MOOC-ing About

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It’s pretty certain now that most of you will have heard of MOOCs. ‘Massive Open Online Courses’, for that is what the acronym means, have been taking the university world by storm in the last few months. And if newspaper interest is anything to go by, they look to be here to stay.

The idea is simple. Course materials are provided online, through podcasts, vodcasts (the frankly horrible name given to video podcasts), and virtual learning environments. They are generally free and open to all.

The Guardian has been leading the mediagasm. A string of recent articles, some even containing facts, have extolled the virtue of MOOCs. Few voices of dissent have been aired. Perhaps the paper likes the idea of doing a whole university course from the comfort of their toe-curlingly named Shoreditch café, #guardiancoffee (yes, really). Perhaps, having charged heavily into online media themselves, and having duly haemorrhaged money, they just want universities to do the same thing so they won’t feel so daft.

MOOCs ‘have no race, colour, sex or wealth barriers’, gushed a recent Observer piece, getting just a touch silly. In fact, ‘The past few centuries have witnessed revolutions in virtually every area of our world – health, transport, communications and genomics, to name but a few. But not in education. Until now, that is, with the advent of Moocs (massive open online courses).’ Wow. There was me thinking this was a nice way of getting university research to a wider audience. In fact, MOOCs are a human achievement up there with railways, the discovery of DNA and the polio vaccine.

It was news to me that until MOOCs arrived over the horizon, universities were all massively racist and sexist, but – well – the author was the president of a MOOC provider and, hey, he’s got a product to sell so I’ll let him off, er, slandering the entire profession. But there’s a bigger issue here, which is whether the MOOC really is such a promising model for the future. Certainly they will be some part of the higher education landscape in years to come, but are they really going to revolutionise the industry?

I mean, it’s not as if internet teaching is new. My own institution, Oxford (hardly always the quickest university to embrace change), has had online courses since the late 1990s. Online degrees are all the rage at the moment, particularly part-time postgraduate courses: a reflection of a tough funding climate and the need of many students to work to fund their studies.

But the thing about MOOCs is that they are open, free, and – well – massive. And this has two very significant implications. It means that universities don’t make any money from them, and that students don’t really get taught.

Of course, universities are not profit-making institutions. They are there to serve the public good and not the needs of capitalism. But as lovely as this idea is, they won’t survive unless someone pays for them, and given that the government doesn’t look likely to do that, they will have to find the cash themselves. And providing their services free to everyone isn’t going to help.

As a result, MOOCs are not really going to be used in order to foster utopian ideals of free tertiary education for everyone. They will simply become elaborate marketing tools. ‘You’ve done the MOOC, now pay £9,000 a year to do the BA!’. They are not about opening access, they are about disseminating the brand.

But their size also means they won’t be properly taught. At the risk of sounding like a total Luddite and never being allowed back into Shoreditch, most students like having an actual tutor. They like the time that their tutor devotes to coaching them through the difficult ideas they encounter; they like the fact that their work will be given back to them with detailed feedback and personalized suggestions for future improvement. This doesn’t mean that internet teaching can’t work, it just means that it has to come as close as possible to the experience of actually meeting your teachers. There is no way that MOOCs can supply this if hundreds of thousands of students are doing them at the same time.

Quite apart from this, their size means that they can’t be assessed and thus cannot confer credit. Employers will be about as interested in all your MOOC completions as they are in your stamp collection.

So, in the long run, there will be fairly little market for Massive courses, and universities will not be able to keep them Open forever. Perhaps the future lies in Middling Private Online Courses (MiPOCs, which sounds like an eighteenth century disease), or even Middling Closed Online Courses (MiCOCs, which is just lewd).

MOOCs, if they survive, will end up being a bit like TV documentaries. Basically Attenborough, but without the flashy production and with a reading list.

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