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Some Mooc points

July 10, 2013

Massive Open On-line Courses (Moocs) are short learning packages provided by some universities and available free to all on-line. Currently US universities are most advanced; in Britain the Open University is leading a consortium – Futurelearn – involving some other universities and cultural organisations such as the British Museum. It has a planned Autumn launch.

As a big lifelong learning initiative using digital media and with global reach, Moocs are difficult to ignore. They may have a transformative impact on higher education and by extension adult education; whilst extending reach and reducing costs there are potentially significant negative consequences for teachers (and other staff) and the quality of the students’ learning experience.

Substantial private investment has gone into US Moocs although there is not as yet an evident business model. There is some experience of charging for credits and a rationale around building reputation and future enrolment onto mainstream provision. Potentially fees could be introduced. However for an organisation with hundreds of thousands (or millions) of users – world-wide, young, employed, ambitious and tech savvy – there is clearly the possibility of monetising (horrible word) this. Social media giants such as FB and Twitter did this, although others sunk without a trace.

The educational model is still emerging. Content can be put on-line with interaction and group discussion via social media type approach. Assessment is a challenge. Interestingly Coursera, a major US-based player, recognise that computer-based assessment is limited and is developing the use of peer assessment, training students to undertake this with each other. Below is the link to Coursera’s pedagogical foundations. Assessment is less of an issue for short CPD type courses but would be a big one if degrees were to be offered. The OU’s experience will be very relevant in Britain.

As Ann Walker (link below) says completion rates are low (below 10%) but not all think that this matters. Many are ‘dipping in’ to the subject or checking out how it’s done. Initially too it seems that most students already have a degree. Ann’s points about the challenge for educationally disadvantaged students (a priority for WEA and many other adult education organisations) are well made.

However these uncertainties are not necessarily a problem for exponents of ‘disruptive innovation’. The business and educational models will (or won’t) emerge during the process of trial and innovation with the rewards going to those who find the best solutions.

What then about adult education?

I do think there is an issue. Whilst the current model of professionally taught face to face weekly classes is extremely resilient it is dependant upon significant public funding and locked into particular social groups. It has been challenged for some time by University of the Third Age (U3A) who offer a self organised, peer taught, virtually free and paperwork light alternative although they seem to appeal more to graduates retired from white collar and professional occupations. More recently digital and on-line providers such as The Skills Network, who offer a range of free on-line courses for employees mainly in the care sector, are expanding. If we stick with our current model (building on its huge social and community strengths) we will, at the very least, be constantly under competitive pressure to make sure it works to very highest standard justifying the resources put into it.  There’s nothing wrong with that, of course.

At the same time, I think we should combine this with experimenting with different models so that we can run more of a mixed economy, or develop new hybrid, or blended ones. This may bring in a whole new audience, not just in Britain but internationally.

It would be well worthwhile the WEA putting a limited number of courses on-line with short self assessment activities and a moderated chat room. This could be a mixture of liberal education and skills courses along with a few things some would like to do and might appeal to a different student group, for instance contemporary politics or economics. At the very least this would test the water and add enhancement for existing students.

The model of high quality content on-line and social discussion and critical evaluation led me back to the learning circles that were set up as part of the Learning Revolution. It may well be possible to set up learning circles to follow particular courses, training circle leaders and introducing peer assessment. This would offer something different to U3A and would have a lighter touch and be more self organised than mainstream provision. Learning circles would be an ‘add on’ where the scope existed to organise them.

Initiatives such as these would have to be treated as investment and free to the user rather than cost recovery (unless a benefactor could be found): there is a huge amount of free content on-line and a pay wall would be a serious deterrent.

These are some quick thoughts following Ann’s blog. We definitely need to get moving.

Ann Walker blog: 

Coursera pedagogy:


From → Adult Education

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