Today’s mystery acronym is MOOCs, which know-it-all All Change Please! can proudly reveal stands for Massive Open On-line Courses. And when they say Massive, they really do mean Massive – the size of enrollment often ranges from 10,000 to 80,000 students.
Such things have been called into existence for two main reasons. The first is to enable access to learning to anyone, anywhere, anytime, which is of course a great idea. And the second is to enable Universities to market themselves as being at the forefront of the use of new technologies, and if they just happen to generate some extra funding to compensate for the reduction in full-time student numbers, then that’s all to the good too. Having said that, they do require a lot of initial up-front investment, except that seems to be increasingly being supplied by commercial publishing companies who are obviously going to prescribe their own online textbooks, and as a result the courses are somewhat likely to become more Closed than Open.
Meanwhile, clearly any A level student about to make a decision to apply to university needs to be well informed about the variety, type and quality of MOOCs being offered by different institutions and of the impact they are having on the more traditional lecture and tutorial content of the courses. It appears that there is not just one species of MOOC in existence, but a diverse range of the gargantuan creatures. Donald Clark – quite possibly the Darwin of MOOCs – has recently identified the following taxonomy of mutations and cross-species:
• transferMOOCs – the transfer of existing courses into an online format
• madeMOOCs – less formal, including software driven interactive experiences
• synchMOOCs – have fixed assignment delivery times, course start and end dates
• asynchMOOCs – have no fixed assignment delivery times, course start and end dates
• adaptiveMOOCs – uses algorithms and data analytics to provide personalised learning experiences
• groupMOOCs – small, collaborative groups of students that come together for short periods of time
• connectivistMOOCS – MOOCs that attempt to harvest and share knowledge, rather than teach pre-defined knowledge
• miniMOOCSs – short-term and intense courses in specific subjects, often commercially run
Although currently the play-thing of Higher Education establishments, MOOCs are an approach that can’t at some point be ruled out for secondary education, because computer terminals are cheaper than teachers, especially as it’s administrators and accountants that make the decisions these days. And just as with any style of teaching and learning, on-line courses suit certain types of students, but by no means all types – indeed course-completion rates are apparently low, with many students complaining they found the courses ‘boring’. On-line learning is also clearly most appropriate for knowledge transfer, and not so good for practical, experimental and creative work. But do the administrators and accountants know that?
Now All Change Please! has nothing against MOOCs – apart perhaps from their rather silly name – providing that is they don’t end up being the be-all and end-all of education, in which the poor sit in front of a computer terminal all day and the wealthy get to be taught by real teachers. MOOCs have a positive contribution to make, but it’s only a contribution and not a substitution for the real thing. Indeed just the other day All Change Please! enjoyed its own disruptive variation in the form of a Memorable Open Offline Coffee in town with two former colleagues, both from different subject disciplines. Over the course of two hours current educational theories of learning, Lord of the Flies, Postmodern Design and Music, and Dark Matter were all rigorously discussed and debated. As we departed we all agreed we had each learned and understood more in the past two hours than any textbooks, day-long series of lectures or on-line courses could have provided.
While one day computer technology might facilitate such a rich and compelling dialogue, All Change Please! suspects it’s still some way off. There’s the possibility of video conferencing, but it somehow just isn’t the same as real-life interaction and cappuccino. But that’s how people really learn – not just by being ‘taught’ facts, or even doing practical work, but informally discussing and exchanging ideas and information with the opportunity to explore challenging questions with people they know personally. Teaching and learning at its best is a two-way, almost mystical process of an exchange of brain waves that produces permanent change in each other’s minds.
It seems that Plato bloke really knew what he was talking about when he said:
‘The teacher must know his or her subject, but as a true philosopher he or she also knows that the limits of their knowledge. It is here that we see the power of dialogue – the joint exploration of a subject – ‘knowledge will not come from teaching but from questioning’.
Another Massive Mocha anyone?
‘A Mini Mooc was a popular beach buggy made in the 1960s.’
‘Don’t Mooc now! is a terrific film made in the early 1970s’
‘It’s a mooc point, but…’
‘Have you ever watched the Moocs of Hazard?’
Image credit: All Change Please!