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Digital Education team blog


Ideas and reflections from UCL's Digital Education team


MOOCs as metaphors

By Clive Young, on 8 April 2013

courseraI went as an observer to the first Coursera Partners Conference at the University of Pennsylvania last week with what I thought would be a simple mission. I wanted to find out the question that MOOCs (massive open online courses) are trying to answer. It turned out to be far more complex than I had thought.

Coursera was started about a year ago by Stanford computer science professors Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller along with three other university partners; Michigan, Princeton, and the University of Pennsylvania. That number has now risen to 62 partners largely from the US providing over 300 courses for a claimed 2.5 million students, almost 60% from outside the US itself.

Coursera has taken a fairly elitist policy and at the Conference were a good number of the heavy hitters of US higher education were represented, with the exception of MIT and Harvard who last year launched an even-more-elitist nonprofit rival EdX. What was really noticeable at the Conference was the prevalence of fairly senior academics. Ties almost outnumbered t-shirts and this seemed to me hugely significant, perhaps the key to understanding the Coursera phenomenon. This is not a vision initiated by individual academics, or e-learning types like myself but senior management, the ‘gift of Coursera’, as one learning technologist put it, had invariably been bestowed from above.

So what, I asked, were the institutional drivers? Activists were almost bemused by that query, there was it seemed an ideological drive to MOOC involvement. In part this was surely ‘keeping up with the Joneses’. The Keynote, former Princeton president William G. Bowen remarked, “One of the characteristics of academia is that nobody wants to be left behind”. Coursera’s ‘join our elite club’ strategy was clever and persuasive but MOOCs also seem to meet a range of institutional and even national priorities. One was the perception in the US of HE as costly, parochial and elitist, maybe unfit to skill and re-skill an under-performing workforce. The US government is clearly eyeing up MOOCs as a possible game-changer in educational delivery, if the pedagogical and economic concepts can be proven. The perceived low cost was mentioned repeatedly.

MOOCs clearly link to the ‘public good’ outreach aims of top universities, as well as raising their global profile. There is a perception that the global openness of MOOCs can improve the occasionally parochial perspectives of US programmes, good for students as well as institutions. Many individual academicsreported a real emotional buzz from teaching tens of thousands of students at a time.

Perhaps most importantly, though, it is a motivator for research-focused universities to re-focus on teaching. The Duke Provost Peter Lange said that at his university the MOOC initiative had stimulated ten times more discussion about pedagogy than had occurred in the previous ten years! For those with a responsibility for teaching and learning renewal, the MOOC must seem like a magic wand.

Interestingly there was little talk about income generation or ‘monetization’. Most initial university MOOCs has been supported by one-off university-level funds, supplemented by some departmental investment. Maybe thoughts of sustainability were yet to kick in, though some universities were now on their second iteration of delivery. Two ideas were mooted by Coursera themselves, Signature Track, a way of digitally verifying attendance on some courses that students can already pay a smallish sum for. The other was ‘course-in-a-box‘, essentially selling on prestige courses for delivery in other universities, usually with localisation of content and local support.

This led to discussions of ‘blended’ learning, using all or part of a MOOC to support a conventional course, usually in the same institution but occasionally elsewhere. There was much enthusiasm for this. The major re-thinking needed by academics to design a MOOC, and the particular focus on student-centred learning and new forms of assessment had revolutionised the way some courses were taught, usually around the ‘flipping‘ paradigm.

There was a strong feeling that MOOCs were like a magnifying glass, enabling the inspection of the educational process and the student experience in ways that had not been possible, or even considered, before, though ‘learning analytics’ (of online behaviour) and ‘A/B testing‘ (altering one aspect of design to determine effect) . I felt an unstated aspect of this innovators club was that the universities felt they were positioning themselves in some way for the future. Monetization was not really the issue at this early stage. Maybe the Google and Facebook growth models were are the back of people’s minds – build it and the income will come (eventually). The conservative fall-back model mentioned a few times seemed to be the MOOC-as-a-book model, where MOOC courses would essentially be the textbooks of the future, with ‘signature courses’ dominating some subjects and used across many institutions.

It was hard to dismiss the energy around the conference, though, there was the feeling we were all at the start of something big. Tom ‘The World Is Flat’ Friedman, speaking at the pre-Conference seminar said if MOOCs were search engines we should think of ourselves just at the ‘AltaVista’ stage, when Google was still nowhere on the horizon.

MOOCs were clearly a metaphor for all sorts of issues such as the renewal of teaching and learning in the digital age, the democratisation of learning, the role of elite universities, the threat and promise of globalisation. However, as we know there is a risk of using metaphors in education; they can simplify or obscure as much as illuminate. It is the deeper impulses pushing for MOOCs that we should maybe be tracking as much as the MOOCs themselves.


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