A White Paper by Dr Lindsay Ryan - January 2013
What are MOOCs
MOOCs are Massive Open Online Courses and they are rapidly changing the game for higher education, executive education and employee development generally. MOOCs offer free online courses covering a growing range of topics delivered by qualified lecturers from some of the most well-known universities in the world. In this age of lifelong learning, MOOCs are a means of providing learning and development to virtually everyone, anytime, anywhere in the world with internet access.
This paper presents a snapshot of current developments in MOOCs, noting that MOOCs have really only gathered momentum in the past year and are constantly developing and evolving almost on a weekly basis.
The original concept for a MOOC came from academic research in the early 1960s with the idea that people could be linked by a series of computers to listen, discuss and learn about a particular topic. Now, continuous development in technology has become the enabler for virtually everybody in the world to have access to a broad and diverse range of education and learning topics.
MOOCs provide free online courses that enable people with an interest in a selected topic to study and learn through interaction with others also interested in the same topic. Other participants could be from the same organisation, city or region, learning together with people from other organisations, cities, regions and countries from around the world. MOOCs are the internet equivalent of distance education and there could be 1,000 or 100,000 participants in a single course.
MOOCs create the opportunity for vast numbers of people across the world to access learning through quality courses, content and lecturers that most would never have access to. For many people, further and higher education can seem overwhelming or beyond them. MOOCs open a world of opportunity for people in remote areas and developing countries as well as people with aspirations to achieve more with their lives. MOOCs are changing the traditional nature of education mainly being for the affluent and elite to being free and accessible to virtually everybody.
The growth of MOOCs is phenomenal. During the three months from mid-October to mid-January, including the quiet period for learning and development over Christmas-New Year, one major player, Coursera, continued to grow at the rate of 6,900 new participants (Courserians) PER DAY. Anything that grows at such a rate cannot be ignored and Coursera is just one of an increasing number of MOOC providers bringing together a diverse and expanding range of open online courses.
MOOCs started as a form of collaborative online learning with people interacting and learning from each other and being exposed to different perspectives, views and ideas. Over the past year, MOOCs have started to move to the mainstream and increasingly resembling more traditional courses, especially as a significant number of MOOCs are shorter versions of many traditional courses, and often delivered by highly qualified professors and academics whose research and academic expertise underpins the course on a MOOC.
Some of the MOOCs, such as EdX, continually research their courses to better understand how participants learn and explore ways of using the technology to transform and further enhance the learning and online experience for the participants.
Coursera (www.coursera.org), established by two Stanford University professors, is currently the biggest MOOC platform providing 212 different courses in such areas as: economics and business, computer sciences, biology, social sciences, music and film, medicine, health, food and nutrition, physical and earth sciences. Coursera has a consortium of 33 of the most well-known and highly regarded universities in the world delivering free online courses including Harvard, Stanford, Pennsylvania, Washington, London, Edinburgh, Toronto and Melbourne.
Udacity (www.udacity.com) has a focus on computer science courses and provides a range of topics from beginner courses to intermediate and advanced courses.
EdX (www.edx.org), owned by the prestigious academic institutions Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, draws content from a selection of their highly regarded courses.
Khan Academy (www.khanacademy.org) is a MOOC platform for young learners from kindergarten to Year 12 with courses centred on mathematics and science: biology, chemistry and physics, as well as some elements of economics and history.
FutureLearn (www.futurelearn.com) is the newest significant player reflecting how MOOCs are constantly changing. FutureLearn comprises a consortium of 12 major UK universities including The Open University, which has considerable experience in distance and online education, Birmingham, Warwick, Cardiff, Leeds, Bristol and St Andrews. Their web site is live but the courses and content are still being developed.
In addition, many high profile and elite universities are now offering their standard courses as open courses where people can watch the lectures online and access course slides and materials. To achieve the formal qualification people need to apply and enrol with the respective universities, pay the program fees and satisfactorily complete the assessment requirements associated with each course.
