Confused by MOOCs, Still…

All I am nowadays is confused… about everything. Take MOOCs (What Are MOOCs (Good For)? I Don’t Really Know…) – folk seem to think that something (I don’t know what) about MOOCs makes sense, but I don’t understand what it is they think is interesting or what it is they think is happening.

In the same way that I never did understand what folk were talking about when OERs (that is, open educational resources) were all the rage in ed tech circles, I really have no idea what they think they’re talking about now MOOC is the de rigeur topic of conversation.

(See for example Bits and Pieces Around OERs… or OERs: Public Service Education and Open Production. I also note that folk tend not to appreciate the value of linking. Or maybe I misunderstand it. Whatever.)

From the scraps of stats that are making it out of odds and sods of some of the online platforms (data is not generally available; data will pay the bills when the marketing spend gets cut back and until the MOOC platform providers start making money from selling analytics and course platform/VLE “solutions” to institutions or eking out affiliate and referral fees from recruiters) it’s hard to know whose taking the courses and why, and even whether the different platforms are appealing to the same markets.

My gut feeling in the absence of a proper review is that folk taking courses from the US MOOCx providers are as likely to have a degree as not (eg Participation And performance In 8.02x Electricity And Magnetism: The First Physics MOOC From MITx; I have no idea what the demographics of learners signing up for Futurelearn courses are (Futurelearn has far more of a “casual learner”/hobbiest learner (one might even say, “edutainment”…) vibe about it, though it also seems as if it could be positioned quite well as a taster site).

So here are a few of the things I particularly don’t get:

– if advanced courses are attractive to graduates, does that mean there is a gap in the market for courses for graduates? I’ve largely given up trying to convince anyone that universities should do what the banks used to do and treat the first degree as an opportunity to recruit someone for life as part of a lifelong learning package. The professional institutions have traditionally filled this role in the professions, but it’s hard to know how their membership figures are doing? Could/should the universities be signing up their recent graduates to a lifelong learning top-up package, potentially made up from MOOCs provided by their alma mater?

– if graduates like taking courses, why is the OU so keen on a) making it difficult for folk to take individual were-called-courses-are-now-called-modules? b) pricing individual courses out of the leisure-learner or professional-occasional-top-up market? c) insisting on competing with other universities on their terms rather than breaking open new markets for higher education and widening access to it? (Arguably, FutureLearn is a play at widening access.)

– if MOOCs are going to be important as part of a taster style marketing funnel, how would it be if FutureLearn MOOCs were eligible as an additional/alternative courses in the International Baccalaureate (have any MOOC platforms benefitted from PR around such an end-use yet? There are possibly also potential tie-ups there around the provision of invigilated assessment centres?); or received some amoutn of CAT point credit equivalent that counted towards university applications? Again, something I don’t really understand is why the OU has given up on the Young Applicants in Schools scheme at just the time when it’s starting to compete for 18 year old entry?

As I said, I’m increasingly confused, increasingly don’t understand what’s going on, increasingly don’t see whatever the hell it is that everybody else seems to see as emerging from the latest eduhype.

What’s education good for anyway, when we have the web to hand. Does the web change anything, or nothing? Why did we need universities when we had libraries – and university libraries – with books in them? Why does everybody need a degree? If graduates are the only people who make it to the end of an ‘advanced’ (rather than ‘course taster’) MOOC, what the hell are the universities doing? Why do folk who have become graduates need to take courses when we’ve got the web lying around? What is going on? I just don’t understand…

Author: Tony Hirst

I'm a Senior Lecturer at The Open University, with an interest in #opendata policy and practice, as well as general web tinkering...

6 thoughts on “Confused by MOOCs, Still…”

    1. @Gillian :-) I think you should… Blogs can be useful as (public) notebooks and hooks for informal conversations or drive-by reflections; they may also play a small but important role in the way the web links itself together… Possibly!;-)

      On the other hand, they may just be a self-indulgent place where we try legitimise idled away time and where ideas go to die…

  1. Great post, and yes I agree it’s a complex world out there.

    Coming from the corporate / university collaboration world here are a few thoughts on what is going on:

    * MOOCs aren’t competing (in the developed world) with universities but targeting different markets. Therefore I don’t see them as being a replacement for core university activities
    * They are likely to be attacking universities’ executive education activities. There is a lot of talk about their role in corporate education (see this recent Bersin / Deloitte analyst blog:
    * As you note, the data their collecting is useful for recruitment / selection. I suggest they might also be good supplementary data to aid university selection (better than the current education results? – probably is my guess). Recruitment is where LinkedIn makes its money in the whole.
    * For the normal undergraduate / graduate market I suspect they’ll threaten textbook producers more than the universities. We will likely see publishers lobbying the MOOC providers to get their authors to present courses. I can see the platforms adding premium packages with physical books to go alongside courses

    Possible implications:
    * The academics who create / present popular courses might end up having the strong brand. I think you’ll see something similar to what has happened in journalism – ‘normal’ journalists salaries aren’t great but the columnists can command great power / packages. Universities will compete for the academics with a strong personal brand
    * Corporates will demand a higher touch / more access to support / timings to suit them. Academics will use revenue from these streams to employ researchers / course facilitators.
    * The universities’ brands will become less important as the MOOC brands / personal brands become more valuable.

    My own experience of MOOC courses suggests that the value to the learner comes from the exercises / discussions rather than the lectures. The difference between reading a paper and discussing it at a tutorial.

    1. Hi Andrew
      Thanks for the comments…

      I’m also still hazy about how MOOCs are being used outside the first world bubble I live in. I know the OU has been involved with the TESSA (teacher education in sub-saharan Africa) OER project, (which may or may not at some point get reidentified as a MOOC initiative!), but to my shame I haven’t been tracking how the MOOC bandwagon has been rolling out in developing areas as such (and compared to other not-MOOC branded online open education/learning initiatives).

      As for competing or not in the developed world, I agree that I don’t think the competition is there in the developed world, but depending on who you read and whatever trip they’re on, that phrase may need qualifying with a big “, yet…”?;-) (I’m not sure I believe in the straight competition thing… though I can easily see the likes of Coursera starting to compete with the likes of Blakboard in terms of learning environment provision, possibly with added content; which brings Pearson and the textbook/content providers as ones to watch too to see how they respond to any perceived threat to their business models).

      The corporate education/training model is also an interesting one, especially as the wheels of political rhetoric turn round to HE as providing knowledge workers to feed industrial growth. As universities get more corporate and business like, I guess all they’ll be interested in is drawing circles round things they can identify as having ‘learning needs’ (or at least, qualification sign-off needs), people and cash.

      Insofar as feeder/taster MOOCs being used as a basis for recruitment, yes, I can see that, and therein lies at least one nightmare scenario to compare with the old DNA tests’n’insurance saw: if your MOOCstats and demographics show a propensity for dropping-out or that you’ll need expensive support, you won’t get a place…

      On the personal branding front – yes, maybe.. but there has always been celebrity academics, and the celebrity may or may not sit happily in terms of peer respect either within the institution or the academic area. (One thing I never understood was why the OU broadcast unit didn’t set up as a talent agency for “non-fiction” communicators… We’ve funded plenty of programmes that have broken talent in the science/academic communication area that we can no longer afford!;-)

      One area you don’t mention as a possible vent for MOOCs is in the space that lies between academia, the media and the policy makers (particular policy makers who engage in consultation). I really need to think this through properly, but it’s a possible reshaping of the sensemaking ecosystem that keeps niggling at me (eg ).

      Anyway – thanks again for your thought provoking comments:-)

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