Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are nearly as common as a mid-week sale on the high-street. Online shopping for learning is certainly redefining the education landscape. But, as in this case, if I’m asked whether MOOCs are the future of higher education, well now, that’s less clear cut.
Digital detox please
We live in a generation that feeds off of collaborative thinking and digital sharing. Technology has such a pace now that as you’ve got the latest phone out of its box, another model has launched. By 2020 we’ll have phones that can bend in half and charge themselves. Our data is stored and used in a campaign of targeted personalisation (both for us and against us). Populations are growing but crucially the world is globally more connected now than ever before. I can be in Canada and appear on a screen in a conference room in Peru; I can travel to Thailand and find the best restaurant to eat at by simply swiping my thumb. We are ever more connected and informed, but, do you, like me, miss the unexpectedness of a phone call? When did you last pick up your phone and just call? Facial expressions, posture, body contact, all socially squashed by instant messenger, email and text.
A user culture – why so popular?
A MOOC student generally watches a series of weekly videos by a teacher, or professor, and might take a test to show they have understood the key learning. You can understand why the courses are so popular with ‘users’. Notice I’m using the term ‘user’; a person who uses a computer or network service; a user account, identified by a username. Users have the chance to access their exact learning need. The online search filter is missing a huge (massive) category: location. Remove location, and your options are endless. If I want a course on social media, I can find one within minutes, whittle it down and sign up for one within the hour.
Research shows that lots students take MOOCs to help them in their current job or in getting a new one, while only 13% use it towards a degree. The courses are generally free, so obviously for students or people looking to get a job this is extremely attractive.
Most of all, there’s a real chance with MOOCs to make a difference. Courses are offered often without entry criteria, so there’s a level playing field for those lacking experience, or without the right entry tests results. The social impact for the users is – yes – massive. People of different demographics and geographical locations can access the learning that they need.
‘We’re not institutionalised, we’re digital’
More and more institutions are offering, or starting to offer MOOCs, showing either that they are trailblazers, or that in fact, they are caught in the storm of social herding.
Schools and universities have an enormous opportunity to showcase their depth and breadth of curriculum to an international audience. E-learning is an ambitious way to increase the knowledge and reach of any network. The benefits are clear. MOOCs are part of a reputation strategy to become more visible, in turn their brand in action appears fast paced and proactive. By offering if not whole courses then tasters of their curriculum, they are reaching a previously untapped pool of students.
We live in a world where space is a premium, so the online courses give institutions the chance to expand and avoid the unanswerable question, ‘how do we overcome the cost of physical square footage?’
There’s something to be said about the feel good element for the provider too. They know that by offering the course online there are social returns; they are benefiting someone somewhere, and let’s face it, social returns are great (especially if the media write about it). Ultimately the biggest benefit is what’s yet to come. The MOOC providers will be waiting by their phones ready to hear the words, ‘enrolment is up since we started the offering’, and ‘this will contribute towards our rankings’, (massively).
The digital downfall
And so it comes, I’ve set the scene and offered a fair argument for the benefits to users and institutions. But MOOCs, to me, are the manifestation of an interconnected fast paced environment, which absolutely undervalues being physically present. I have genuine concerns around the lack of time, teaching quality, monitoring, assessment and effectiveness of these courses.
Research shows that smaller classes create higher achievements. It’s not a new notion. However MOOCs by their very nature, are massive, they are aimed at large scale participation in their thousands. Can a student really learn with no interaction, a missing physical network and a benchmark for their learning?
The average person switches between devices 21 times an hour. Google coined the phenomenon as ‘constant connectivity’. Research carried out by OMD in January showed us what we arguably already know, our attention span is shrinking. And we can therefore assume that students learning online will have a network of distractions. There is no guarantee that when you sign up to a MOOC you will have the motivation, or the inclination to see it through, and most of all understand the content.
Early studies suggest that because students have not paid, they tend not to prioritise the course and often don’t complete the structured learning programme. Fewer than 10% of students complete MOOCs. Imagine not turning up to your class, there are consequences, your conscience being one of them. If the courses aren’t completed it poses a serious threat to their legitimacy.
Feedback from teachers is minimal, there is no face-to-face contact and perhaps more importantly no accreditation, meaning MOOCs are sometimes unappealing to employers, and who can blame them.
The future of MOOCs
MOOCs should be taken at face value, and they have undeniably great benefits. Accessibility is probably the most impactful advantage; there is no argument against offering learning to those that cannot traditionally reach it. If institutions offered learning in this form to supplement their other courses, or even offered classes that are not covered on the traditional curriculum, or, if users were encouraged to take the course for the pure delight of learning, then I could say that MOOCs are adding in a positive way to the future of higher education. But as the offering stands, in its current state, MOOCs to me are an education craze, playing up to the popular digital disruption model and providers haven’t quite got it right, not yet anyway.