Posted tagged ‘MOOCs’

Credit where it’s due?

June 7, 2016

A couple of years ago MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) were all the rage – as we discussed a couple of times in this blog. I was, as readers may recall, a little sceptical; and then the noise around MOOCs abated, and we went on to other things. One of the key problems with MOOCs, as I would have argued then, was that they didn’t provide the student with what most students principally want: a formally recognised qualification, a degree.

Now we may be seeing this addressed: the Open University and the University of Leeds are reported to be about to recognise time spent on MOOCs as part of the time spent working towards a degree. I don’t know anything else – how much credit can be accumulated in this way, whether the courses will attract fees, and so forth.

I still take the view that MOOCs run as genuinely open and free courses cannot become a major part of higher education, as there is no conceivable business model that would work here. But there may be ways in which online courses can be developed to play a  more realistic (and effective) role in the development of a new model of higher education. It will be worth watching this experiment.


Don’t expect too much of every new disruptive innovation in higher education

November 3, 2015

There is no doubt that higher education has seen significant change over recent years, but not the kind of fundamental shift that some commentators were expecting a couple of years ago. At the beginning of the current decade a number of people – including some university leaders – were predicting that all universities would have to adopt MOOCs (‘massive open online courses’) if they were to survive. MOOCs would subvert and replace the pedagogical model used for as long as anyone can remember in higher education; and for that matter the business model also.

It hasn’t happened. Over recent months there have been several articles and studies suggesting that while MOOCs are not dead, they are unlikely to dominate university education. They are too easy for people to access, so too many people are dropping out early; they are not being recognised by employers; they are too expensive to design and run, particularly if they produce zero revenues.

I shall avoid saying that I told you so right from the start; though of course I did. But I will say that higher education is by its nature too conservative for all of its traditions and practices to be swept away overnight by one piece of disruptive innovation. Technology-enabled distance learning will continue to grow and develop, but the courses it spawns will not at a stroke become the new norm, particularly if they are un-funded and nobody is paying. There is clearly room for innovation and change, but it needs to be driven by analysis and evidence.

MOOCs and online learning – moving beyond the silly hype

September 1, 2014

A year or two ago a number of people who wanted to grab a bit of public attention in higher education claimed loudly that MOOCs (‘massive open online courses’) were the future, and that all universities would have to go down this route. One English university vice-chancellor predicted that universities which did not embrace MOOCs would ‘risk being left behind’. Nobody, not even the co-founder of major MOOCs provider Coursera, could say what business model was supposed to under-pin this revolution, and often the rhetoric sounded more like revivalist preaching than educational strategy – but the hype continued to roll and seemed to have the capacity to persuade rational commentators that MOOCs were the future. Not even the really annoying acronym seemed to be able to put people off.

So a couple of years later, what do we see? MOOCs are still around, but thankfully the over-excited breathless rhetoric has calmed down. Thousands of courses were developed, but in most of these the overwhelming majority of students dropped out before completion. Few people now think that MOOCs will turn higher education upside down. Nobody is arguing any more than all universities must offer hundreds of MOOCs or perish. More importantly, most now accept that a university course with thousands of students that generates absolutely no income cannot be the way forward for the system. What we have instead is a growing movement to consider how online learning can be used to improve pedagogy and how online courses can provide a viable income stream.

The obvious way forward of course was to focus on the online aspect of MOOCs, and to be more realistic about student numbers and funding. Some universities (e.g. Georgia Tech) are now charging a tuition fee for such courses, though admittedly the fee is rather lower than for the ‘normal’ on-campus programme. Providers like Coursera are now looking for corporate customers to invest in courses. More generally, the much more reasonable agenda now is to find ways in which the MOOCs experience can support new developments that will bring higher education of good quality to larger audiences and how these participants can be properly supported.

There is no question that online learning will be a major part of the future. It is right to suggest that some disruptive change may improve what universities do. It is reasonable to argue that the traditional model of higher education cannot be the only way to offer teaching and learning. But it is also good not to get carried away by each new bit of hype.

Going entirely online?

June 9, 2014

A major change in higher education over the past decade or two has been the erosion of the belief that there is just only one quality model of higher education. Until very recently everyone who mattered thought that the gold standard was set by universities such as Cambridge, Oxford and Harvard, and that institutions were good to the extent that they managed to create a learning experience that resembled the Oxbridge/Harvard model as far as resources would allow: intensive teaching in small groups on a well resourced campus, cutting edge research that prioritised ‘blue skies’ discovery.

The Oxbridge/Harvard model is in many people’s eyes probably still the gold standard, but then again even those universities have changed what they offer, or at least some of what they offer, quite considerably. And this week one of those that was always thought to base itself on the Oxbridge model, Trinity College Dublin (or whatever it is now called), announced that it would later this year offer its first ‘MOOC’ (‘massive open online course’), something it is doing just as a greater degree of scepticism regarding MOOCs is beginning to take hold in the higher education community.

Then again, TCD may be doing what students globally would want it to do. A student survey carried out recently on behalf of the Laureate Group of universities (a global network of institutions that focus on vocational courses, of which the University of Liverpool is a member) produced some interesting results. The students who took part on the whole predict (and, it appears, want) universities of the future to offer their courses online, for free, and in flexible settings without fixed times for classes or other formal engagements.

They may of course be right. But if they are, almost every assumption we have made until now about higher education will need to be revised. In particular, higher education would be individualised, with the removal by and large of the notion of a community of learning based on a campus experience. That has implications for pedagogy, for assessment and for student engagement; but it would also necessarily have a major impact on how academics interact and conduct their scholarship. If moreover the educational experience is to be completely ‘open’ – i.e. free – then that will create a framework in which quality and standards will be very hard to assure, in the absence of any obviously viable business model.

