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Valerie Nichols

Hemsley Fraser

Executive consultant

Read more from Valerie Nichols

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Should you use MOOCs in learning?


There is much to consider before incorporating MOOCs into your learning solutions, says Valerie Nichols.

There is a great deal of interest in the learning community in MOOCs - Massive Open Online Courses - with various factions alternatively hailing MOOCs as the future of learning or decrying MOOCs as just the latest fad. So, what’s really going on?

The term MOOC was coined in 2008 to denote a new way of learning in a networked world. A MOOC is an online course - with a facilitator, materials and participants - but unlike a traditional online learning course, it enables large numbers of participants to connect and collaborate together to better understand a subject area or to promote new thinking. It’s also free. MOOCs were originally conceived as an innovation in higher education. The noble aim was to create online classes that could deliver quality education free to anyone in the world. University professors began creating online courses, in a range of academic areas, comprising weekly tutorial videos, interactive learning exercises, quizzes, online discussion forums, peer interaction and follow-up homework. The participants freely engaged with the materials and with each other in networked communities.

In the US, new web-based platforms were developed to support MOOCs, including EdX, a not-for-profit institution created by MIT and Harvard; Udacity, set up by a former Stanford professor, and Coursera, founded by two Stanford computer scientists. In the UK, FutureLearn has been established by the Open University amongst others. MOOCs have subsequently developed outside the traditional university system and different ‘types’ have evolved (cMOOCs, xMOOCs and vMOOCs) in what seems to be a ‘stampede‘ to jump onto the MOOC bandwagon.

Impact on learning

While the application of MOOCs continues to evolve, the substantive discussion that is being highlighted revolves around understanding how people learn so that learning providers can make informed design and delivery decisions that might, or might not, include MOOCs. 

It is generally accepted that a research-based learning environment is crucial to effective learning, whether that environment is virtual or face-to-face. Such an environment will encourage learners to persevere by: creating a safe, challenging ‘setting’ and early ‘wins’; using a variety of delivery styles and engaging activities; providing culturally sensitive and individualised learning that acknowledges various learning styles and preferences; helping learners to question their own assumptions, engage in thoughtful questioning and take responsibility for their own learning.

Trends research conducted by, a global learning portal, finds that learning professionals have a curation job to do, to ensure that the content and learning remains focused on the needs of the business. In many cases, this connection requires a degree of tailoring, however minimal, that is unavailable with MOOCs.  

Research over the past half century or so has demonstrated the value of instructional guidance, particularly in those cases where learners are exploring new ideas and may need help in understanding complex concepts, identifying relevant information or incorporating these concepts or information into their own work or activities. In these cases, just-in-time access to a subject matter expert who can ask or respond to probing questions and who can provide guidance and clarification is highly beneficial. Some MOOCs offer access to teaching assistants but others rely on peer-to-peer learning. 

Some learners are self-motivated, have good study skills and have supportive technology readily available to them. But this doesn’t apply to everyone. MOOCs can only work if people are proactive. The participants have to set their own goals, create their own content and they have to find peers who share their specific interests. The whole process is organic, which means the course will take on its own trajectory, so people have to be comfortable with an unstructured and unpredictable outcome.

Even those organisations that provide virtual connectivity use a variety of platforms and they may have significant security restrictions that would hinder an individual’s ability to access a MOOC. While technology can be used to promote learning, it is not essential to learning, except of course, in those cases where the learning objective involves mastery of technology. Sometimes, however, the technology can get in the way. For example, it is difficult to concentrate on a video lecture. There’s a reason why most YouTube videos last only two-three minutes! In all cases, it is important that design and delivery mechanisms incorporate choices that can be accessed and enjoyed by all learners.  

Regardless of motivation, achieving a behaviour change, as opposed to gaining new skills or information, tends to be more difficult and to require a more immersive and real-life experience. So, while MOOCs can play a role in helping people change their attitudes and behaviour by providing information and background, it could be that more effective support for such changes is best provided through other means.

Most learning experiences include the development of networks and close relationships between learners and that fosters ongoing engagement. British anthropologist Robin Dunbar has theorised that we are capable of maintaining only a limited number of stable social relationships, probably in the region of 150. Our experience supports his theory and leads us to incorporate large interactive mechanisms that support casual contacts, such as blogs, into our learning experiences while also encouraging small group engagement, such as peer-to-peer mentoring and small working group activities. While learners in MOOCs may share networking information, our experience has been that learners are most likely to develop mutually-supportive relationships with smaller, rather than larger groups and that establishing these groups within a MOOC appears to be problematic in many cases.  

At this time, it appears that MOOCs are in a nascent state. They certainly have potential as a delivery option, particularly as part of a distance-learning degree. In this way, they’ve already opened up education to the masses. However, they have some way to go to prove their ability to consistently deliver effective learning experiences to diverse audiences on work-related topics.  

Valerie Nichols is an executive consultant with Hemsley Fraser, the learning and development company. She can be contacted here

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Valerie Nichols

Executive consultant

Read more from Valerie Nichols

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