14 March 2013

To MOOC or not to MOOC? That is the question (and no, it won't be on the test)

MOOC is not yet a verb (surely only a matter of time). Rather it is an acronym for Massive Open Online Courses.

These are courses, offered free, with numbers of viewers in the tens of thousands. They are delivered typically by video and have online discussion boards and blogs to critique, expand and analyse. Platforms for MOOCs include Coursera, FutureLearn and edX.

We were lucky enough to have Jonathan Kydd, an IDS alumnus and now Dean of International Programmes at the University of London, come to talk to us this week about MOOCs.

They have a number of advantages for participants, including:

1. They are usually high quality (who wants to put their mediocre stuff out there for all to see?). Coursera's bold claim is "Take the World's Best Courses, Online, For Free"
2. They are made for social media-they can be embedded, tweeted, and shared easily --and then discussed.  They are thought to lead to the building of knowledge networks
3. They can be participatory--with lots of feedback given on provided presentations and new additions to the learning materials provided by participants
4. They are a relatively low cost way (they are not free if they are using your time) of checking out a potential University or set of faculty
5. They help participants fit their learning in around other parts of their lives

They are not a substitute for a face to face set of interactions on a campus, but they are a complement (pre or post a traditional degree) and possibly an alternative. There are high drop out rates, but then the number of participants taking a final test for a certificate is very high compared to a traditional course.

Why on earth would universities or faculty want to give this stuff away for free?

1. It profiles the academics and the Universities. Look at what we do and how good we are at it.  This is helpful to raise awareness and attract students, faculty and funding opportunities. Some observers think that the number of views of your MOOC might become an important element of the way academics and universities are evaluated for promotion and funding. (Would a MOOC viewed by 100,000 people contribute well to a REF Impact score?)
2. It raises the pedagogic standards--within the university (so that's how she/he does it!)
3. It helps spread ideas and viewpoints from the host university (meme anyone?)
4. It creates a wider learning network for your students who are perhaps also taking this course as one in 20 courses for a full time accredited degree
5. It is a way of getting in on the ground floor of something that might end up being really big (a disruptive technology for higher education, as some say).

There are sceptics (see this Financial Times article from this week). Points include:

  • MOOCS do not lead to greater employability -- still the key motive for first degrees
  • technology/bandwidth is too big a barrier in many countries
  • it is just froth--we will have forgotten about it in 18 months
  • mass online=dumbed down material through new suppliers coming in with cheaper material
  • it does not democratise learning, it concentrates content in the hands of the powerful
  • it takes too many resources to set up a course (some estimate £25k)
  • it perpetuates an American way of viewing the world (because so many of the first movers are American elite universities)
  • they will not make money
  • they will lead to stealing of intellectual property and rampant plagiarism

All valid concerns, but all--in principle-manageable, it seems to me. Indeed, many have managed it. And Open University have been delivering related models for a long time now (they are behind FutureLearn).

There is even a growing research programme around MOOCS (see an interesting example here).

Higher Education is changing fast (see an IPPR report published this week too). Like any new technology, MOOCs surely have the potential to be used for good teaching and learning. 

Are they being used for teaching and learning in development? Have you MOOCed yet?  


rupertsimons said...

I live in Liberia and have organized a discussion group for people who are taking Banerjee and Duflo's 'Poor Economics' course online. The course is at https://www.edx.org/courses/MITx/14.73x/2013_Spring/about

We have a group of half Liberians, half expatriate development workers. It's really interesting for us and eye-opening for the Liberian students who have never been exposed to cutting-edge, rigorous thinking in development before. It would be fantastic if IDS could do something similar. Bandwidth is a real problem for us, though, so it helps to keep online lectures and audio materials to a minimum, or, if you feel you must be 'multimedia', at least include a transcript of the lecture, and the slides.

aidnography said...

Interesting coincidence: I wrote about MOOCs & development yesterday on my blog:
'4 reasons why MOOCs should be discussed in international development' (http://aidnography.blogspot.com/2013/03/4-reasons-why-moocs-should-be-discussed.html), focussing on local partnerships, reducing 'academia' to teaching and the digital brain drain. I also received a few quite critical comments around the MOOCs 'hype' and its implications for development teaching

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Balachandra Iyer said...

The issue of employability is still crucial, esp. in a developing country context. Seats in good universities/institutes are filled through highly competitive procedures. Willy-nilly, irrespective of the quality of the pedagogy, it is a given that only the 'best' are admitted into the course. It is this that attracts employers.
Where admission is 'open', the natural presumption (from an average employer or even peer perspective) unfortunately is that these are opted for primarily by those who were not good enough to get into 'regular' courses.
One possible solution could be of Universities leaning on potential head-hunters to consider open-course students also during campus-placements. Or,perhaps some assurance that students assessed outstanding in open-courses would be considered for research by the University itself. Without a linkage with employability, open courses would perhaps struggle in attracting the best- at least the younger lot.

Mark Grant said...

This is definitely the way to go - to finally democratize education. I am involved in a group that is setting up an open online architecture degree in South Africa, and whilst there is general acceptance for a new modality in delivering education, there are still many roadblocks associated with 'old paradigm' thinking.

Sayeeda Afreen said...

I've been taking Coursera courses on and off for half a year now with varying degrees of committment - when I was based in Dhaka my internet streaming and access to articles and books were an issue, now that I'm back in NYC my time committment is the problem. I often enroll, download the course and revisit when I'm able- and am still able to enjoy it this way. Unlike youtube lectures and videos, this provides a framework to work within.
There are a few climate and economic/energy sustainability courses being offered now but I've yet to see a development course. I think IDS should throw itself into the mix with something foundational and another far more specific, niche topic to boost the Institute's profile, to be the first to offer and challenge MOOC community interested in dev issues- perhaps offer an impact or technical overview course that practioners can turn to.

I'm not certain that the high dropout rates or employability aspects should be placed so prominently in the discussion- an online course vs online degree are seperate things, and I understand Coursera to be a way to explore interests and subjects. The number of people who enroll are staggering but looking at it in a classic way of pass/ fail might miss the point of a MOOC - its meant to be free and malleable.

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