MOOCs, are they an opportunity or a threat to our funded education?

Despite the fact that MOOCs, massively open online courses, have been around for a while there seems to be a lot of discussion going on about our educational organisations embracing their use, so I thought it was about time that I found out a bit more about them; what’s their value, who’s using them and what’s their future.

There is no doubt that MOOCs are educating large numbers of people for a lot less money than other more traditional methods, and as with any online learning they provide great opportunities for knowledge development.  For those people who face barriers to education MOOCs can mean that starting or continuing life-long learning can be a reality.

Generally MOOCs do not lead to a formal qualification, however some institutions do offer credit by exam following study through a MOOC. But, with many courses offering only automated or peer grading as an indication of achievement, the objective really is to get people to learn, and that must be applauded. Enrolment to a course is completely open so it’s a quick and easy process to get started. Most course content is provided by the institution and also utilises links to already freely available resources on the web. This content can be varied, but it has been said that some MOOCs rely too heavily on video lecturers, which are not the most engaging way of learning. Support comes mainly from students’ peers, but there can also be tutors and, or mentors online to answer questions, however unlike conventional courses there is a significantly lower ratio of educators to students, with some quoting 100,000 students to one teacher. CMOOCs take a connectivist approach to learning, where most of the learning comes from those participating in the course with each student responding with detailed answers to questions in the MOOC.

With regard to the success of MOOCs it really depends what your perspective is.  Signing up and dropping out appears to be a common feature, however the enrolment numbers are frequently in the hundreds of thousands, so it could be argued that a small percentage achievement rate is still something worth celebrating. One example is in Sue Gee’s article which looked at a Massachusetts Institute of Technology MOOC, which had over 150,000 sign-ups, approximately 46% dropped out at the first stage and 5% passed a final exam.  Certainly MOOC participants need to be highly motivated and able to learn on their own with very little support, which is probably why there appear to be very few young adult learners.  According to Coursera over 60% of those taking MOOCs hold post graduate degrees.

So what is the future for MOOCs in the UK? Well with the increasing cost of university tuition and student loans being introduced for mature learners in FE you can see why MOOCs could become extremely popular.  But how does this sit with the ambition of government for our funded FE and HE, who are competing for students and employers business, to be more commercially sustainable? How can these organisations, many who are facing funding cuts, afford to design and develop MOOCs and then to share them for free?  It is true that offering something for free can lead to further participation in other costed provision, but an investment has to be made and can are our universities, colleges and training providers afford to do this? I think there needs to be caution and that we should recognise the challenges and potential impact of MOOCs on our educational organisations. MOOCs do offer opportunities, but I’d like to see them supplementing existing face to face and online courses rather than replacing them. Finally, it’s important that we don’t lose sight of the benefits and value of what we already do very well, because once its gone, it’s difficult to get it back.

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