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    Whatever happened to MOOCs?

    By Clive Young, on 20 February 2014

    moocAttentive readers may have noticed that following all the hype over the last two years MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) seem to have dipped a little below the horizon.

    An interesting time, therefore, for the Heads of E-Learning Forum at the University of Birmingham yesterday to review UK progress so far. The launch of The Open University’s Futurelearn platform late last year, now offering 34 courses, has clearly invigorated UK MOOC activity. Until then the UK MOOC efforts were represented by pioneers University of Edinburgh and the University of London on Coursera.

    Prof Hugh Davis, University of Southampton, reminded us that MOOCs are part of a bigger picture of change in HE, and a report The avalanche is coming early last year encapsulated the fears that HE may be approaching a ‘Napster moment’ where clicks overtake bricks. An authoritative response to this warning however recognized a “well rounded campus-based experience” albeit “enriched and made more efficient by technology” will not go away. However universities should not be complacent but embrace the disruptive potential of MOOCs to “focus on their core competence for which they have long been revered and cherished”.

    This is not simply about making money. MOOCs can potentially provide income generation via statements of completion, paid-for assessments, delivery to industrial partners, sponsorship, paid-for tutoring and so on. However for Southampton, the Futurelearn involvement was initially about enhancing the university’s brand and reputation, by marketing and focusing on strengths. There was some evidence that the MOOOs had indeed attracted students, but the real value was how the process had stimulated discussion about new education models on campus. MOOC academic developers became education enthusiasts and change agents in their departments. The overall capacity of the institution had also improved though the engagement of learning designers, media teams with increased expertise in copyright, course marketing and so on.

    Prof Davis talked about both the global impact of MOOCs, their potential role in developing countries but also how they were increasingly being recognised as informal CPD. He raised the interesting idea of MOOCs embedded in conventional modules. Students would have to sign up on the MOOC but have additional campus-based support, activities and assessment, a kind of ‘flipped course’. Clearly one outcome would be more accredited online programmes, reaching a wider market though increased choice and flexibility. His final message was to  “grasp the opportunity” that MOOCs provide.

    Prof Neil Morris from the University of Leeds, also talking about their Futurelearn implementation reinforced this message. MOOC involvement had enabled the establishment of a specialist digital learning team of graphics, media and animation specialists, learning technologists administrators and marketers. The initial engagement had actually arisen from Leeds’ OER policy and the MOOC was seen as part of a ‘holistic’ OER ecology that on end was the closed Blackboard system on the other a YouTube channel. The Leeds courses were quite short with a participatory, reflective research-based focus and a popular emphasis on digital literacy and study skills. A clear sequential development process had been established with multiple review points. Once again, although only a few MOOCs had been developed the impact on the academic community was high, with over 140 Leeds lecturers subsequently expressing an interest in developing one!


    Mark Wetton and Amy Woodgate form the University of Edinburgh, Coursera pioneers and now also using Futurelearn continued this encouraging message of the institutional ‘collateral’ benefits of MOOCs. Edinburgh had developed (or were developing) 14 courses in a wide range of subjects, like Leeds with an OER drive, but in this case all ‘new as MOOCs’, none being conversions of conventional courses. With such a large number of academic participants (over 60 academics and 50 TAs) the approach seemed to be more community based. Learning design and media development support was available in the first year but there was no imposed template and a general encouragement to experiment with the platform and approaches. academic teams were strongly encouraged to learn from each other, share practice and ask for feedback.

    On-campus benefits listed at Edinburgh included enriched resources for students and better understanding of online learning activities, three new textbooks had been written in addition to journal publications and book chapters. Internal student recruitment had increased, development on a new online MSc had started, interdisciplinary courses and collaborations had grown and an impressive range of international collaborations had arisen directly from the MOOCs.

    In a post last year I suggested that MOOCs represent more than simply online courses, but are a metaphor for wider changes in HE. As they become more established, MOOCs also clearly work as a catalyst for change on campus, an important aspect for any institution considering the next steps in online learning.  

    Critical reading

    Image:  David Kernohan’s “Day of the MOOC”