By Clive Young, on 3 March 2013
After five weeks the E-learning and Digital Cultures MOOC eventually reached its conclusion. I completed the required marking last night, minimum three other participants (in fact I marked four). This morning I could access my result; two very nice and thoughtful pieces of feedback from my anonymous markers*. I must say I found both activities rather satisfying educationally. Submitters were automatically allocated three artefacts to mark and I spent about half an hour with each, coming up with about 300 words of feedback using a rough rubric. The artefacts were all multi-media (e.g. using Prezi, video, audio, images, mind-maps), some clearer and more polished than others. The tools seem to encourage a “briclolage” approach, so it took some marker engagement from me to “join the dots”. This interpretation effort meant I felt I was still learning from the course at even at this late stage and indeed one of the submissions was a real privilege to read, a complex reflection on the nature of educational change anchored in a very personal testament. It was quite clear that at least some of the small band who reached the end of the MOOC had engaged and reflected on the course in sometimes quite profound and moving ways, though I notice other reviewers on the MOOC’s Facebook page complaining about the quality of the artefacts they marked.
So how did the MOOC work more broadly as an educational experience? Bearing in mind this was, according to UCL colleagues, an unusual MOOC in terms of subject, scope and approach, I thought it worked quite well. I still remain deeply sceptical though of the M-word (i.e. massive). Enrolment ‘likes’ is not participation, so high registration is simply misleading. To do any form of distance learning, especially one you have not paid for, requires a remarkably high level of motivation. A reflective, challenging subject will inevitably weed out the vast majority of students, leaving a hard core of a few hundred highly-engaged completists who are to be fair likely to get a lot out of it.
Where I felt this MOOC fell down for me was the lack of a clear communication framework. The discussion was far too dissipated and I missed that form of interaction. The forums should have been structured by topic from the outset with a more prominent ‘blogroll’ to capture the rolling debate. The course also needed weekly Google hangout review sessions from the tutors – this would have helped keep participants orientated. The Facebook page worked well, though.
That said I still feel I have completed a ‘proper’ course from the University of Edinburgh. The educational brand is very important here, both to differentiate the course in the noise of the internet and also to motivate students such as me to enrol and invest time in it. If the course is not very good, however, branding is unlikely to save it.
Nonetheless I suspect if MOOCs are to survive their current honeymoon period it will be because they will be seen to have broken a marketing rather than an educational mould. For institutions wanting to build a global market presence and have capacity to monetise that market, i.e. through paid-for distance learning or conventional offerings, MOOCs must be an attractive proposition. For others I’m not sure if the numbers stack up. Does 50,000 ‘likes’ (enrolments) actually mean anything when only 500 will complete? Is that genuinely good value for money, even from a marketing perspective? Is a 90%+ drop-out ratio the message/image that any university wants to promote?
My own feeling currently is that MOOCs have a real educational value, at least for highly motivated students. What is less clear is their long-term future. The moment of truth may occur when the feeding frenzy of initial enthusiasm wears off (as it undoubtedly will) and enrolment numbers start falling. Universities may become more critical of their involvement. If – a big if – the high drop-out rate can be overcome, maybe though badges or rewards, I wonder if MOOCs will start to fragment into more specific markets. I suspect will we could soon see sponsored sector-specific MOOCs (e.g. health care), tie-ins to commercial offerings from broadcasters, charities and publishers and many more geographically-targeted and language-specific MOOCs.
*due to a mix-up in timings the submission deadline was reset after I wrote this, meaning my result disappeared!