What Are MOOCs (Good For)? I Don’t Really Know…

There’s mutterings in the air at the moment relating to MOOCs – Massive(ly) Open Online Courses: over the last few days, missives from David and Jim and Pat and Stephen amongst others.

Arguably primed by the open courseware and open learning initiatives that started a decade or so ago (precursor: OSTP), several notable MOOC platforms (Coursera, Udacity) provide a one stop supermarket for 20-100 hour large cohort, online “course experiences” offered by traditional universities. Using a blend of readings and video lectures, courses provide pacing through a predetermined syllabus on a particular topic, with social tools to allow students to discuss elements of the course with each other. To provide the feedback on progress, computer marking systems and scaleable “peer assessment” provide a means of letting a student know how well they are doing on the course.

At least, I think that’s how it works. I don’t really know. Though I’ve signed up for several MOOCs, I’ve never actually started any of them, or tried to work through them.

Maybe that’s because I tend to learn from resources discovered on the web in response to questions I’ve formulated myself (questions which often derive from reading other resources and either being confused by them or not being able to make sense of them!). But just see how far a search far a web search for visualisation site:coursera.org gets you. As I believe Patrick McAndrew suggested. (Hmmm… I appear to have hit my article limit… Here’s Patrick’s OER13 keynote which I think led to the article.)

I’m not sure who, within the universities that have signed up to delivering courses on the various MOOC platforms, is deciding which courses to run with, but I suspect the marketing department has a hand in it.

Marketing departments also used to run university web presences, too, didn’t they?

Way back when, when I was still at school, I used to watch tech documentaries – I remember seeing a window based GUI for the first time on an old episode of Horizon – and OU programmes, amongst other things… If you’re over a certain age, you’ll remember them:

Things have moved on since then, of course. OU/BBC programmes now are of a far more mainstream flavour (for example, clips from recent OU/BBC co-pros currently on iPlayer). Add to that, a wide variety of online videos, such as the 60 second animation series (such as 60 Second Adventures in Thought, or 60 Second Adventures in Astronomy, or even 60 Second Adventures in Economics), or clips from OU produced videos sent to students as part of their course materials (this sort of thing, for example: A Cyborg Future?, The Buildings of Ancient Rome or Environmental Policy in an International Context.)

As “tasters”, the OU course programmes that appeared in the dead parts of the schedule on BBC2 introduced me to a particular form of discourse, somewhere between a lecture and a tutorial, at particular level of understanding (higher education academic). The programmes were created as embedded parts of a distance education course, complementing readings and exercises, and though I find it hard to remember back, I think that came across. That the programmes were a glimpse into a wider, and deeper, exploration of a particular topic that the course of which they were a part provided. I don’t really recall.

So whilst the OU course programmes were part of a course, they were not the whole of it. They were windows into a course, rather than a microcosm of one. I get the impression that the MOOCs are intended in some way to be “complete”, albeit short, courses, that are maybe intended to act as tasters of more comprehensive, formal offerings. I don’t really know.

My introduction to the OU, then, aged ten, or thereabouts, so 35 years or so ago, was through these glimpses into courses that other people were studying. They were opportunities for me to walk into a lecture to see what it was like. The programmes were not intended for me, but I could partake of them. That is more of a “passively discoverable OER” model than a MOOC. Maybe. I don’t really know.

I wonder now, if now was then, how I would have come to discover the world of “academic” communications. Through Google, presumably. Through the web. Through the marketing department? Or through the academics, (but discovered how?).

I guess we could argue that MOOCs represent, in part, higher education marketing departments waking up to the fact that the web exists, that it is a contentful medium, in part at least, and that the universities have content that may attract eyeballs. Maybe. I don’t really know.

If the marketing departments are leading the MOOC campaigns, I wonder what sort of return they expect? Raising “brand awareness”? Being seen to be there/having a presence on a platform because other universities have? Generating leads and building up mailing lists? Online courses as “promotional items” (whatever that means)? Edutainment offerings?! I don’t really know.

Going back to the OU programmes on BBC2, the primary audience then were presumably students on a course, because the programmes were part of the course. Partially open courses. Courses being run for real that also had an open window open on to them, so that other people could see what sorts of thing were covered by those courses, and maybe learn a little along the way.

This is more in keeping with the model of online course delivery being pursued by Jim Groom’s ds106 or Martin Weller’s H817 module on “Open Education” (I think; I don’t really know). I think. I don’t really know.

Other models are possible, of course. The “cMOOC” – connectionist/connectivist MOOC – idea explores a different pedagogy. The xMOOC offerings of Coursera and Udacity wrap not opencourseware in a delivery platform and run scheduled cohorts. The original OU OpenLearn offering had the platform (Moodle), had the open content, but didn’t have the community that comes from marshalling learners into a scheduled offering. Or the hype. Or at least, not the right sort of hype (the hype that follows VC investment, where VC does not refer to Vice Chancellor). The cMOOC idea tries to be open as to curriculum, in part – a more fluid learning environment where loose co-ordination amongst participants encourages an element of personal research into a topic and sharing of the lessons learned. A pedagogy that seeks to foster independent learning in the sense of being able to independently research a topic, rather than independently pay to follow a prescribed path through a set of learning materials. In the xMOOC, a prescribed path that propagates a myth of there being one true way to learn a subject. One true path.

My own open course experiment was an uncourse. Tasked with writing a course on a subject about which I knew nothing, I sought to capture my own learning path through it, using that trail to inform the design of a supposedly more polished offering. The traces are still there, still open – Digital Worlds – Interactive Media and Game Design. The pages still get hit, the resources still get downloaded. I could – should – do a little more to make evident the pathways through the content.

Whilst the reverse chronological form of a blog made sense as I was discovering a trail through the subject area – new content was revealed to any others following the uncourse in a sensible order – looking back at the material now the journeys through each topic area start at the end, presenting anyone wishing to follow the path I took with an apparent problem. Though not really… If you select a Category on the Digital Worlds blog, and add ?order=asc – as for example http://digitalworlds.wordpress.com/category/animation/?order=asc, the posts will be presented in chronological order. I wonder if there is a switch – or a plugin – that can make chronological views of posts within a particular tag or category on WordPress automatically display in a chronological order? I don’t really know. This would provide one way of transforming a platform configured as a “live presentation” site into one that worked better as a legacy site. It’s not hard to imagine a Janus theme that would provide these two faces of a site, one in reverse chronological order for live delivery, the other in chronological order for folk wishing to follow the steps taken by a previous journeyman in the same order as they were originally taken.

I still don’t know what forces are at play that may result in MOOC-hype and whatever shakes out as a result transforming, if at all, higher education as we know it and as developing countries may yet come to know it. I really don’t know.

And I still don’t have a good feeling for how we can make most effective use of the web to support a knowledge driven society; how best we can make use of online content resources and social communication tools to help people to develop their own personal, and deeper, understanding about whatever topic, to help them make sense of whatever they need to make sense of; how best schools and universities can draw on the web to help people develop lifelong learning skills; what it means to use the web in furtherance of lifelong learning.

I really, really, don’t know.