Online course revolution

By | News & Politics
Photo of Edinburgh University, one of the first academic institutions in the UK to run MOOCs, © Adam Woolfitt/Corbis

They seemed to have been promoted as the catalyst for a global learning revolution in which anyone with an Internet connection may take advantage of a complimentary education from some the world’s top universities.

Massive open online courses (MOOCs), aim to allow students from remote areas in developing countries to pick and choose courses from institutions as diverse as the University of London, Edinburgh University, Stanford and MIT. Content is reportedly delivered via video lectures, discussion forums and peer-marked assignments.

MOOCs were initially pioneered by the open educational resources movement — a global affiliation of academics and institutions that promote the provision and dissemination of freely accessible documents and media for use in teaching, learning and education. They have apparently been further developed by several US start-ups.

The University of London and Edinburgh University run the UK’s first MOOCs in conjunction with US-based Coursera, which offers online courses from 33 colleges and universities including Princeton, Stanford, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

Anyone may be able to join these courses, and those who complete them gain a certificate.The University of London aims to initially offer five courses, lasting around five weeks each in topics ranging from ‘Why We Need Psychology’ to ‘Creative Programming For Digital Media and Mobile App Development.’

Jeff Haywood, chief information officer and librarian at Edinburgh University appears to believe that MOOCs allow colleges and universities to ‘flex and bend’ the challenges that traditional higher education formats impose on teachers and learners.

‘They offer interesting opportunities to explore new educational spaces in which the scale goes way beyond large on-campus classes, and where assessment has to be thought about differently,’ he writes.

While the buzz around MOOCs grows, more measured voices within the educational establishment question whether they herald the seismic changes the hype suggests. Because of theoretically infinite participants, traditional marking and evaluation is impractical, so work is peer reviewed (which itself presents limitations). MOOCs also currently carry far from the same weight as formal qualifications. While there are many examples of learners from developing nations taking advantage of the courses, they tend to seemingly attract a more privileged student body.

David Kernohan, programme manager at the Joint Information Systems Committee, which champions the use of digital technology in research, teaching and learning, tells The Positive: “There is a lot of noise and hype about how MOOCs will change the world and become a direct alternative to higher education for people from disadvantaged backgrounds and the developing world. And because they are free, you do get students from developing nations.”

However, he adds “the majority of people who take them have had higher education experience, are in full time employment and just fancy doing something else to keep their minds active. They usually pick a subject linked to their job or career or want to obtain a new skill.”

Interestingly some MOOC-style courses that are run independently of start-up platforms such as Coursera have seemingly achieved much better retention rates. One vibrant group of open online courses run by the University of Coventry covering photo and visual arts has evolved to become more community-driven. Students on the course link up, share experiences and critique each other’s work. They also build networks through social media and meet face-to-face.

Kernohan explains: “The networks of students happen almost [regardless of the] central organisation of MOOCs [involvement]. Students from the same area seek each other out and meet up. They link through social media; they read each other’s blogs. The community becomes an essential part of the course and develops organically.”

This approach is closer to the philosophy of ‘connectivism,’ a theory of learning based on the premise that knowledge exists in the world rather than in the head of an individual and that it can potentially be accessed through people participating in activities and creating connections and networks.

Kernohan explains: “The community becomes an essential part of the course. A lot of people say it is closer to the idea of campus style education. It goes back to the culture of mailing lists and message boards in the early days of the internet.”

MOOCs do present new and exciting possibilities and complement existing education. They aim to offer an introduction to higher education for people and may also allow students a taste of the quality of content available from a specific college or university.

How are online courses offering more flexibility to individuals who are keen to further their education?


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