MOOCs are rather flavour of the month, given the recent publicity about the launch of FutureLearn.  I did touch on them previously  but given I’m delivering an INSET about MOOCs this coming week, I thought I’d expand on the subject.

In case you don’t know, MOOCs – Massive Online Open Courses – are free education delivered by various universities – MIT, Harvard, Caltech etc in the US via edX and Coursera, and now Bristol, Birmingham, Cardiff etc (not forgetting the OU!) in the UK.

They are a truly wonderful initiative in my opinion – democratisation of education, promotion of learning for its own sake – all the things I’ve always supported.  I’ve been delighted to find that some of the kids at school have taken some of them; they’ve used them to give them a taste of an unfamiliar subject they’re contemplating studying formally, to enhance their knowledge of something they’re already studying or purely out of interest.  A friend who teaches elsewhere has used them to enhance her own subject knowledge.

You know there’s a “but” coming though, don’t you?

One “but” is largely to do with all the analysis of data deriving from learners interacting with the courses. It’s seen as a huge problem that lots of people drop out.  Now making sure people don’t drop out for the “wrong” reasons – yes, by all means worry about that.  It’s a shame if they drop out because the software’s acting up, or they can’t get clips to play, for example. Similarly, you don’t want people dropping out because they’ve been mislead by the description of the content, or of the prerequisite knowledge required.  It’s also rather regrettable when people pull out because the “peer assessment” is managed poorly, as happened to a friend of mine.

But apart from such matters – surely a high drop-out rate is to be anticipated because:

  1.  if you’ve even a vague interest, you’ve nothing to lose by signing up – lots of people sign up to multiple courses to see what to pursue
  2. people may start and later figure they haven’t got the time (done this myself)
  3. Some people sign up just to download the lectures and don’t intend to do the assessments
  4. if the course is rigorous and tough – as some of them are – then inevitably some people will find it’s too far out of their comfort zone, or requires too much effort.

So I am rather worried that the response to reduce those allegedly problematic drop-out rates will not be to address the sensible things – make it clear the demands of the course, the prerequisites required and the time it’s likely to take – because they might impact on the uptake of courses. Instead, I fear there will be a tendency to dumb down and make it all fluffy and cuddly. One thing I really appreciated about the first MOOC I did (MIT’s 3.091x) was that it had a few tough problems in there that you really had to think about, and that getting a good grade in the exam was something I could feel genuinely pleased with. Of course there is a place for rather “gentler” courses too, but I would hate to see the tougher ones which stretch students vanish due to their lower completion figures.  I must confess I do not feel reassured by FutureLearn’s initial offerings; they all seem rather lower intensity and more at an intro level than edX.

My other “but” is in relation to the people doing the courses. There was a persistent minority in 3.091x who were determined to do their best to cheat on the assessments. No, I don’t mean “work collaboratively” or “seek help”, I mean cheat. They were posting on “homework help” sites asking to be given the answer. (I took a fair bit of pleasure in deliberately posting wrong answers in response to try to put a spoke in their wheels(!))  There were a fair few more whose idea of “help” on the course forum was that someone should tell them exactly which equation to use and which numbers to put in it, and who didn’t want to be helped to understand it themselves. Even more worryingly, there were a couple of fellow students who seemed to think they were actually “helping” their peers by telling them answers and that that meant the people had now learnt something.

Now I cannot begin to understand what people think they are gaining just by acquiring a little green tick on a screen in a “not for credit” course (at least cheating in an exam that counts might get you something concrete!). But if people who think assessment is the be-all and end-all of learning start to dominate, it can really mess things up for the proper students.   Since an awful lot of the support in MOOCs is via peer interaction on forums, getting the right sort of approach to mutual help established is vital – but it takes significant input from staff at the beginning to do so, and that’s not always going to be easy in a MOOC (I’ve been on that side of the fence as well, and I can tell you it took a lot of time!)

Don’t let the above put you off MOOCs. They are a fantastic opportunity, and many of them are excellent courses. But please let’s not have them dragged down by the number crunching and assessment focus that bedevil the rest of education.

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