Long live the MOOC

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As digital technologies re-shape traditional teaching methods in higher education, the MOOC is finding its feet, reports Rebecca Pool

Only a few years ago, the world of higher education was awash with excitement over the MOOC, or massive open online course. The three key US-based MOOC providers – Coursera, edX and Udacity – had launched. Coursera, for one, was enrolling some 50,000 students for each digitally-delivered course. And The New York Times had declared 2012 the year of the MOOC.

Enthusiasts claimed the MOOC would deliver Ivy League education to anyone with internet access, help students in developing nations to learn new skills, and provide opportunities to gain qualifications for little or no cost. But then came the backlash.

Eminent professors complained the end of quality education was nigh, courses came to an end with pitiful completion rates – a paltry five per cent in some cases – and within months, suspicions that academia had already ‘mooc-ed’ out had surfaced.

But somewhere between the hope, the hype and the hate, attitudes to the MOOC have now matured. The MOOC hasn’t brought top-tier university education to the masses, but tens of million of students worldwide have taken such a course. And, importantly, the digital dream is finding a realistic place in higher education.

‘There was a lot of hype to start with, about how MOOCs would solve the education problems across the world, and this was optimistic,’ says Kathryn Skelton, head of strategy and insight at UK-based MOOC provider, FutureLearn. ‘But these courses take content and skills that have been hidden away inside institutions and open them up. In a few years [educators] worldwide will be looking at how they can use MOOCs.’

Set up by The Open University in the Summer of 2013, FutureLearn is the first big UK venture into MOOCs, and has already attracted around 1.2 million students, studying at least one of 180 courses. To launch a MOOC, the company teams up with education institutions – mostly universities – worldwide, and today, subject matter ranges from contract management and the history of the Holocaust, to robotics, forensic science and creative writing.

Not surprisingly, a regular English Language course set up by the British Council attracts more than 100,000 students. But FutureLearn’s digitally-minded students have also got particularly excited over a new course on Ebola as well as a Java programming course to develop mobile games. And, as Skelton points out, these students, aged 13 to 95, are turning to MOOCs for a host of reasons.

‘The largest category of learners are ages 26 to 25 years old, and are in full- or part-time employment,’ she says. ‘Some people are just interested in a subject, others want to enhance their careers, and sometimes we have students who are looking to find out more about a certain topic and get ready for university.’

But this is where the MOOC and higher education gets interesting. The very first MOOCs emerged from the open educational resources movement, and hosted by universities, typically provided existing course content, via RSS feeds and blogs, to many hundreds and sometimes thousands of online students from the general public for free. However the MOOC of today has a further reason to exist.

‘MOOCs are now an interesting way for universities to experiment with different ways of delivering learning and find out about new ways of delivering content,’ says Skelton. ‘The MOOC is also a way for [these institutions] to access new students who might not have considered studying with them before.’

Professor Neil Morris, at the UK-based University of Leeds, concurs on all counts. The chair of educational technology, innovation and change and neuroscience researcher is passionate about the use of digital technology to enhance learning in higher education students and has published article after article on MOOCs and more.

‘MOOCs have been over-hyped and were never going to bring what some people prophesied, but this was never our [the educators’] intention,’ he says. ‘For us, MOOCs have helped us to understand what it feels like to teach and learn at scale, and how to translate what we’ve been doing in the classroom into a successful online learning environment.’

The University of Leeds itself, with FutureLearn, launched its first MOOC on natural resource management policy in late 2013, with some 5,300 students joining from more than 120 countries. At the time, the MOOC leader, Professor Jon Lovett, said: ‘The quantity and quality of debate among participants was really excellent. It was a privilege being in the MOOC with everyone.’

Clearly his comments are worlds away from the outcry from US-based academics fearing the loss of faculty positions. And the university has since joined forces with UK retail giant, Marks & Spencer, to run a further MOOC on business innovation.

According to Morris, this MOOC was the largest course the institution had organised, was predominantly populated by UK professionals, and following success will be re-running this summer. However, learning success aside, Morris also sees the MOOC as an obvious means to market his institution.

As he puts it: ‘We’re always trying to demystify our research to the general public so we are interested in doing courses on topical issues such as big data and robotics.

‘And of course we organise courses that are aligned to recruitment. A recent politics course around the general election was aimed at AS level students,’ he adds. ‘This was very exciting and showcased the university to potential politics students.’

But what about the desire to bring education to developing nations? Speaking from his Institution’s experiences with its natural resource management policy MOOC, which featured a case study on Nepal, Morris’s answer is to the point.

‘We were trying to encourage people from Nepal to take the course... but the feedback that came back was very often these people didn’t have access to the internet,’ he says. ‘MOOCs can’t solve these problems as the problem isn’t access to education, it’s access to basic resources.’

Morris is equally pragmatic about the MOOC’s notoriously low completion rates. ‘There is this conception that low completion rates equate to failure; I don’t agree,’ he says. ‘We know a lot of people who have dipped into and dipped out of our courses, had a fantastic experience, and gained the very thing that they wanted.’

However, the researcher also believes completion rate figures could be increased by providing a rock-solid credential at the end of a course. Many of today’s MOOCs provide a certification of completion, and can also contribute to continuing professional development obligation. But as Morris puts it: ‘Whenever anyone accredits a course in a way that is meaningful to an employer or for further study, you reach completion rates of 70 per cent.’

Still, experience with MOOCs is bringing the online course back home to the campus to benefit enrolled students. Leeds University, for one, is currently developing a series of courses for registered students that will, as Morris says, be delivered in ‘a kind of MOOC style’.

