Saturday, 8 December 2012

MOOCs - What's the big deal?

I have been following the discussion of MOOCs in various higher education publications with interest, but the debate seems to be lingering longer than it needs to.  The conversation always seems to come back to whether the MOOC will wipe out the university, and I just don't get it.

Did the correspondence course wipe out the university? Did iTunesU and lecture podcasts stop students actually enrolling on university courses? Did the availability of factual books in public libraries mean that nobody bothered to get a formal education? Of course not!

I know others have pointed out this fact before, many times, but yet another THES article suggesting soothingly that maybe MOOCs "needn't mean the chop for universities" drove me to state the obvious.

All of these things supplement formal education and are to be welcomed, maybe even learned from! For example, I've had a look at the Learn to Program course from the University of Toronto and it's really nicely done - video intros and very clear explanations, screencasts so you can see what they're doing, in-built evaluation to reinforce learning and all at a decent pace.*  This is what distance learning should be.

The reality is that these courses are a nice taster for a subject area, a useful way to brush up on an area that you have some experience in or a way to do free CPD.  If enough short courses were linked together in a particular subject with proper assessment models this approach could replace the physical lecture hall for some individuals, but that still requires proper investment and most students need at least some face-to-face contact for motivation purposes and to fully retain the information received.  Besides, I have a vague feeling someone's thought of that model of education already...

*I usually find technical training gets pitched at the complete computer novice or is geared towards the technical professional, with very little aimed at the reasonably technically-minded person with no real training but some basic experience to build on (= me!).

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