MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) have been around for a while, but last year saw an explosion of online courses, with the launch of Coursera following Stanford’s pioneering offerings in the Fall of 2011. This trend looks set to continue with more Universities falling over themselves to offer courses online, and with ventures such as Future Learn in the UK about to take off.
I signed up for a few courses last year, audited some, dropped out of a few, and completed others, and generally had a great time exploring different types of learning experiences. In short I have become something of a MOOC junkie.
Will MOOCs replace Universities as many professors fear? Probably not! The University experience is about so much more than just the material that is taught. Will MOOCs transform Universities? Absolutely! That is inevitable. Many of the MOOCs that I audited, such as Harvard’s Computer Science 50 (CS50x) on Edx.org were hybrid courses which involved students attending the course on campus, and those doing it wholly online. Quite clearly the quality and amount of material available to students online is transformative in nature.
It is hard to explain what is quite so effective about taking a well-designed MOOC, and you will need to try it for yourself. Each one the courses that I took was different, and all had strengths and weaknesses. While none were perfect, all had value. The best experience I had came from Modern & Contemporary American Poetry (ModPo for short), which was offered by Professor Al Filreis of the University of Pennsylvania. What made it work so well was largely the Professor’s extraordinary energy. He was active on the forums answering questions, tweeting and interacting on the Facebook page for the course. This and the efforts of the Teaching Assistants helped create a sense that one was “known” even given the large numbers of students attending the course. There was a very real sense of community created which fostered learning. The course consisted of watching video discussions between the Professor and Teaching Assistants discussing particular works, reading or listening to additional material, reading forum posts by staff and students, taking short quizzes and writing short essays, assessed by fellow students. There were weekly live webcasts as well which allowed students to pose questions via telephone or twitter. Short of attending seminars oneself, and having comments from the professor directly I cannot think of how the quality of this experience might have differed from face-to-face attendance. I learned a great deal, and had a great deal of fun! And all for free!
I also completed Learn To Program: The Fundamentals offered by Jennifer Campbell and Paul Gries from the University Of Toronto. This course involved video lectures and quizzes, so you could make sure you were on the right track, and programming exercises which were assessed electronically within seconds. The forums and Facebook page allowed one to learn from other students. I was new to Python programming, but have signed up for part 2 of the course! The exercises, in which one had to write mini-programs, were challenging and engaging. What was most special though was the care and attention that the professors took to ensure that they taught not just the Python programming language, but good programming protocols as well. In this sense the course was way above a codecademy course.
Kevin Werbach’s Gamification course offered by the Wharton Business School was engaging and informative, and again consisted of video lectures, quizzes and written assignments and forum discussions. The ability to pause and re-wind a lecture is a considerable advantage over a face-to-face lecture.
The course, Designing a New Learning Environment offered by professor Paul Kim on Stanford’s Venture Lab platform was somewhat different, being based on the completion of a group project. This was challenging and fun, and although the course material was a little lack-lustre, the experience of collaborating in an educational project globally was well worth the effort. The group I participated in set about conceptualizing and designing a High School MOOC platform, and I am still engaged in furthering this project to bring it to fruition.
Lest you think that my experience of MOOCs has all been a bed of roses, I have to say that I had to drop out of a few, partly because I found I didn’t have enough time to do them justice and sometimes because I didn’t feel I was getting enough out of them despite time spent. Having had a bit of time during the Christmas holidays to step back and reflect on what it all means, I think I can say with certainty that MOOCs can provide quality education to large numbers of people online for free. Whether Universities will see it that way I am not sure, although I understand that ModPo has already made its university money by being sold on to third parties to use in hybrid situations. Clearly there is a business model, and quality courses can be profitable.
Could MOOCs be translated into Secondary schooling environments? My gut feel is that the answer is yes, and that, in the South African context it could offer some answers to the problems that bedevil our education system. What is different between a university and a school environment is largely the amount of scaffolding that students require, and I would argue that High School MOOCs would need to take this into account. It is going to be an interesting year as the new MOOCs start to mature, and new ones emerge.
All I know is that I’m hooked!