‘These mini-MOOCs will be done within our virtual learning environment just for our students,’ he explains. ‘We wouldn’t have been able to do this if we hadn’t already developed MOOCs as we wouldn’t have understood what it felt like.

‘But now it’s very easy for us to think, “Right, 1,000 students may take this course, it will be entirely online, it will be credit bearing and will be done through the virtual learning environment”,’ he adds. ‘The MOOC has given us confidence to be bolder with what we do with our on-campus students.’

Crucially, delivery of content in this way also fits in with external digital demands. Today’s students are spending more and more time online, with many, for example, using tablet devices for learning at school. Naturally, they expect the same, and more, at college.

‘Students’ digital expectations are rising as a result of what’s happening in their formal education and social lives, and universities have to keep pace with this,’ highlights Morris. ‘Employers also expect our students to be able to navigate the digital world, so it would be remiss of universities not to train students in digital scholarship and research.’

Indeed, in addition to campus-based mini-MOOCs, the university has introduced automated recording capabilities, known as ‘Lecture Capture’, across all central teaching spaces, and provides access to ‘Blackboard’ a virtual learning environment providing enhanced digital content and learning activities. And of course, the provision of such courses, and additional digital resources enables a university to distinguish itself from other institutions.

As Morris puts it: ‘Students are now making very informed decisions about the universities they go to... but we can say convincingly to students: “Look, we really are committed to providing the kinds of resources and support you need”.’

Finding a place

Like many in the academic publishing industry, Kiren Shoman, executive director of books at Sage, has watched the development of MOOCs with interest. As she highlights: ‘It’s interesting to think that in 2012 we had the year of the MOOC yet today we hear phrases like “the burnout of MOOCs”.

‘MOOCs are not overturning the higher education system, which might have been a concern in 2012, but are now finding their place in terms of what value they add and what they can do,’ she adds.

In 2013, Sage had joined forces with US commercial MOOC provider, Coursera, to supplement video lectures with Sage content, at no cost to the course student. The pilot program has since ended, no new partnerships have emerged, and as Shoman quips, ‘we haven’t been snowballed with requests’. However, Shoman expects MOOCs to become part of an educator’s tool-box within the so-called blended learning environment.

The concept of blended learning is based on learning via conventional face-to-face classroom methods and computer-mediated activities, and thanks to developments in digital technology is steadily rising in popularity. The use of Lecture Capture, Blackboard, MOOCs and even social media across Leeds University, and indeed many other institutions are all clear examples education’s evolution towards the concept.

And, as Shoman highlights: ‘I do think that blended learning in a sense, is the home run. Many people are really engaged with this now... and MOOCs can really set it off and have made it obvious that this is an absolute way to go.’

For its part, Sage has developed a host of tools in response to these changing needs of higher eduction. Key examples include Educational Research Methods, which provides online courses to help undergraduates and graduate cultivate research method skills, and more recently, Sage Video, which provides educational video material to complement the publisher’s existing books and journals collections.

The launch of its latest product follows in-depth student research, including a survey of 1673 students, to establish why students use educational video inside and outside the classroom, (see table: ‘Why students watch educational videos’). According to Shoman, demand for such products is largely coming from the US right now, but the publisher is beginning to detect more signs of interest in the UK. ‘For Sage Video, we’ve launched three subjects; education, counselling and psychotherapy, and media communications, and are already working on the next collections,’ she adds. ‘This is a really good route for our publishing.’

Leeds University’s Morris wholeheartedly supports such approaches and highlights how blended learning, as a whole, can help to motivate and engage students, and crucially, improve their ‘learning outcomes’. And, looking to the future, he is certain, more is yet to come.

He believes, eventually, undergraduate degrees will partially take place online, with students completing modules from a range of universities.

‘The future is all about flexibility and digital learning, including MOOCs, can provide a very flexible education system,’ he says. ‘These tools could also be incredibly useful in secondary school education, and will only broaden students’ horizons.’

Know your MOOCs

As MOOCs evolve, two distinct types are emerging. One is the ‘xMOOC’, the most widely available MOOC, which resembles a traditional, professor-centric course. These are provided by the likes edX and Coursera.

However, the ‘cMOOC’ also exists, and is considered by many, to be more progressive. This connectivist MOOC is based on the principle that course material should be aggregated rather than pre-selected with learners being connected so they can answer each others’ questions and collaborate on projects.

For example, students could be expected to make an active contribution via different digital platforms, with contributions in the form of, say, tweets and blog entries, moderated by course supervisors, and delivered to every course participant in a daily newsletter or email.

Neil Morris at the University of Leeds would like to see the traditional MOOC move on. ‘A frustration from everyone that’s creating MOOCs is that we’re still too didactic in our delivery,’ he says. ‘I want to see MOOCs be much more participatory and much more interactive, and social in terms of the learning experience. This is what we’re trying to do.’

Mobile MOOCs

In May last year, the first mobile-only MOOC platform – Qualt – launched, with a difference. Unlike existing MOOC platforms, courses cover a professional subject, backed by a recognised industry body, and are linked to career development and progression.

This accredited vocational MOOC was first introduced by Qualt in India, in early 2014, under the guise of a smartphone app for finance and accounts. The course launched with AAT India, the India-based professional body for accounting technicians. More recent courses include digital marketing, web design and project management.

Crucially, as the courses are entirely mobile, a student can study anywhere with or without an internet connection.