But if the students are right, one casualty would also be diversity in higher education. If everything goes online and high volume, then the capacity to develop institution-specific models with distinct missions becomes much more difficult, as content becomes increasingly driven by method.

I guess that my own perspective on this is that the higher education system should not just slip into some new learning model that has been made possible by technological advances, without engaging in a much greater assessment of what this would mean for the whole concept of a university. Of course we must welcome and harness technological innovation. But that does not mean that a particular use of it should be inevitable, bringing with it a whole sackful of unintended consequences.

A world in which students can expect online access and resources, an openness to lifelong learning at different stages of people’s lives and careers, and inclusiveness must be part of the future mix of higher education. There must be a considerable diversity of mission. But we must also ensure that the engagement of students and faculty with scholarship and inquiry  is not cast aside in a rush to adopt one particular model of educational provision.

MOOCs – some realism emerging

January 15, 2014

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.

A MOOC reality check

July 22, 2013

Two weeks ago I asked some questions in this blog about the hype surrounding MOOCs (massive open online courses), and wondered whether these courses really were the game changer that some of their supporters claim they are. Now one of the major private providers of MOOCs, Udacity, has had to pause the development of its university partnership with San Jose State University. The pause has been described by the two organisations as ‘taking a breather’, and representatives of both the company and the university have stressed that the partnership is not being wound down.

However, what appears to have triggered the ‘breather’ are the somewhat low pass rates in the jointly run courses, some of them as low as 12 per cent, and apparently all under or well under 50 per cent.

In fact, the Udacity/San Jose partnership did not just run MOOCs as generally understood, but also credit-bearing courses using the MOOC technology. These were introduced to offer cheaper options to the university’s students.

The two partners are playing their cards somewhat close to their chests and are offering somewhat opaque reasons for the pause in activities. Indeed the vagueness of the explanations suggests that they are not quite sure themselves how to evaluate the experience to date, including the low pass rates. But there may already be a clue in there somewhere, because if any of these courses were being offered to save costs and therefore lower prices, this may suggest that some doubtful assumptions were being employed. There is no doubt that online learning offers huge opportunities, with the possibility of exciting pedagogy and interesting flexibility of provision. However, doing this well is not cheap, and does not offer the kind of major savings that some stakeholders appear to expect; which is another reason why the absence of a business model for MOOCs may be a serious issue.

Udacity and San Jose State University may well get this show back on the road. But I suspect there will be other ‘breathers’ across this whole scene; and that in turn may prompt a more realistic and mature debate about the true potential of online learning.

The MOOCs carnival

July 9, 2013

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.

Higher education: an era of radical change?

March 12, 2013

As readers of this blog will know, I have taken the view for some time that there is room for a new university model within higher education. I am of course not alone in that view, nor is this second decade of the new millennium the only period in which such thoughts have been explored. I recently looked at some public lectures given in various universities in the 1940s, and one recurring theme – probably prompted in part by the re-thinking of pretty much everything at the end of World War 2 – was that universities needed and would experience radical change.

Predictions of a sweeping away of traditional higher education models have become commonplace. The most recent contribution to this genre has come from the UK think tank, the Institute of Public Policy Research. In an essay (An Avalanche is Coming) published this month by the left-leaning Institute, the authors argue that we are about to face ‘an avalanche of change’ in higher education that may ‘sweep the system away.’ The growth of lifelong learning, the so-called MOOCs and the arrival of non-university competitors in higher education are amongst the developments the authors (led by Sir Michael Barber) believe will trigger this cataclysm. They fear that universities may be swept away because in the university system change has been too slow and incremental.

Leaving aside for a moment a tendency by the authors to nurture their snowy metaphor beyond what is serviceable, are they right in predicting this violent disturbance? The clue lies in part in how they interpret recent higher education history. The authors correctly describe a large number of important developments that have had an impact on higher education, but then seem to assume that these have not fundamentally altered the system. But their own metrics suggest otherwise. Numbers have exploded, research and publication has become pervasive, technology has changed pedagogy, economic development has influenced funding, and so forth.

Their case for the suggesting that nothing much has changed is based on their view that success in the system is one-dimensional: it is all about research outputs. The model for a successful university is Harvard (or maybe Oxbridge), and everyone is trying to the best of their ability to mimic the Harvard way, often inadequately. This, the authors suggest, is silly. Instead, they believe they can identify a coming taxonomy of higher education institutions, based on the idea that ‘distinctiveness matters’. There will be five university ‘models’: (1) the elite university; (2) the mass university; (3) the niche university; (4) the local university; and (5) the lifelong learning mechanism.

The essay does have a number of interesting insights, and is worth reading. But its five ‘models’ are not revolutionary – they (or something like them) are long in place, and it is not difficult to attach a model number to almost any existing university you might care to mention. The problem is that, as listed, they express a hierarchy, and indeed a hierarchy both of esteem and of resourcing. The trick in establishing a new higher education model that is not Harvard-like but is recognised as representing strong value and educational quality is to show it as exercising thought leadership. That is the essence of a different new university model.

Unlike the authors of this report, I don’t think there is an avalanche coming that is materially different from past changes, in the sense that fairly significant change has been a feature of higher education for the past four decades or more. I also suspect that some of the current ‘radical’ moves, including many of the MOOCs (a term that increasingly irritates me), will eventually flop because they lack a business case and because the pedagogy has not been as well thought out as some may think. But I do believe that there is scope for a radical new university model that can challenge the traditional elite. That is the quest I would like to be on.