Three simple reasons why MOOCs are a good thing

A group of UK universities (mine included) have embarked upon a new initiative called “FutureLearn” which seeks to take the raw success of MOOC providers like Udacity, EdX and Coursera (almost exclusively North American) and build them into a diverse and viable teaching framework.  This is a really exciting opportunity for the UK universities involved, and I am looking forward to seeing how it turns out.  I also have a vested interest, as I am (as of a couple of weeks ago) chairing a Faculty committee on the integration of technology into student learning.  However, I have been reading a lot of material about MOOCs that has been less than positive and so I think it is probably worth pointing out some important benefits of MOOCs to help balance the debate:

1. MOOCs increase access to education

Every year we hear that Oxford and Cambridge have too many white, wealthy, privately-educated students and not enough recruitment from less privileged backgrounds.  Even outside of Oxbridge, students tend to be younger (18-21), white, without children, and from a relatively well-off background. When students arrive at university, those who drop-out tend to be older or have competing commitments (such as childcare or finances).  MOOCs provide a far more flexible method to access education, which can fit around other commitments that might otherwise prevent a student from attending or completing their course.  In this sense, MOOCs can be used as complementary to existing university teaching.  They can also be used to taking teaching into completely new environments – particularly the developing world.

2. MOOCs provide free introductions to varied topics

Another great benefit of MOOCs is the fact that they do not have to be limited to university students. At a time when polytechnics and colleges are closing or turning into universities, there are fewer and fewer places where people can simply turn-up and learn something.  The absence of a commitment to MOOCs means that prospective users can try something new with no concerns over time or financial investment.  This free dissemination of ideas is a concept that should be central to the mission of universities, but which has not been optimised to make the most of the current growth in technology.  In this sense, the low completion rates of MOOCs (check out Katy Jordan’s excellent blog post on MOOC stats) should not be seen as a bad thing but as a symptom of the way that people will engage with free information.

3. MOOCs challenge conventional teaching methods

One of the most common objections to MOOCs that I have heard from academics is that “if I put all my lectures online then the students won’t turn up”.  The response that I give (though sometimes not quite so bluntly) is “If you can be replaced by a computer screen then you should be”.  The idea that teaching is a unidirectional flow of information from teacher to student, assessed by a single three-hour essay 12 weeks later, has become too much of a norm rather than an exception in teaching.  MOOCs cover the absolute fundamentals: the transmission of data to students.  The teacher then needs to develop innovative and engaging ways to ensure that the students are actually learning.  There are plenty of brilliant teachers around (I’m lucky to have worked, and be working, with many!) and I’ll be writing more about some of the tips and tricks that can be used in later posts.

In summary, MOOCs aren’t trying to replace university education. MOOCs provide additional benefits (in terms of access, low commitment, and teaching practice) that can be used alongside or traditional teaching, or as a general education resource.  However, universities will always be needed for (i) the interactive element of teaching, and (ii) instruction in technical skills which require special facilities.  Once the MOOC experiment matures, I have no doubt that we will see how they fit into the broader educational landscape.

If you found this interesting, I have a collection of posts on blended learning and teaching technology:

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