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Robin Hoyle

Huthwaite International

Head of Learning Innovation at Huthwaite International

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This is not just any MOOC…


News today that M&S - knicker retailer to the masses - has joined the MOOC revolution.  The high street store is launching a MOOC with the University of Leeds on the Futurelearn platform.  The three week course starts today (15th September) and will “demonstrate the importance of innovation in growing and sustaining a business.”

This is laudable stuff and I wonder to what extent other businesses will open up their archives to support Universities in producing material with which to attract huge numbers of potential learners. After all, we know many large companies have loads of high quality content which could be similarly re-used to create new learning opportunities.

This is a real win:win option.  The University will gain vital learning about the nature of delivering programmes to significant numbers of students.  What is more, the experience of many Universities in the US who have dipped their toe into the MOOC pond would suggest an increase in student applications directly linked to the higher name recognition which MOOC providers achieve.  Furthermore, M&S can utilise the reach of MOOCs to re-establish themselves in the mind of the public as an innovator within retail.  Certainly, from a historical perspective this is true of M&S.  However, I would suspect that the majority of us who have visited an M&S store recently would reach for other descriptors before ‘innovator’ sprang to mind.

I also noticed this article by Bryant Neilson.  In it he argues that MOOCs require significant levels of preparation. This is especially true if those involved in designing the MOOC have previously been working in an exclusively face to face training/teaching environment. 

Now this seems to be nothing new to me.  When I first moved into online learning in the late 1990’s I also discovered that you need to undertake significant amounts of planning and preparation.  This was even more the case with platforms which relied on high levels of programming resource before you had any kind of online materials worth showing to anyone else.  The hallmark of any good stand-up trainer is often their ability to respond instantly and flexibly. But now that ability to fly a little by the seat of your (M&S) pants was suddenly removed. Every eventuality needed to be anticipated and built into the initial design.

Bryant’s focus on planning echoes (and references) the work of Guo, Kim and Rubin on preparing video sequences for MOOCs. Their research concludes that shorter videos are good (around 6 minutes maximum) and merely recording current lectures and posting them on your platform rarely works. 

I have recently used a MOOC (on the futurelearn platform) and my experience chimes with theirs.  Those videos which were shorter and made specfically for the course where much more use (and I suspect much more frequently used) than those which were longer or created for some other purpose and then made available within the context of the MOOC.

All of this reaffirms my belief that learning design matters.  The way in which we design interventions for learners needs to be specific for the context, the medium and platform and – most importantly – the needs of the learners.  In a MOOC with potentially thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of learners, these needs and aspirations will be more effectively understood and met if you are very clear about what you are setting out to do in the first instance.   What was very clear from my own MOOC experience is that the bulk of learners were primarily interested in being taught things.  Although the collaboration platforms existed and were used by those enrolled, the majority did not engage in the discussions and numbers who actively participated in each stage were relatively low - I would reckon well below 10% of learners in anyone discussion.  The ‘social’ element was the least important component for the majority of those involved. I would suggest that much of the recent discourse around MOOCs in the L&D world has focused most on the social side of these platforms and has given relatively little emphasis to the importance of well-designed inputs by skilled learning designers.

This is not to say that the collaborative opportunities were not valuable or should not be there.  I found them especially useful, helping me order my thoughts on a specific topic and, through contributing to the discussion, think more deeply about what I had read, heard or seen.  I have relatively little evidence of people reading what I wrote apart from a very small number of comments or ‘likes’. This wasn’t important. The learning happened for me when I watched a video I was engaged with, or read a document, or followed a link or listened to a podcast and then tried to articulate what I now understood. You may recognise this as a version of constructivism.  

For many others, their learning happened primarily by acting as consumers of the materials. Perhaps, who knows, they then talked to their friends and family afterwards about what they had seen and heard. What we know for sure is that they didn't contribute to the discussion threads or shared further reading with others.

As with the eLearning I created in the late 1990s (and still create to this day) the important component, on which the whole process stands or falls, is the quality of the content and the skill of the designer in ensuring that it follows a logical flow for a wide number of learners.

This formal online experience requires real skill and real innovation – which, I’m sure, will please M&S.  I sincerely hope that they create a highly quality course for all concerned.  After all, this is not just any eLearning. This is M&S eLearning.

© Robin Hoyle, 2014

Robin Hoyle is the Chair of the World of Learning Conference which will be held at the NEC, Birmingham on September 30th and October 1st, 2014.  He is the lead trainer and consultant for Learnworks Ltd.  He is also the author of Complete Training – from recruitment to retirement published by Kogan Page.

Author Profile Picture
Robin Hoyle

Head of Learning Innovation at Huthwaite International

Read more from Robin Hoyle

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