Every so often a fad grabs hold of higher education. Usually there is at its heart some genuine and interesting concept or development, but as the academic community or parts of it start to analyse the concept they become over-awed, and suddenly the hype takes over. A perfect example of this kind of mass hysteria is the noise generated by MOOCs.
A MOOC – ‘massive open online course’ – is a straightforward enough phenomenon, though you might ask what benefit its early supporters thought it might bring. It is a course put on the internet by a university or other institution, and which can be accessed for free by any number of participants (or students). The level of staff-student interaction may vary, from none at all to intensive. The first serious experiment in this field was a UK publicly funded (or subsidised) venture called UKeU (UK eUniversities Worldwide Limited), which also involved Sun Microsystems as a strategic partner. Its mission was to offer online courses designed by existing universities. It launched the first courses in 2003, but three years later it closed down, having been deemed a failure.
But this failure was a temporary blip, and by the end of the decade the term ‘MOOCs’ had been coined and providers were everywhere. Three major global providers emerged - Udacity, Coursera, and edX – and these (and others since) have offered an increasing variety of courses from partner universities and institutions. And before you knew it, the chatter about MOOCs was to be heard everywhere. The New York Times declared that 2012 was the ‘year of the MOOC’; various senior figures in the academy declared loudly that MOOCs were the future and that any institution that didn’t offer them would perish.
By 2013 some commentators have started to wonder whether the hype is all a bit too much, or whether MOOCs could undermine genuine academic activities and standards. Others have noted that it is not at all clear how MOOCs will ever make any money, or at least enough to cover their costs; even the co-founder of Coursera, Daphne Koller, couldn’t answer that question in a recent interview. However, the ‘MOOC or die’ theme still continues: the most recent prophet is the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Southampton, Professor Don Nutbeam, who has suggested that those who don’t embrace MOOCs will decline.
I must confess I am going to stand back from this crowd a little, and won’t be chasing the MOOC beliebers too actively. It’s not that I don’t believe in technology-enabled learning; I do. It’s not that I don’t want easier access to higher education; I do. It’s not that I think that spreading knowledge around freely is bad; it’s good. It’s not even that I would advise anyone not to try a MOOC; by all means do it, it’s free. But as for those people currently hyper-ventilating in the MOOC rock festivals, I would ask some questions, and chiefly this one: what are MOOCs actually for? What pedagogical, social or business objectives do they satisfy? Those who think that MOOCs are the answer to every question, including those not yet even formulated, are not terribly convincing on how the model can be made pedagogically and financially sustainable. Higher education at its most desirable is both expensive and highly interactive. It depends on a high quality personal experience. A mass market product that nobody is paying for or funding is not the most obvious answer to whatever problem you think we may currently have.
I am not suggesting that MOOCs are uninteresting. There’s something there all right, though my thanks will go to the person who finds a less irritating label for them than ‘MOOCs’. I am not suggesting that higher education in future will not involve much more online provision; I’m absolutely sure it will. But if we are to develop a model of provision that actually has clear objectives and a sustainable resourcing basis we have to approach this differently. Free online courses won’t make everyone educated any more than standing at street corners handing people envelopes with $50,000 will make everyone rich.
Right now, there is evidence that the MOOCs excitement is waning a little amongst potential users. This is a good time to reflect a little more about how we can innovate and develop in higher education, but without the hysteria.