Sunday, November 15, 2015

MOOCs as open ecosystems

I'm still waiting for the day we can assign the term MOOC to the acronym graveyard (let's discuss open education instead of a cryptic four letter term that is far too vague and open to many interpretations). In the meantime the courses keep coming and the debate continues. The public image of MOOCs is that of the high-end expensive and highly polished courses coming from the major players (Coursera, EdX, FutureLearn etc) and the public perception is that of recorded lectures, self-study and automated self-testing. Little attention is given to all the open, collaborative learning that takes place under the radar without the use of expensive platforms, franchising and tall budgets. So often MOOCs and online education are seen as synonyms rather than the former being a small but highly visible subset of the latter. One recent article by three Stanford professors in Inside Higher Ed, What We’ve Learned From MOOCs, draws conclusions from that university's MOOC ventures in recent years. The article contains few surprises but it's worth discussing some of the points they make.

MOOCs do not replace regular university courses and seldom attract the traditional university target group (19-23 year-olds). Instead we should consider MOOCs as ... a new instructional genre - somewhere between a digital textbook and a successful college course. This comparison with an advanced digital textbook is very apt when applied to the xMOOC sector that Stanford represents. I see great potential in letting other institutions use the material and structure of a MOOC as the backbone of a local course that could include face-to-face or online meetings and tutorials. The key factor here is whether the MOOC provider is willing to openly license the course for reuse and even adaptation or offer some kind of franchising agreement. MOOCs could certainly be used on campus and for credit if the content and structure is complemented by tuition, support, assessment and examination. The main problem is the massive aspect. The academic ideal of small tutorial groups and teacher-student contact is not very scalable on campus (that's why classes of over 100 students tend to be lecture-based). Online you can create lots of smaller study groups with facilitators and this approach is widely used today but once the course gets massive even this approach gets too complicated.

MOOCs in their present form are not the answer to wider access to higher education.
So far they have mostly attracted professionals in developed countries and have not reached those who have no access to traditional higher education. The issue here is providing better support to new student groups, for example by allowing local institutions to provide technical support and help with study skills in the local language, Universities can't provide all the support that inexperienced online learners need and so they need to offer an open interface so that local support structures can easily be added to the ecosystem. Remember that the vast majority of the world has never heard of MOOCs and are often not even aware of online education. They won't find a MOOC unless someone (a local school, community centre, library) tells them about it. Their participation and success will very much depend on the local support they receive and no amount of video guides, FAQ pages or user forums from a far-off university can really replace this. Let's try this approach more and see if the accesibility vision for MOOCs can be realised. We have only just started to address this issue.

Recorded lectures do not lead to effective learning
This is really a no-brainer since the over-reliance on lecturing are exactly what's wrong with traditional higher education. The problem both on campus and online is that universities focus on lecturing not because it enhances learning but because it's easy and cheap to do. Lecturing is very scalable whereas tutoring and interaction are not. This is not just a problem for online courses, many campus students have very little interaction with their teachers. However there are many online courses today that are built around collaboration and interaction and many MOOCs today are experimenting with methods to increase engagement.

MOOCs have raised awareness of the potential on online learning
This is certainly true since so many elite universities have suddenly discovered the field after many years of denial. Martin Weller points out in a short but insightful post, Lessons from the MOOC investment gold rush, that the motivation for many top universities entering the MOOC fray was the fear of been seen as out of date. MOOCs certainly put online learning in the media spotlight and consequently on the boardroom agenda. The problem however was that the MOOC boom failed to build on the lessons learned from years of successful online education at thousands of universities worldwide. The pointlessness of simply stacking up recorded lectures, pdf-files and PowerPoints on a web site and the importance of creating learning communities and fostering peer engagement were well-known before mainstream MOOCs came along (especially in the early collaborative MOOCs of Siemens, Downes, Cormier, Alexander etc). Maybe now the strands can be linked.

MOOCs have not fixed higher education, but they are poignant reminders of the urgent problems of college cost and access, potential forerunners of truly effective educational technology, and valuable tools for advancing the science of learning. That’s progress.

MOOCs certainly haven't fixed anything but they have widened the discussion that was previously restricted to the pioneers and enthusiasts. MOOCs are one element in an ongoing process of experimentation and innovation as education comes to terms with digitalisation and since this is work in progress it's wrong to dismiss the conecpt as failed. It hasn't really started yet. However, one thread running through my comments above is the need to stop seeing MOOCs as the product of one institution or one platform. If you offer a MOOC and you really want diversity, accessibility and higher levels of learner engagement you need to open up the concept and let other institutions and initiatives add auxiliary services, provide local support, adapt to local language and culture and offer alternative forms of engagement. That way I think there is a future for MOOCs. Let's just change the name please.

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