Best of 2012: Are MOOCs a game-changer for higher education?

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Possibly, but not as you might expect

It is almost obligatory to kick off Treeofknowledgeany article about online learning with some fairly wild statements about the disruptive impact of massive open online courses – MOOCs – on higher education. Attempting to avoid this pitfall, we shall make a case for MOOCs as contributor to the mainstreaming of online learning rather than a force for re-engineering the educational landscape.

The University of Edinburgh has joined the Coursera consortium of MOOC providers, and the process of developing one of these MOOCs has been written up in MOOC pedagogy: the challenges of developing for Coursera by Sian Bayne et al. Our position builds on an insight from this article: ‘our view is that while MOOCs and the open education movement generally may not achieve everything – the democratisation of education, or the freeing of the world’s knowledge – they can achieve something’. Further details of Edinburgh’s engagement with MOOCs are on the JISC blog posting No such thing as a free MOOC by Jeff Haywood.

Predicting the long-term impact of MOOCs is difficult because it is a fast-moving target. At the outset (remember, just a few months back), to provide a MOOC signalled membership of an exclusive group of open-minded leaders in online learning. The pace of this growth turns this rationale of exclusivity on its head, which may not be a bad thing. The rapid growth of MOOCs demonstrates an open-ness by diverse universities to engage with learners on a new set of terms and with new technologies.

The YouTube-ification of MOOCs?

Open to all with the right technology, MOOCs have collectively created a space for universities and individual teachers to connect with very large numbers of learners. The speed of this growth and variety of what is on offer could lead to MOOCs being considered almost a platform (like YouTube) – though it is worth noting the great diversity of what are labelled MOOCs, as outlined in Making Sense of MOOCs: Musings in a Maze of Myth, Paradox and Possibility by Sir John Daniel. This YouTube-ification of MOOCs puts the distinctive nature of each university’s offering back to the fore, rather than just the fact it is a MOOC, and on this basis perhaps, like YouTube, MOOCs can be considered a non-disruptive addition to the expanding range of educational opportunities on offer.

Open educational practices (OEP), MOOCs included, are not new phenomena and have had an incremental rather than disruptive impact on education provision to date. Open educational resources (eg, MIT OpenCourseWare) and alternative providers (eg, Khan Foundation, iTunesU) were heralded as innovations that could disintermediate universities from their role in linking knowledge and learners, but this has not transpired. By way of a footnote, iTunesU was founded by a university dropout, Steve Jobs; and the Khan Foundation is sponsored by another, Bill Gates.

While not directly disruptive to the higher education sector, the rapid growth of MOOCs is indicative of the potential pace of change in higher education innovation, and the utility of a university’s involvement in technology innovation. Future changes may not be so benign.

So where is the disruptive change?

Combined with broader technological and social factors, the current massive interest in MOOCs may well be having a game-changing impact on higher education provision – primarily by exposing learners to online distance learning. The other principal factor is the move for online and mobile technologies well beyond the early adopter stage of the innovation curve (n.b. while widely adopted, these innovations are not accessible to all and not universal either). The NetGeneration have been joined by SkypeGrandparents as archetypes of our digital age. Following this line of argument we can ascertain that a high proportion of people worldwide who are in a position to study at a university are very confortable in using online and mobile technologies at a fairly advanced level.

Combined, the mass exposure to online learning though MOOCs, and the mass uptake of online & mobile technologies affords the transformation of online distance learning from a niche into a mainstream educational modality.

If it’s a game changer – we need different ways to play

While University of Edinburgh is relatively early into MOOCs, it is a comparable with many others in its adoption of taught online distance learning. After two decades of experience with on-campus use of ICT in teaching and learning, the University initiated a Distance Education Initiative in 2010 with the intention of enabling each of the 22 academic Schools to offer at least one online masters-level programme. Focused solely at postgraduate taught degrees, the DEI target is for as many online learners as campus-based learners in the next few years.

Mainstreaming online distance learning has impacts across almost all aspects of university life; and is not without growing pains. By way of example, student recruitment is a challenge given that the location of students is an unknown and national levels of acceptance of ODL is variable (Ethiopia banned universities from offering online programmes). Further challenges are diverse: offering a student experience that is commensurate with the quality of experience enjoyed by learners on campus; adoption of new pedagogies and relationships with learners for teachers; working with students across all the world’s time zones. While there is no panacea for these growing pains, a sharp focus on quality assurance greatly mitigates the risks associated with growing ODL provision.

Exploration of ODL and technology-enhanced learning mean different things in different contexts. We should therefore avoid sweeping generalisations. Pathways for universities are entirely driven by the context, capacities and interests of the institution.

Each university will need to assess its strengths and challenges and choose a path that enables it to make the most of on-campus and online education opportunities. MOOCs may well play a small part for some, a larger part for others. Some universities will be prepared to offer credits for their MOOCs, for their own students or for others, and some may shy away from the challenges that this poses. Ultimately, quality will be key in a world of open education. Flexibility and agility will be required to respond to new opportunities, for universities but also for national regulatory agencies. MOOCs will not change higher education on their own, but they do seem to be part of a process of change – the outcome of which may be radical.

Author Bio: Jake Broadhurst, International Projects Manager, University of Edinburgh

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