Guest post by Oliver Summers from the University of Greenwich.
There have been recent rumbles in the news of money problems at the Department of Business, Innovation & Skills; little things such as a £1.4 billion overspend, or Research Councils removing funding for Taught Postgraduate degrees. Those thinking of going to or continuing at university may begin to wonder about the security of what they could be getting themselves into.
Is there another way to access higher education, without going to university? There’s no such thing as a free lunch, but how about a free university lecture? Lectures on biology, genomic medicine, and immunology all for free? How about studying astrobiology for 5 weeks and getting a certificate at the end? These are possible with the introduction of the MOOC.
MOOCs – Massive Online Open Courses – were first established in 2007 and have grown in popularity with American institutions in the past 2 years. Similar to on-line and distance learning, users register on-line and spend a couple of hours a week studying the lecture notes and videos released. Most homework with science related MOOCs are MCQ based, and there is peer assessed marking usually via on-line forums. There are many providers, such as FutureLearn; the UK partnership between the Open University and over 20 UK universities. You can take specialism courses such as Systems Biology from Coursea, the US MOOC with over 1.7 million users. Some institutions can just provide lecture materials, such as MIT Open CourseWare, allowing people to study Bioengineering or Neurobiology at their own time and pace without the structured approach with other providers.
Considering the cheapest accommodation at UK universities has risen 11% over the last 3 years, not to mention the rise in tuition fees, there are some benefits to MOOCs. You can pay a small fee and get a Certificate of Accomplishment/Attainment, handy for any CV or professional development. But the main objective is that it can help expand the access to higher education into the developing world, and can promote the institutions (and their courses) to new prospective international students. In addition, with the continuing trend of the digital world, the MOOC can help innovate the way universities teach, and be a step in the evolution of on-line learning.
However, with emerging trends there can be a bit of over-hype. The MOOC is not just another educational model; it’s also a business model. You receive the course content for free, but the lecturers and organisers aren’t providing services for free. Some universities that provide MOOCs are picking up the tab for teacher’s time, putting a further strain on university budgets. Some commercial providers are covering costs with charges for certificates, invigilating exams and textbooks, effectively making the MOOC a free app with in-app purchases.
There are concerns about the high drop-out rate. Most of those bothering to keep up with the course are already graduates, with some reports of 80% of MOOC students having a degree or graduate experience. So is the MOOC actually reaching its intended audience of first time learners from developing countries? A study by the University of Pennsylvania found that almost 80% of Coursea students from countries such as Brazil, India, Russia, China and South Africa were from the wealthiest 6% of the population, and already had a degree or graduate experience. Although access to MOOCs is limited as many developing countries don’t have an extensive internet infrastructure.
A major disadvantage is that the MOOCs aren’t accredited; they do not count as college or university credit. So that certificate you paid for is just a piece of paper in most eyes. In science education, while MOOCs can provide you with the knowledge and theory of genetics, ecology or regenerative medicine, the practical element of the science is absent. Although, if you’ll be taking the reformed science A levels as proposed by Ofqual, where practical assessments will not count towards your grade, then it’s not much of a hindrance!
So are MOOCs the future of higher education and on-line learning? No (for the moment at least). They’re not a complete alternative to teaching higher education, at least at a full degree level. The main road block of accreditation must be overcome, although there are hints that this maybe sooner rather than later. But for now they are another chapter in the book of distance/on-line learning, and as the initial over hype dies down their true potential will come forth. You’d best keep a look on the MOOC!