MOOCs, or massive open online courses, are part of an ‘avalanche’ that is coming for higher education, according to a report earlier this year by Sir Michael Barber.
The former policy wonk, now employed as the chief education adviser at publishers Pearson, claimed that online courses will challenge the traditional university, in its physical campus form at least.
There is a lot of excitement about the number of students enrolled on MOOCs since the big three US providers launched in 2012 – the ‘year of the MOOC’. The biggest provider, Coursera, now claims over 4.5million ‘Courserians’; edX has one million students, while for-profit Udacity has more than 750,000 students. Futurelearn, the UK’s first MOOC provider, was launched in December 2012 and is about to open its portfolio of courses. Futurelearn is led by the Open University, which has over 240,000 students of its own and an historical status as an innovative distance-learning institution.
Size is not everything. While universities and techies get enthusiastic about online delivery, some academics have been sceptical or hostile. But if you look at their arguments against MOOCs, they are often really good arguments in favour of them. Here are three of them.
First criticism: computers can’t replace ‘real shared experiences’ on campus, claimed Patrick McGhee, when he was vice-chancellor of the University of East London. What this means for the majority of undergraduates is the ‘student experience’ - an increasingly homogenised mush of school-like childcare, relationship- and self-esteem-building workshops and organised play activities. The student experience, therefore, has a therapeutic rather than an educational function; it keeps students happy. If MOOCs can’t provide this kind of ‘student experience’, then that’s one reason to cheer for MOOCs.
Second criticism: feminists have recently created a distributed open collaborative course (DOCC) to challenge MOOC thinking about the role of the instructor, and to value situated experience and emphasis, to share authority and responsibility and to offer what Alexandra Juhasz of Pitzer College calls a ‘more democratic and responsive model for technology enhanced learning’. DOCCs will combat the idea of there being a ‘best’ professor, the ‘best expert in the world’, that we can all learn from. Instead, they will encourage group learning.