18 February 2015

The last few years has seen huge discussion in education of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) – with the University of Melbourne offering some of its own. So, what are they?

MOOCs are entirely online courses, and thus offer potentially unlimited participation by students all around the world. Theoretically, MOOCs provide institutions with the ability to offer affordable, full and intensive courses with real time interaction and support. The aim for most universities, at least for now, is for them to be offered alongside traditional teaching methods like the lectures and tutorials we are all accustomed to.

The University of Melbourne has been more than just dabbling its feet in MOOCs, having run courses since 2013, the majority of its courses running for between five and eight weeks. This is a format similar to that provided by its US counterparts: Stanford, Pennsylvania State, Princeton and the University of California.

The University’s first MOOC, the Bachelor of Commerce mainstay “Principles of Macroeconomics” received 66,000 enrolments, a huge and predominantly international market the University feels is otherwise unreachable. Despite over 305,000 videos being streamed, only half those students actually commenced the course and an even smaller fraction (2%) successfully completed.

These statistics are an example of the power universities now wield, enabling them to analyse massive data sets and identify patterns in student academic behaviours that, in turn, will provide a wealth of information and understanding about productivity and the effectiveness of different learning strategies. This, according to the University, can be used as a basis for real-time interventions for the benefit of the student, and to enhance the effectiveness of the courses themselves.

“The benefits of MOOCs are not simply in the MOOCs themselves, but in how they are informing what we are doing in mainstream campus-based online education,” said Gregor Kennedy, the University’s Pro Vice-Chancellor (Educational Innovation).

The appeal from a financial standpoint is great. Students no longer have to pay thousands for a single 12 week subject in genetics when they can enrol into the online version for a fraction of the cost. The University saves what it loses in enrolments by cutting the costs of providing a physical learning space and other facilities.

However, as with any new advancement, there is a trade-off. This may be a significantly more affordable way to reach thousands of more students, but what will happen to the quality of education and to attrition rates? The online MOOC Guide acknowledges the reliance on user generated content, the need for digital literacy, time and effort invested by the participant, student self-regulation and the sheer number of people involved in a course as five of the greatest threats to the system. From a student perspective, these challenges do not seem too different from a traditional university set up, with tools like the LMS and Echo Lecture Recordings. Digital literacy is already a pre-requisite, not to mention the time and effort needed to get through the 12 weeks of physical lectures, tutorials, practicals and labs. Nonetheless, the challenges are there.

The real threat is the mass production of videos, which is the dominant medium used in a MOOC. By producing these in isolation, the lecturer loses the most valuable tool available to them in not being able to adjust and adapt to a class’ immediate feedback. Students look confused? Use an anecdote. Class is starting to fade? Throw in a joke. None of this is possible when you separate the student from the teacher. In doing so, you cannot help but reduce the quality of instruction and it could be argued all that has been achieved is the creation of a slightly more academic YouTube.

This is not to say the academics behind the courses are not putting in the work. The Chronicle of Higher Education conducted an extensive survey that attempted to reach every professor to have taught a MOOC (with 104/184 responses) and the results were staggering. According to the study, the average professor spent more than 100 hours on preparation for each course prior to the first lesson and a further 8-10 hours per week through the duration of the course. In spite of this however, 72% of the professors indicated that they believed completion of the course to be inadequate in terms of earning credit towards a degree. For now, anyway.

The jury is still out on whether MOOCs will be the future of education but it is certainly difficult to deny their potential. Even if they evolve to become just a supplement to the current system, surely taking the knowledge held by leading academics from elite universities around the globe, condensing it into a short, affordable subject and providing it to anyone with an internet connection can only be a positive thing. Where they will evolve in the future will have a huge impact on the future of education.

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