MOOCs – some realism emerging

As readers of this blog know, I am not one of the many evangelists for the so-called ‘MOOCs’ (Massive Open Online Courses – and what a horrible acronym). It has been my view more or less from the start that this cannot be more than an experimental laboratory for online education – it certainly cannot easily be a longer term sustainable tool for learning. The believe that you could teach hundreds of thousand of students in one single course, do so in a pedagogically sound manner and with proper support, and do it all for free (with some vague notions of this serving as a marketing device for attracting students to ‘regular’ funded courses) was never rational. The surprising thing to me has been how many academic leaders signed up to this; more still, how many started making apocalyptic statements about what would happen to those who didn’t get it.

The hype hasn’t gone away yet, but there are some first signs that there are more serious questions being asked and that, the early enthusiasm is declining. A recent survey and report by Inside Higher Education concluded as follows:

‘Questions about quality and retention have featured prominently in the ongoing debate about massive open online courses, which appears to have polarized the expectations surrounding MOOCs. In 2012, 46 percent of [colleges and universities surveyed] neither agreed or disagreed that MOOCs presented a sustainable method of offering online courses, with the remaining respondents split almost evenly between the positive and negative sides. One year later, the share of respondents who disagree has grown to 39 percent, while those in agreement only make up 23 percent.’

Addressing online education will continue to be a really important topic in the higher education debate. But this will be a better debate if it is not subverted by unrealistic hype.

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8 Comments on “MOOCs – some realism emerging”

  1. Anna Notaro Says:

    To complement this post, I just came across on Twitter the news that MIT is to offer its first professional MOOC in big data. Interestingly though:

    “these classes may be open, but they don’t come cheap. Participating in the course will run users $495 — far from the free price tags of many MOOCs available. But it’s likely that extra cost could ramp up engagement among users, giving them incentive to stick through the four weeks and complete the course.” http://gigaom.com/2014/01/10/mit-to-offer-its-first-professional-mooc-in-big-data/

    • Niall Says:

      If participants have to pay it is not ‘open’ and therefore not a MOOC – maybe a MPOC. Fees will undoubtedly make for greater commitment, engagement and probably smaller numbers (so maybe not massive either). If you could enrol in RGU, UCD or any mainstream university for free in less than a minute we might find similar problems with lack of engagement

      • V.H Says:

        I was just at Tesco’s for a bit of shopping. They had big OPEN signs in a few places but I suspect they would strongly disagree had I went with your understanding of open.

        • Niall Says:

          I expect so too VH… however open in MOOCs is used in the sense of open educational resources or open source programs which are normally distributed free

          Of course you can go into Tesco and look around without paying – though of course Tescio would want greater ‘engagement’ from such visitors

          • V.H Says:

            It doesn’t mean it always has to be free. The difficulty isn’t the cost and it can easily be tailored. The difficulty is knowing the agenda of the provider. I took a course lately where we were told all materiel was provided and would be generic enough to fit with a global student body. Yes, there was outside reading but these could be gotten in bookshops and libraries in the home country of the students. At the end of the video came a little Oh, by-the-way, there is a book you can get on Amazon US for $60+p&p you definitely don’t need it to complete the course.
            This was of course BS. About 2/3 of the way through the course dropped off a cliff as far as following it was concerned. Nor was this your usual course providers ‘jump, my pretties. Jump’ of concept leaps you learn to expect from good courses in a university. Nope, this was quite simply a fundamental section missing from the course.
            My beef here isn’t that they were driving people to getting the book. Btw, if the entire lot of students bought it, it would have returned $9,000,000.00. No, my beef is that at no point was it said the book was core nor was it on the Coursera site in the weeks leading up to the start so we could order it in time.

  2. V.H Says:

    There is nothing to say you have to be involved. In fact now I would say the involvement of existing university’s is a hindrance and I suspect so it will continue to prove. But I truly get from where you are coming. You see no case, when costed, that has these making any sense. But this is using your existing cost base.
    The thing is there is a massive, and growing, proportion of the population where you’ve withdrawn. Each university has graduates that have no route forward. And these people have attended and graduated but may not have a gained sufficiently high degree. Then you have the section that don’t go to university. State administrations hold a ludicrous stance of putting them into apprenticeships with what can only be called fag packet calculations coupled with an instinct that the cost of the last plumber was too high. But increasingly these are being taken by uni grads anyway. In the USA, when costed, taking a masters versus the craft apprenticeship no longer tilt to the masters earnings-wise over either the long or short term for a large and growing proportion of universities.
    I don’t think anybody believes what we’ve got now is the keen edge of a new delivery system for education. For one, there are too too many agendas. For two, there is no common standard. For three, use of the tech is at the sclerotic pace marked by the current system. For four, there is little if any realistic and clear cut basic requirements leading to some providers having a hissyfit when people can’t keep up or are flooded trying to read outside.

  3. James Fryar Says:

    I think MOOCs are an interesting idea, but at the moment they strike me as a gimmick for the sole purpose of student recruitment. They’re an exercise in marketing rather than pedagogy. That’s what’s driving MOOCs, in my opinion – fear of a university being seen as dated.

    We’ve seen this before. We saw it in Ireland when CSI was influencing student choices. Courses in forensic science were few and far between (there was one, if memory serves me correctly). Suddenly we had every analytical science course offering ‘with forensic science’ modules. And the reason was student recruitment and the fear of being the only university *not* having a course with the term ‘forensic science’ somewhere in the title. Standing at the Higher Options conference watching this was a horrible experience. Our universities were out on show, prostituting their wares, luring students into courses through lies, deceit, and feeding them unrealistic dreams of exciting careers as forensic scientists. And this was at a time when the Garda Technical Bureau was recruiting maybe two people a year. I felt like I needed a shower afterwards.

    I’ve yet to see any hard data demonstrating the pedagogical benefits of MOOCs. Which, let’s be honest, are really nothing more than an up-to-date version of a good textbook. Universities are back at it again – look at me, I’ve a MOOC, we’re cool, give us your cash, and register on our courses not those outmoded stiffs across the town. The only difference between the battle over MOOCs and the ‘forensic science’ nonsense is that universities have taken their prostitution online.


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