A new revolution in online learning has quietly been taking place in the UK in the last 18 months and this week the main provider, FutureLearn, announced they had already recruited over 1 million students.
The concept is the MOOC — Massive Open Online Courses which are free, short courses you can join throughout the year.
FutureLearn, which was launched in autumn 2013, is the leading provider of MOOCs in the UK and is owned by the Open University. Courses are offered not just by the Open University itself but by a large number of other UK and overseas universities and cultural institutions.
Current providers on the FutureLearn platform include:
- Henley Business School (University of Reading)
- University of East Anglia
- Bristol University
- University of Cardiff
- King’s College London
- University of Leeds
- The Open University
- University of Sheffield
- University of Southampton
- University of Strathclyde
- Monash University (Australia)
- University of Auckland (New Zealand)
- The British Council
- and many more
Subjects include topics as wide ranging as: Managing People, Begin Programming, Introduction to EcoSystems, Caring for Vulnerable Children, Introduction to Dutch, England in the Time of Richard III, Election 2015 for AS level Politics, How to Succeed at Interviews. There are lots more covering topics including business, history, culture, health, science and technology, and teaching.
What are MOOCs?
MOOCs are a concept that came from Canada, though America is credited with being the country that first launched them in a big way in 2012.
The basic concept of a MOOC is that they are:
- open to anyone regardless of qualifications or location
- not restricted in numbers
- bite-sized learning — short courses up to approximately a university module
- offered by universities — so there is some assurance of quality
Many MOOCs offer the option of having a certificate of achievement or badge at the end of the course. This is the only cost, but they are totally optional — if you want you can study entirely for free.
Differences with traditional distance and e-learning
Distance learning isn’t new. The UK has a long tradition of distance learning from the establishment in the 1960s of the Open University which was originally offered on television, but eventually moved online as web technology advanced.
E-learning has also been around for a long time, but classic e-learning courses can be a solitary affair, sitting on your own at a screen for hours on end.
There are also a growing number of resources for learning online such as YouTube and TED Talks, but again they tend to be resources you use on your own.
MOOCs really are a form of social learning, because as well as content produced by the university running the MOOC, students are expected to contribute to weekly discussion boards, comment on each others’ assignments and, on some MOOCs, connect with each other through social media sites such as LinkedIn and Google Hangouts. Social learning, I should add, is not yet a recognised term in this context, though it has another connotation in learning theory.
What the sceptics say
MOOCs naturally have their sceptics. Some worry about quality. Some worry about the impact on the the business models of existing universities.
The main criticisms seem to be around whether they will be accepted by employers, especially if the student has chosen not to get a certificate.
What the enthusiasts say
A counter-argument is that MOOCs are not direct competitors for university courses.
Many people undertaking these courses are not worried about certificates.
Everybody is learning every day — we switch on the television, read books, access the internet or sit alongside experienced colleagues and pick up tips: we don’t get certificates for that kind of learning, that doesn’t make it any less valid.
Many people doing a MOOC simply couldn’t pay for a traditional course, many of which are now priced on the assumption that the fees will be covered by employers. But employers don’t always pay — particularly when money is tight — and there has been a massive drop in participation in part-time university courses in recent years.
Some people can’t approach employers for funding: they may be out of work, self-employed, long-term sick or retired. Some are self-funders looking to escape their current employer — if the employer funds the course, the employee will simply have to pay them back if they leave!
The problems with traditional courses
Apart from cost, there are at least five big problems with traditional courses.
1. Keeping the curriculum up to date
The process of identifying a subject, going through course approval, getting funding, getting accreditation, recruiting teaching staff, creating course materials and recruiting students can sometimes take years. A substantial change to the curriculum can mean re-applying for course approval.
In many subjects, IT, marketing or any other fast changing disciplines, by the time the course starts what has been approved may already be out of date.
MOOCs can’t be thrown together overnight, but they do provide a way of bringing knowledge right up to date, outside the traditional course approvals route.
2. Subjects stuck in silos
Existing qualifications can also be stuck in silos.
Most university courses aim to give you a specialism, which is fine. But once you get into the workplace you suddenly find that there are a whole range of other subjects that you need to know about, without necessarily being a specialist. Study marketing and you probably won’t cover HR, IT or finance to the levels that you may need in your job, especially as a manger or if you work in a small business or charity.
There’s also a danger with specialisms that you fail to think laterally and see alternative thinking from the point of view of other specialisms. That’s the classic beginnings of walls and silos being created which can cause conflict and seriously damage any organisation.