Participating in a MOOC
Participants complete a simple online registration for a course that interests them. They might want to learn more about a particular topic or it could be an introduction to consider a future study option or a possible formal university program or career direction. Each course on a MOOC is open for people over the age of 18 and, with parental approval, young learners over the age of 13. Coursera also asks participants to agree to an honour code that all the homework, quizzes and exams is their own work and that they won’t cheat or do anything that could dishonestly improve their results or dishonestly affect another person’s results.
When registering for a MOOC, participants are advised they are registering for a course and not enrolling with any of the universities delivering the courses. The courses are free and most materials and notes can be down-loaded from the course site. Occasionally other resources are recommended, such as additional books and reference materials for particular courses which can be purchased, but they are rarely prescribed as part of a course. A growing number of MOOCs offer a certificate signed by the lecturer once participants satisfactorily complete the course and there may be a fee for the certificate.
Until recently MOOCs have not provided participants with credit for further or higher education programs. However this is an area many universities are now considering, especially as one university in the US, Antioch University in Los Angeles, has started providing credit for selected MOOCs into specified college courses. Many overseas participants, especially in India, are seeking credit for their studies through MOOCs. While most MOOCs incorporate regular self-tests, projects and compulsory exams, universities are still exploring how participants can demonstrate mastery of a topic in order to be able to grant credit for the MOOC study. The American Council on Education is currently investigating a means of accrediting selected MOOCs for credit towards higher education courses.
How MOOCs Work
MOOCs allow a single teacher/lecturer to teach thousands and sometimes tens of thousands of participants in a single course delivery. With this size class, there is little participant contact with the lecturers, although some have scheduled times when they join online forums with participants to discuss various aspects of a course or provide further explanation on a topic.
MOOCs are often four to six weeks duration and the course format involves participants watching a series of short videos prepared by the lecturer detailing a particular topic theme for each of the specified weeks of the course. The format uses asynchronous learning so that participants can view the video at times that best suit them as well as their time zone. During each topic there are usually online tests that allow participants to respond and check their understanding of the concept or information presented.
In some courses participants are required to write an essay or more detailed response instead of an online multiple choice exam. In these cases, some MOOCs arrange for participants to forward their papers to five other participants for peer assessment and marking. This approach allows each participant to receive feedback and critique from five other participants. A lecturer may moderate an assessment where the spread of grades is diverse or a particular participant has a reputation for marking harshly.
The key to MOOC success is interaction among participants. Participants have interactive online tests during a course and then they will often post comments in online forums. Some MOOC lecturers try to organise face-to-face study groups in various physical locations or separate online forums for participants to promote learning and understanding through the sharing of ideas, perspectives and experiences with other participants.
MOOCs are based on Connectivism principles where learning and knowledge is created through connecting different people with a diversity of opinions. Technology is the enabler for MOOCs and with the growing use of smart phones and mobile computing, participants can maintain on-going connection with their MOOC class and interaction with other participants when they are at work, home, travelling and at any time of the day.
The Significance of MOOCs
- MOOCs are accessible to virtually everybody who has access to the internet and the courses are free. This means there is no direct cost for a participant to explore a potential new area of interest or learning;
- Learning occurs at times and locations that best suit the participant;
- Participants interact with other people with a shared interest and are exposed to a diverse range of perspectives and ideas that can stimulate reflection and further interest in a topic;
- Being part of a global class, participants can gain insight into attitudes, ideas, and trends among different populations and countries on a particular topic;
- The continuing growth in the number of MOOCs will lead to significant choice and options for free online courses. This will allow learning and development to be tailored to the needs and/or interests of each participant;
- MOOCs open a world of learning possibilities and promote lifelong learning for all those who are interested, able and motivated to participate;
- Although some critics of MOOCs claim there is a low completion rate for courses, this has more positives than negatives. It means that people are interested in the concept of MOOCs and willing to investigate online learning, which most people would not have experienced previously. It also means that people have the opportunity to explore a topic without being committed to it and incurring significant costs as happens with many undergraduate programs.
