Seeing the news today concerning the University of Edinburgh joining the Coursera project partnership has prompted me to summarise my notes from attending last week’s JISC Webinar ‘What is a MOOC’? ‘Massive Online Open Courses’ have been around for some time and I had my first forays in participating in such a course earlier in the year. My thoughts were also brought into focus by George Siemens recent blog post ‘Open Letter to Canadian Universities‘ raising his concerns for Canadian HE in the face of significant MOOC development and growth, particularly in the US.
The JISC webinar chaired by Dave Kernohan with presentations by Martin Weller, Jonathan Worth, Lou McGill and Dave White was probably one of the most informative such events that I have participated in.
Martin Weller’s stated aim was to set the tone and provide some background. He referred to David Wiley, George Siemens, Stephen Downes, Alec Couros, Dave Cormier and Jim Groom as the MOOC pioneers, and characterised the early MOOC courses as: run by individuals; open to all, using a mix of free technology; not often accredited; combining synchronous and non-synchronous elements; involving invited experts; 8-10 weeks duration and ultimately experimental in nature. They were also popular and inspirational, though tended to have a high drop out rate and were perhaps better suited to the experienced learner. Martin then went on to describe a second stage of development with institution engagement and MOOC platform development with the mention of Seb. Thrun’s Stanford AI course with over 120K participants and the founding of Udacity. Other developments included Harvard’s collaboration with MIT to form edX and Coursera emerging from Stanford. Martin assessed the benefits of these organised large scale developments as providing better chances for recognition, especially in terms of association, a potentially economically viable model, and the development of platforms that new entrants can potentially engage with. Possible concerns though included undermining the university model, a tendency to conservative approaches, issues over viability only being achieved on a very large scale, and another route for the commercialisation of higher education. One of the final points made though was the quality of these courses is very good.
Following on from Martin Weller was Jonathan Worth taking the perspective of teaching openly and using the model ‘opening’ existing courses (e.g. PICBOD, PHONAR). Jonathan described only entering teaching 3 years ago and so had to learn fast. He made the interesting point that his initial sessions were partly open from the start because of student use of personal technologies. In his discipline of Photography students were already connecting with professionals external to the course through environments such as Flickr, and it was the academics who were not connecting! He described ‘curating a learning journey’ and being a contextualiser rather than a broadcaster, and saw the importance of using student spaces.
Lou McGill provided the perspective of both a learner and an evaluator having been a MOOC participant (DS106 & Change11). Lou described how the motivations for learners enrolling on MOOCs were likely to be highly variable, and that challenges faced could include that of language, timing, isolation, culture and responsibility. She made the point of potential inequalities as it was those individuals that already had high levels of capacity who were tending to participate. Her concluding thoughts were in reference to courses such as referred to by Jonathan Worth where an existing course has opened for any individual to participate. Benefits identified included authentic learning experiences, sharing and openness, and broaden perspectives.
The last to speak was Dave White. He discussed issues of credibility and relationships with a trusted name, and the potential missing element of ‘See me’ – the personal element, the call of the teacher to discuss a submitted assignment – could this be scaled up to MOOC proportions? Further questions posed included ‘are we making connections or just throwing out content & MCQs?’, are such courses viable much beyond the computer science disciplines?, could the ‘hub’ of learning be moving from the institution to the individual?
A final few thoughts
As with such webinars there was a significant text chat running in parallel with one area of discussion centring on ‘lurkers’ in a MOOC, with links made with the webinar. In the case of the webinar I think this was a result of its own success, and with the richness of session and links to follow up there was little time to reflect and pose questions unless already immersed in the issues.
Recent announcements and press releases (e.g. see Richard Perez-Pena, New York Times [via @marksmithers]; Sean Coughlan, BBC) would seem to indicate that there will be continued significant growth in this form of delivery. The impact on HE more broadly will be dependent on factors discussed above particularly whether the model breaks out of the primarily computer based disciplines, issues of accreditation (apparently some institutions are already planning accrediting such courses and of course the OER University has been modelling accrediting pathways through OER resources) and recognition, economics and critically a theme running through all of the above presentations – that of the learner and educational experience. One impact may be to put pressure on existing courses to look towards enhancing openness, but also serving to emphasis the value of the teacher – “Rather than replacing the teacher, technology has in many ways increased the focus on pedagogic skills. The art of the practitioner as instigator, designer and animateur remains key to the process of learning” JISC 2009.