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MOOCs: The Future of Education?

21 Jul

It is safe to say that MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are helping to change the way lecturers, students and the public access and engage in the education sector and academic institutions.  They are also helping people around the world access education that may otherwise be out-of-bounds to them.  Recent articles in The New York Times and the Guardian have highlighted the inherent value of MOOCs, but there are also questions pertaining to the future of MOOCs and their value to academic institutions themselves.  A key feature of MOOCs is their accessibility for anyone, providing an internet connection is available, with students taking the courses typically numbering in their thousands, sometimes in the tens of thousands.  Another feature, at least for the moment, is the fact that the majority of MOOCs are currently free to sign up for, participate in and to complete.

What is a MOOC?

MOOC’s typically come in the form on web-based lectures in which it is up to the individual to take an active part in the learning, relying on self-discipline to complete set essays and/or exams, depending on how the individual MOOC is assessed.  The format of a MOOC itself can vary on a number of factors, including who is teaching and creating the course content, who the company that provides the course is, and what institution licences the course itself.  Typically a MOOC will include traditional educational course content such as lectures (via online video/audio) and video films, but they can have open goals to achieve and can include expert interviews, participatory science experiments, active online communities to participate in and the opportunity to learn in a more informal setting and diverse student groups.  Importantly the student must have self-discipline and self-regulation to access and complete the online content, digital literacy to navigate access to the course and, of course, the time to dedicate to the MOOC.

The benefits of a MOOC are numerous for both the organizer and the participant and include, but are not limited to, the following:

1) You can move beyond time zones and physical boundaries.

2) You can connect across disciplines and across corporate channels.  The student is not tied down by subject matter or discipline, and can cross scientific and humanities ‘borders’ to take part in various individual courses.

3) You do not need a degree to partake in a MOOC, only the discipline to learn and to keep up with the course.

4) The MOOC can be presented in a variety of languages, engaging a wide global audience.

5) Contextualised content can be shared quickly by all participants.

6) You can use any online tools that are relevant to your target region, or that are already being used by the participants themselves (think social media, website forums and instant communication sites).

Further discussion on MOOC’s, their benefits and criticisms can be read here.

Who Provides and Funds MOOCs?

As highlighted in a 2013 Chronicle of Higher Education diagram and short article, the main companies that provide MOOCs include CourseraKhan AcademyUdacity and EdX.  Funding for these companies comes from several different sources depending on the company itself, but can include capital input from non-profit organisations (such Bill and Melinda gates Foundation, National Science Foundation, MacArthur Foundation etc), venture capitalists , universities themselves (Caltech, Harvard, Stanford, MIT etc) or large companies (such as Google and the publisher Pearson).  Coursera now charges licensing fees when educational institutions use their courses, whilst ‘gateway’ MOOC courses to university degree programs are typically charged for the student to take part in.  Other revenue streams for MOOC providers include employee recruitment, secure assessments, applicant screening, tuition fees and sponsorship whilst Coursera, Udacity and Edx all gain revenue from the certification of completed courses.

moocccc

Some of the main providers of MOOCs (Image credit: Minding the Campus).

The MOOC courses above all offer certification on the completion of individual courses taken, and some of them can be used as academic credit depending on the educational institution.  I must point out here that a number of different companies, universities, educational establishments and even government’s have set up their own MOOC courses which may not offer accreditation or a certification of completion.  Always be aware of the accreditation of any courses that you are taking and take the time to research the company background to see if the course offers any academic credit, certification of completion or accreditation.

Completion Rates and Discussion Points

The British current affairs magazine Private Eye has, in a recent issue, highlighted the ongoing research of UK PhD candidate Katy Jordan, who studies the completion rates of MOOCs across a variety of topics and universities in various countries.  The stats and figures makes for interesting reading, highlighting as they do the low completion rates for 29 MOOCs so far studied in the research (an average completion rate of under 10%, whilst Private Eye quote just 6.8%).  It is worth noting that MOOC courses are being added to the research dataset over the course of Jordan’s investigation and research.  The completion rates are low but, when translated as people who have completed the courses, they typically number in the thousands.  Still, it is worth keeping a note of Jordan’s research to highlight the larger themes of why there is such a low completion rate.

Importantly MOOC’s offer a fundamentally different way for individuals to take part in education itself.  As highlighted on John Hawk’s weblog last month, the success of 17-year-old Daniel, an individual with severe autism, on the completion of several different MOOC courses has opened up the way in which he interacts with the education establishment, knowledge itself and, ultimately, people.  The coursea blog article on Daniel highlights how he managed to take part and complete several university level humanities courses, with the help of his dedicated family and the MOOC providers despite his autism.  The courses gave him the confidence to help peer review his course mates essays, and to expand his own knowledge and self articulation.  This is accessible education for the masses, wherever and whoever you are.

It is clear that MOOCs are becoming more and more incorporated and entrenched within academic life at the University level across the globe, particularly in America and the UK.  Yet there has been backlash against certain courses, particularly regarding perceived intellectual copyright infringement and the way Universities view MOOC’s themselves.  Thomas Leddy, a philosopher caught up in the recent Jan José State University open letter fiasco, highlights the fact that “the vibrant ecosystem of higher learning as a whole will decline because fewer and fewer students will actually be inspired by live teachers or will even read books by such teachers”.  His article, in the Boston Review, laments the fact that MOOC’s de-value the effort of reading key literature, critical thinking and the effort of writing critically.  Is this view justified?  Certainly there are MOOC’s online where there is no critical thinking involved, where the conclusion of the study is a multiple choice quiz, which, it could be said, limits the actual value of completing the course.  However that could also be said of certain modules taught throughout the educational system.  We are only at the beginning of the MOOC revolution, and I firmly believe that to draw negative conclusions at this early stage is to risk losing out on an important dynamic educational resource when we have already seen so many benefits of the courses to so many people.

Part of the Educational Family

Ultimately it is clear that whilst there are conflicts of interest between academic institutions, MOOC providers and the people who access the courses themselves, MOOCs are a helpful educational tool.  They are able to inform a diverse and interested audience on the latest research developments in a number of disciplines, if they are produced and evaluated in the correct way.  In human osteology and physical anthropology it is, to my mind, a given that you must have physical access to actual bones or casts to learn the anatomy and idiosyncrasies of the skeletal system.  However a MOOC could, with clear and efficient images, provide a relevant and informative view on skeletal anatomy, human evolution and knowledge of archaeological sites quite successfully.   This is where, of course, a combined academic course would come in useful but even so the dissemination of scientific knowledge to a wide audience is heavily encouraged, especially from experts in the field who can communicate clearly and efficiently.

It is clear however that neither model of residential university level education or MOOC can outrank or compete with each other.  Every educational establishment must offer a variety of ways to learn that offer an integrative learning environment in which both the lecturer and the student benefit.  MOOCs offer an important, and possibly integral, part to play in this.  I, for one, am keen to see what the future holds for MOOCs, and I look forward to taking part in John Hawks MOOC ‘Human Evolution: Past and Future‘ in January 2014.

Further Reading:

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