- Those people participating in a MOOC who do not complete a course are not precluding somebody else who wanted to participate but did not meet the selection criteria or cut-off levels.
- The opportunity to learn something new or completely different from their normal discipline;
- The opportunity to appraise higher education or a specific topic without the need to apply and enrol with an educational institution and incur course fees;
- The opportunity to learn through interacting with other participants from diverse backgrounds, experiences and countries;
- Everybody has an equal opportunity to interact online compared to on-campus lectures which some participants find intimidating speaking or asking questions in large groups;
- MOOCs could be used as an introduction to certain topics that lead to further study and possibly advanced standing in further education programs, subject to assessment of mastery at a prescribed level. This could reduce the duration and costs associated with completing a formal qualification.
- Some higher education providers may see MOOCs as a threat, particular those who regard lectures and course materials as their intellectual property and only accessible to fee paying students;
- Other higher education providers will see MOOCs as the opportunity to showcase some of their courses and use the MOOCs as a means of attracting new participants to undertake studies;
- Need to develop a system for assessing student mastery of certain MOOCs and provide credit or advanced standing for participants applying for higher education programs. Participants completing a number of MOOCs and able to demonstrate mastery of the topic also demonstrate commitment to study and are likely to complete formal qualifications;
- Should promote the environment and resources of their university, student experience and value of the qualification for participants who progress from a MOOC to enrolling in a formal university program.
- Employers could utilise MOOCs as part of the learning and development of employees. Those employees that show real interest, commitment and motivation for certain areas of studying could then be supported by their employer to enrol in further studies in areas relating to their employment and career development;
- Some organisations and industries could use a series of MOOCs, selecting the most appropriate courses from a number of MOOC aggregators, as a pre-qualification for people applying to work in a particular industry, in addition to or instead of a university degree.
MOOCs provide employers with the opportunity to develop an integrated organisation development plan and tailor a learning and development plan for each employee. Such a plan might comprise:
- One or a series of MOOCs on topics relevant to each employee’s development needs;
- Work-based projects that enable employees to learn and immediately apply their learning, which promotes greater understanding of concepts and better retention of the learning;
- A mentor for each employee to discuss their work-based projects, workplace issues and career development options;
- TED videos (Ideas Worth Spreading) to stimulate ideas, thinking and discussion within an organisation and/or workgroup;
- YouTube-Education videos with specific topics and speakers used for employees to watch and then discuss or lead discussions with work colleagues.
The above integrated approach to employee learning and skills development could apply to all employees, from frontline, through supervisor and middle management, up to senior managers and executives.Final Comment
MOOCs have been described in some circles as the biggest development in education for 200 years. It would appear that MOOCs are a win-win for participants, higher education providers and industry.
However, the unanswered question is: if MOOCs are free how do they pay for themselves? At this stage the universities involved in launching MOOCs seem to be following the approach adopted by one of the most successful companies of the digital age: Google. As identified by Jeff Jarvis, Google banks users, not money. When Google rolls-out a new product they worry about whether they will have users. If they have users, the money will follow (Jarvis, Jeff, (2009) What Would Google Do?, HarperCollins, New York).
About the Author
Dr Lindsay Ryan is Director of Corporate Education Advisers.
Lindsay is a thought leader, adviser and mentor to organisations assisting with organisational development and employee learning that enables organisations to develop their capability and capacity. Utilising leading-edge research, Lindsay assists organisations adopt a strategic approach to their corporate education to ensure employee training and development aligns with their goals and strategic direction. Based in Adelaide, Australia, Lindsay’s work is highly regarded internationally and he is also Visiting Fellow in Corporate Education with Birmingham City Business School in the United Kingdom.
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