January 29, 2016

Moocs: overrated or under-appreciated?

We students of Open Science - the better science? at Vienna University's STS department were asked to think about the reported benefits of MOOCs. This short blog post was my attempt.

MOOCs are victims of their own hype. Both the infrastructure and content providers claimed that MOOCs would be able to change the world for the better, such as Stanford University’s president (Daniel, 2012). It has, however, lost some of its lustre more recently, as most hyped technologies do. As Bates notes, MOOCS are these days little more than the free and somewhat arrogant distribution of whatever materials the big universities deign to put online. That being said, perhaps we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater, and there might be some worthwhile things to take from them before they are consigned to educational history.

The first, as Daniel notes, is that the practice educational institutions are getting in setting up these courses might reap some benefit at a later date, akin to the moon-shot approach to rocketry and space exploration (2012). These benefits cannot come too soon.

Secondly, there is the possibility that if the institutions would actually accredit the courses that they offer, then higher education could be massively democratised. Until it is in their interest to do so, though, this hope will be somewhat forlorn.

The third possible benefit is that with more access to the teaching materials and methods, the universities would have to pay more attention to their pedagogical quality. As Daniel explains, this will not be well taken by Ivy League or Oxbridge institutions (2012). Their reputations are based on research and not on teaching quality, and any changes will be resisted. However, in my opinion this is rather inevitable. Indeed, I cannot see why, in the future, teaching and accreditation have to be done in the same institution for each student. I think the time may well come when we can study at something like the Khan academy, and take an exam at Cambridge. Obviously this will not work for research based degrees, but some bachelor’s courses could well be offered completely online as long as the course work and exams are graded and invigilated properly. This might lead to the separation of teaching, examination, and research.

The final benefit, as Daniel sees it, is that MOOCs (or what is left of them, at least) could help to bring the costs of education down. This, again, is not necessarily in the interests of the institutions, who are quite happy to take tuition fees to help fund their research. However, it is possible that by cutting down on real estate and other costs by having some parts of some courses online, some universities might pass the savings down to the students. I am sceptical of this.

Most of these benefits will really only be the same as further introducing what we already call blended learning, and so I am not convinced that the benefits that Daniel notes represent anything other than a gentle evolution of existing practices. It is certainly not a revolution.  

An ideal MOOC that I would be interested in taking would have no entrance requirements; be completely online with video lectures and interactive tasks; give access via email or a Skype-like application to a human tutor who could monitor my progress and give real feedback; be run by a non-profit organisation; and finally award me with a real degree that had equal weight with a campus-based honour.

In fact, that would be exactly the same as the bachelor’s course I started at the Open University in 2003, only with online resources replacing the books and videos and Skype replacing the telephone. There really is nothing new under the sun.

Daniel, J. (2012). Making sense of MOOCs: Musings in a maze of myth, paradox and possibility. Journal of interactive Media in education, 2012(3)

1 comment:

  1. I remember a presentation at Alpbach Technology Talks some years ago where a researcher explained his experience with MOOCs. They are really important for developing countries if there is no adequate education system. This was just a single opinion but it shaped my view on MOOCs. From our (European) viewpoint the end of MOOCs may be true for our education system but we have to consider remote access to knowledge is seen different in other cultures. It cannot be equal with a campus course - it is more or less a substitute! Probably they were hyped bud we should not judge them without knowing about the relevance for others.