and our education system is no exemption to this. In my final year at university I experienced the American lecturer for the first time. Lecturers from the US made fun of our class for expecting to just turn up, sit down and be lectured. They wanted a dialogue, response, audience participation - they taught us in a way that, in contrast to my previous experience, seemed almost futuristic. But I was wrong- the future of education is not in Americans making you say constructive things in lectures, apparently the future is in MOOCs. But what is a MOOC?

12.11.23.Blog image 8.NP

A ‘loser’ or a ‘moronic bonehead’? A cocktail bar in Leeds? A municipality in the Netherlands? Korean food?  Or an acronym for Massive Open Online Course?. It’s the latter, but just in case that doesn’t make things clearer – MOOCs are open access courses that operate on a vast scale; available to anyone, online, for free. MOOCs are proving to be extremely popular – Coursera, which was set up by two lecturers in Stanford, has upwards of 1.5 million students from across the world enrolled and many MOOCs are attracting 10s of millions in venture capital.

In September of this year, the first students to pay £9000 a year enjoyed freshers’ week in the UK. In anticipation of this three fold increase in fees, applications earlier in the year were down by 12%. Our Higher Education system is becoming a privatised market place where education is bought as a ticket to a bigger wage packet. Meanwhile another form of higher education is emerging in the form of MOOCs. The ideology behind the MOOC is that knowledge and education should be free, available to all and sought for their own sake. The aim is to democratise education - Sebastian Thrun, founder of MOOC Udacity claims "It's the beginning of higher education for everybody".

But where will this divide lead? 2012 is being heralded as ‘The Year of the MOOC’ but what will 2013 hold? In the market place of higher education it appears that nothing can compete with the MOOC; they are free and open to all. In July the first UK university - the University of Edinburgh - joined the MOOC Coursera. So are MOOCs going to replace our outdated, corporatised universities? No, if we stop being scared of the success of MOOCs we can see that the two systems of higher education are not necessarily in conflict, in fact they are naturally complementary.

MOOCs need Universities. Most MOOCs host courses directly from universities. The MOOCs Udacity, edx and Coursera have all been started by lecturers or universities. It is unlikely that they would be aiming undermine themselves; more likely is that they see huge potential in elearning. These MOOCs derive credibility directly from the institutions that choose to offer courses through them. There are MOOCs that offer independent courses, most notability Khan Academy, but even these rely heavily upon universities. MOOCs are predominantly taken to supplement or refresh degrees; they are most valuable when used in this way, rather than as stand alone courses. In 2004 the UK elearning university UKeU was scrapped with officials claiming that “universities were more interested in "blended" learning involving a mixture of IT, traditional, work-based and distance learning to meet the diverse needs of students - rather than concentrating on wholly e-based learning” The Gates Foundation is a great supporter of MOOCs but their grants are mainly focused on the development of MOOCs “as a supplement to traditional courses, rather than a replacement for them”.

Equally, universities need MOOCs. MOOCS are essentially Learning Management Systems (LMSs) with the password restrictions removed. Most higher education institutions use some form of LMS to enrich teaching. For example UCL use the LMS Moodle which is accessible to all current UCL students and staff with a UCL email address. Users can use LMSs to share resources e.g. documents, handouts, videos of lectures; to communicate, to work together, to organise and structure work; and to administer online assessment.Universities can harness the potential of MOOCs to augment existing courses. The benefits of elearning cannot be denied and universities need to adapt to stay relevant. The fact that so many students are signing up to supplement their current university courses suggests that universities are missing something. Opening up courses via MOOCs benefits in-class students by producing a more diverse class for discussion and greatly improved elearning resources.

There is not just one way to learn. Everybody enjoys learning different things and in different ways. Maybe we are witnessing a new way of teaching and learning arising, but it doesn’t necessarily have to replace other ways. More choice can only be a good thing. As Stephen Downes, a MOOC founding-father stated - "MOOCs don't change the nature of the game; they're playing a different game entirely".

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