By Alison Cornu
There has been an enormous amount of hype around MOOCs since they first entered the UK HE arena roughly five years ago. That tens of thousands of students from around the world could enrol and study simultaneously was something both to marvel at and question. Two big issues have dominated discussions about the future of MOOCs on the HE landscape: first, what business case can support them; and second, what evidence is there that students learn? Today, with much water under the bridges of both experience and research, we are in a better position to put forward a view of what we think about MOOCs.
At the outset, the notion that so many students from so many backgrounds could all learn together, and learn ‘properly’ and effectively, seemed to some impossible. As a society we have consistently had drilled into us the fact that learning best occurs in small groups. One-to-one is perhaps the crème de la crème, but groups of four to six adults offer an excellent environment for learning one from another, epitomised in the traditional Oxbridge style. Parents are keen to see their children in smaller classes and governments hasten to reassure them that everything is being done to ensure that is a reality. The paradox with MOOCs, of course, is that while at one level thousands learn together, at another, in typical distance learning fashion, each student is a lone individual working away in isolation, miles from any peers whom they don’t know and are unlikely ever to meet.
So are these initial reservations merited? What do we now make of them pedagogically?
Three HEA research reports (see Note 1) published between February 2014 and January 2015 contribute to our understanding both of MOOCs and consequently of how people learn. Key findings of the first were that although MOOC teaching functions are often disaggregated and delegated to automated processes and community-based social learning, the place and visibility of the teacher remain of central importance. Learners looked for a valued teacher involvement, even when there was considerable opportunity for learning from peers.
Using selected questions from the UK Engagement Survey (UKES) the second report focused on how learners ‘engaged’ with a variety of aspects of their course. Regardless of educational background, there was strong evidence of substantial numbers of learners demonstrating what is known as ‘higher order learning’: mental activities such as memorising, evaluating, synthesising, analysing and applying information. They didn’t just read and listen. They went much further. Many were able to connect new ideas to previous learning and to social issues and problems and to integrate ideas and concepts in new and original ways. Surprisingly, interaction and collaboration with others was not highly valued. Studying a MOOC didn’t necessarily lead learners to go on and explore their own or open-ended lines of enquiry, nor did they actively participate in creating knowledge.
The third report went one stage further and conducted real live interviews with a small sample of MOOC learners. They were asked why they chose to study a MOOC and what their personal experience of learning in this way had been. It became apparent that the opportunity to experiment with new topics knowing there were no financial costs or commitments to being assessed was a big attraction, as was the flexibility of accessing high quality content at a time, pace and place of their choice. These learners did feel part of something – a MOOC community perhaps – and many spoke of being very inspired by conversations with people studying the same subjects from very different geographical and political environments. Most worked steading through the MOOC in a linear fashion, not dipping in and out, not least because this enabled them to participate in the developing community of learners. Few, however, were concerned with how their learning might be assessed or in some way verified. It just didn’t seem to matter to them.
MOOCs have now become part of the HE landscape, and in my view are here to stay. There is reason to embrace them. There are those who see them as contributing to the overall changing picture of HE in general. A picture in which campuses have a very different role; students combine learning, work, travel and family life; technology informs and facilitates learning; and teaching occurs both in small groups and huge numbers.
Dr Alison Le Cornu is a Consultant in Academic Practice for the Higher Education Academy
1. Julie Wintrup, Kelly Wakefield, Hugh Davis: Engaged learning in MOOCs: a study using the UK Engagement Survey (HEA, 2015); Julie Wintrup, Kelly Wakefield, Debra Morris & Hugh Davis: Liberating learning: experiences of MOOCs (HEA, 2015); Sian Bayne, Jen Ross: The Pedagogy of the Massive Open Online Course: the UK view (HEA, 2014).