The MOOC concept helps to break down these silos — you select the subjects that interest you and form your own connections and conclusions. You can dip into new subjects and see whether they are relevant or not, without making a heavy time and financial commitment. You can move beyond just training to the real concept of education again.
3. Rigid start dates
Some courses start throughout the year, but there is still a rigid pattern to most higher education course start dates, based on the academic year timetable. You start in September/October (maybe they’ll be a January/February start) and you finish around June.
These dates are built around school leavers but not adults. Adults need to update their skills constantly. A sudden employment change or major life episode may mean adults have to update their skills urgently.
Starting traditional courses at other times of the year are hugely complex, disruptive and expensive to colleges and universities. I understand their problem.
MOOCs at least are a more flexible format that run all year round with new courses starting every week.
Rather than a set menu, it’s an à la carte approach to improving your knowledge and skills.
Not everyone lives near a university or college offering the courses that they need. That leads to two temptations — students desperate to update their skills sign up for a course that is not suitable, or they attempt to travel too far. The former Learning and Skills Council undertook research into these factors and they are both major causes of dropout or non-achievement.
In your local college or university on a part-time course you are likely just to meet learners from your own area.
MOOCs are location neutral: you just need an internet connection and a computer and you can connect with students from all over the world.
Time is another key constraint for students and many drop out when they realise that they have over committed their time.
Colleges and universities may also be their own worst enemies. Rightly they have become very strict about punctuality and non-attendance for traditional students but this has also been applied to adult students.
Missing classes can be a cause of failure and it can be disruptive to other students — so I am not an advocate of poor attendance!
But adults have different pressures — if your employer says you will work late, you probably will. If a meeting overruns, you may just not be able to escape. If that weeks’s session is covering a part of the course you already know well, missing it may not be so terrible for you. But it’s creating problems, and you may get thrown off the course.
MOOCs don’t have set times, you study when it suits you, you can even run a week or more late and catch up, nobody will show you to the door.
Many MOOCS also run more than once, so you can always go back and sign up to do the MOOC again if you have missed significant parts.
Are MOOCs here to stay?
I don’t know what effects MOOCs are having on universities’ business plans.
But it seems to me that one advantage of MOOCs to a university is that they can use it to trial course content before using it with paying students The also get the input and knowledge from MOOC participants throughout the world — that can enrich the academics’ knowledge and in turn be used for the benefit of their fee paying students.
That is surely the real power of social learning: it’s not just one way — it’s sharing knowledge, not just handing it down.
I’ve tried a number of MOOCs in the last twelve months. I’ve used FutureLearn and taken MOOCs from a number of different universities, some in the UK, some abroad. I’ve also taken some MOOCs with iVersity, which is based on continental Europe, with its roots in Germany. iVersity offers many MOOCs in English, though I took one in German as an interesting way to brush up my language skills at the same time.
I’ve also done a lot of traditional courses over the years: full-time university, part-time university, professional courses, in-house employer courses, and online courses. I’ve also got CELTA and PTLLS training qualifications and have worked in colleges and universities, I’ve even been a member of a college course approvals committee.
So I’ve seen courses from both the customer and provider point of view! And I’m convinced MOOCs are here to stay. At least I hope the business model allows them to.
They will not suit everyone’s needs. Some will be better than others, they are, after all, still in their infancy and they will undoubtedly change as the years go on.
But I am convinced they fill a real and urgent need for many people that traditional learning doesn’t provide.
They may be disruptive to the education sector, to some extent, but to me, they are supplementary to existing further, higher and adult education, not necessarily a direct competitor.
The MOOC format could also replace some — not all — traditional provision, such as the large lecture format. That could help to keep costs under control and hopefully help prevent tuition fees becoming even more unaffordable than they are now to many students.
MOOCs are opening the doors to many people currently shut out of the education system and therefore widening participation. Widening participation has been the stated aim of governments of all parties for many years.
As such I hope MOOCs and other forms of social learning are supported and allowed to thrive.
What are your views? Please share
Have you heard of MOOCs? Have you tried any? Do you think they could have a role in a structured continuing professional development programme for staff? Feel free to comment below, and share this article with others on social media.
Some of the big MOOC and similar online providers
- FutureLearn (UK based)
- Academic Earth (includes Harvard, MIT, University of Oxford)
- edX (incudes Harvard, MIT)
- France Université Numérique (in French)
- iVersity (based in Germany, but many courses are in English)
- Khan Academy
- P2PU (Peer 2 Peer University)
- UdaCity (tech courses, some free, some charge)