One of the sessions at the Future of Technology in Education (FOTE) conference last week discussed the value of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). There was a lively debate, both amongst the panel and on the Twitter backchannel.
The discussion was inconclusive – it is perhaps too early to determine wither MOOCs are the next big thing or just a passing fad. However, it was clear that none of the panel saw MOOCs replacing the traditional university offering but did see it supplementing provision in a number of ways. Firstly, there may be scope for integrating all or part of a MOOC into formal teaching, either as an assessed piece of work or as optional supplementary course that students may choose to follow if they have a particular interest. In the former case, it is perhaps no different from a standard online offering as may be provided via the institutional VLE, on the assumption of course that it is subjected to the same level of academic rigour and quality. The informal learning is rather different of course, but there may be added incentive if there was a link between taking the additional course and improved grades. This might imply a sort of Amazon style approach along the lines of ‘80% of students taking this as an additional course, attained grade A for their module’.
Secondly, MOOCs offer an opportunity to bring an aspect of higher education to a broader audience. Whilst it might not necessarily be regarded as widening provision, it certainly offers an opportunity for individuals to sample material from an institution. The opportunity is the key thing here, not the completion. There will be many more registrants than there will be people completing the course. Some will register but will never find the time (or perhaps the inclination) to ever start. That is always a challenge when something is offered for free and is largely there for interest – there is no negative impact if you don’t complete. Others will start the course and will realise that it is not for them. Some will dip in and out of the programme, sampling pieces as and when they feel or as and when the topic is of greater interest. And of course some will religiously go through the course through to the end. But overall, it will have provided an insight into the institution and what it provides and so has a role to play as part of outreach activity.
The MOOC itself may well be regarded as a marketing tool. There is always scepticism when something is given away for nothing that it has little value. However, the various US universities that made significant volume of their teaching material publicly available don’t seem to have suffered and the availability of free content through iTunesU has seen an increase in registrations for the Open University. It also provides the opportunity to showcase the quality teaching that takes place in our institutions.
During the course of the discussion, it was suggested that the longevity of MOOCs was partly dependent on the value that employers attached to any qualification attained. I suspect this probably won’t be the case. I sense that there is some scepticism (certainly reflected by one participant at the conference) about online courses in general and this is certainly amplified if the course can be freely taken. And as Paul Greatrix points out in his blog, there is little accreditation, no assurance of quality and it is nigh on impossible to ensure that a student’s work is their own. MOOCs may have a role in supplementing existing teaching and in extending the reach of the institution beyond the formal student body. Whether they are here to stay perhaps depends on whether there is a return, in terms of increased registrations or softer measures such as increased awareness of the institution’s work, on the investment preparing and supporting the course. But it will be a hard business case to make.