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MOOCs: disruptive, revolutionary or false dawn?


There’s a new kid on the block, and he’s getting too big to ignore. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are collections of online courses created for mass participation, accessed through the web.  Anyone, anywhere in the world can enrol with no more than an internet connection.  MOOCs come in all shapes and sizes, from the Khan Academy aimed at children of school age, to EdX created by Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), to Udacity or Coursera, both launched as Silicon Valley start-ups.

First, let’s look at the positives. MOOCs claim to offer equality.  Learners can pick and choose which MOOC they use and the courses they enrol on, creating a learning programme which is personalised to their needs.  Learners retain their independence and have the ability to discuss and collaborate with like-minded people from around the world. 

MOOCs have the potential to overcome obstacles facing learners in gaining access to education due to insufficient funds, lack of opportunity and the geographical position.  For some, the excitement is in what MOOCs (may) represent:  a transformative revolution in education which creates an equal playing field where elitism no longer exists.  

Pedagogically, courses can be highly interactive: using blogs, videos, podcasts and forums to embed learning and allow learners to collaborate and solve real problems.  The best MOOCs allow real discussion of ideas, theories and concepts and provide a place for peer review and assessment. These are all really attractive propositions.

And a disruptive influence on the ‘old ways’ is already being felt in the HE sector. By changing the fundamental principles of access to learning and the way courses are delivered, MOOCs challenge the establishment. In uncertain times, many learning institutions must make the choice – to move with the times or be left behind.

But in our excitement, we have to remember that there’s also a number of negatives.

The flip side to this euphoria is that MOOCs can be under-resourced, pedagogically uninteresting and unchallenging, or just plain boring.  Lack of assessment or peer review and the absence of accreditation are just a few of the challenges facing MOOCs.  But there is one major problem that is universal to all MOOCs and to learning technologies as a whole.  Yes, the magic ingredient - engagement.

Research shows that on average only 7.7% of learners complete courses. Just like with an e-learning course or an LMS, incentives like certificates and badges can be used to keep learners on board. But there still remains the million-learner question. How can low completion figures be reconciled with something which is truly ‘revolutionary’ over the long term? 

One solution being currently explored is increasing sustainability and investment by inviting businesses to harness MOOCs.  L&D managers are looking at other ways to upskill and train their colleagues and MOOCs are seen as a viable option. Small Private Online Courses (SPOCS), hosted on a MOOC, deliver specific courses created by an individual business to target members of their workforce. 

Organisations like the IMF are using SPOCS to deliver economic training to government officials, creating bespoke courses accessed by a selective group.  Many businesses use global LMS systems, but equally common are different platforms for different territories.  By using a SPOC, global companies gain an online space for different groups to learn together, exchange ideas and also to shape their own learning.

So are MOOCs the future of online learning?  We know systems constantly evolve and learning systems are no different.   Now in its infancy, for example, is the cloud-based Self Organised Learning Environment (SOLE).  Systems also interact: Moodle Partners have already launched the first dedicated MOOC.  The future probably lies in learning eco-systems which combine the benefits of closed and open learning platforms and networks to create maximum engagement.  MOOCs will definitely play some role in this. How big a role depends on how big a figure 7.7% grows to be. 

One Response

  1. Are they all they are cracked up to be?

    Another really good post.

    Like you, I think MOOC's will play a role in the future of learning and development but they still have some way to go before they can truly integrate into the world of corporate learning.

    One of the issues you highlighted right at the start of the post was that they "claim to offer equality" and I think that is a really big issue.  At the moment, it's only a claim.  On the face of things, they do appear to make learning more accessible for all.  However, as outlined in this article by eLearning Africa there are many other issues involved which should be considered, such as internet connection, speed of connection (which affects both the access a learner can have and the type of content you can offer), availability of hardware… and those are just the tangible issues.  And I think some of the same issues apply here in the UK and across other developed nations. 

    I guess we watch this space and see how things develop.


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