MOOC poster April 4, 2013 by Mathieu Plourde licensed CC-BY on Flickr

MOOC poster April 4, 2013 by Mathieu Plourde licensed CC-BY on Flickr

Are MOOC’s the answer to the problems facing Higher Education or are they a threat that will damage learning at degree level? In this blog post we take a quick look at some of the prevailing issues.

Massive Open Online courses (MOOC’s) have major issues to overcome.  This was the view put forward by Ormond Simpson at last year’s Research and Innovation in Distance Education and e-learning (RIDE) conference. Those creating the courses need to solve the problem that not everyone joining a course will be at the same level of education or have a similar skill set to one another.  Course creators need to adapt their materials to a variety of learner types and provide a workable apparatus for helping students who fall behind the others.

RIDE2013 presentation: A puzzled look at MOOCs from Centre for Distance Education

But there is a more fundamental issue with MOOC’s.  Are they actually appropriate as a model for Higher Education at all?  BBC Radio 4 has recently asked a similar question on their ‘My Teacher is an app’ series of shows. On the one hand MOOC’s might help to democratise learning by enabling those that would never have been able to afford university training to receive it for free with only an internet connection required. On the other hand, MOOC’s can never replicate the interaction between students and student and lecturer. A University degree provides so much more than learning materials.

BBC Radio 4 “The University of the Future”, My Teacher is an App

Some might say that this doesn’t matter. Creating an environment in which almost anyone can learn from the experts has to be a good thing in freeing up knowledge and giving people the skills and knowledge that they need and want. But is this what MOOC’s actually offer? According to Sarah Montague, BBC narrator for ‘My Teacher is an App’, a survey carried out by Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education found that about 80% of people taking MOOC’s already had a degree. How democratising are MOOC’s in that case?

Furthermore there is a danger here that in a time of austerity and cost reduction, MOOC’s might become a new way for universities to save money. Could the University of the future become a distance-only affair; is the traditional university seminar and lecture about to die a painful death? That’s probably an over-reaction, but the danger is there.

At RIDE 2013 Alison Littlejohn presented the results of her research into student participation in MOOC’s. According to this research only a small proportion of learners are ‘active’ in a MOOC course. Most prefer to lurk in the background or learn passively. So there are still major challenges to overcome to ensure that MOOC’s offer something to everyone, and that pedagogy is not forgotten or lost and that student participation is encouraged. In my experience online training is useful and effective, but it is no substitute for face-to-face. Online training should only ever be an addition, not a replacement.

Beyond pedagogical issues there is also a more fundamental problem with MOOC’s and we must again come back to money.  Start-up costs have thus far been largely handled by donations and support from companies such as Microsoft who believe that the returns in the future will be good, but what happens if MOOC’s fail to find a financial model to sustain them beyond this initial pump-funding?  If the pedagogical argument is lost for higher education use of MOOC’s then who would fund or make available similar courses for other purposes?  I can’t quite see lifelong learning courses (for example) having enough money available to sustain MOOC’s on the current level.

So where does this leave us?  There is a challenge here in making MOOC’s work on a pedagogical level.  Student needs have to be addressed and retention rates improved.  But then there is a financial problem as well.  Where will the money come from?  How can educational institutions fund such a system and should they even try to do so?  MOOC’s do indeed offer challenges to Higher Education, but if handled right, they can indeed prove to be a highly useful tool, but only one tool amongst many.

If anyone reading this post has any ideas the School of Advanced Study would love to hear them.  Do you think MOOC’s work?  What do you think their future will be?  Let us know in the comments below!

RIDE 2013 took place on 1 November 2013 at Senate House (University of London). Slide Shows and Videos of the talks are now available at the Centre for Distance Education website. ‘My Teacher is an App’ talked about MOOC’s on 3 March 2014 for the episode ‘The University of the Future’. The podcast can be found on the BBC Radio 4 website.