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Will MOOCs revolutionise learning?

This post was written by David Rogers and first appeared on the Epic blog on September 2013.

Massive Open Online Courses (commonly known as MOOCs) have been generating a lot of buzz in the world of learning, with opinion seemingly split between those who believe they are the future of learning, and those who view them more as a fad, whose popularity is bound to wane.

Controversial completion rates

Much of the criticism of MOOCs is centred on their very high drop-out rates. Due to their newness, this data is incomplete and changing all the time, but in late 2012, Coursera, one of the leading players in the world of MOOCs, estimated completion rates at around 7-9%.

This seems very low, but it’s worth taking a moment to consider the context a little more carefully. Firstly, it’s completely free to sign up to the vast majority of MOOCs, so many people will enrol based on a vague curiosity rather than a real commitment to completing the course. Registration in this case is the equivalent of online window shopping. Secondly, it’s not uncommon for people to enrol on a course, view the first piece of material and then realise that it’s pitched at completely the wrong level for them, and drop out. Finally, if some aspects of the course are synchronous it can be difficult to find time to attend, so people often fall behind, and with no external motivation, it’s all too easy to drop out.

I think that it’s unfair to compare completion of MOOC courses with, say, traditional University modules (a number of which are now being replicated in MOOCs). After all, students starting a module at a university have usually made a significant financial investment, and both they and their university have taken the time to research whether or not the student matches the module. Perhaps the comparisons are being made precisely because universities are simply replicating classroom-based courses online? Maybe in the race not to get left behind, clear strategies have not been defined and implemented?

This theory seems to be backed up by the experiences of San Jose State University who at first had a bad experience with their new online learning, but when they took some time to reconsider their approach, the outcome was much more positive. It seems there may still be some thinking to do in order to make MOOCs the tool it was hoped they could become.

So what are the benefits of MOOCs?

But let’s not overlook some of the key benefits of MOOCs. The main advantages seem to me to be that they:

  • hugely broaden the availability of learning (this is the biggest and most significant benefit)
  • offer the ability to organise courses quickly
  • provide learners with a wide range of materials in any number of formats – allowing learners to tailor the learning to their own preferences
  • provide informal learning possibilities, with forums and blog posts sitting alongside more formal interventions such as video and other course materials
  • offer opportunities for incidental learning as course participants start to exchange notes.

The rise of the MOOC seems to mirror the shift in workplace training, where we’re seeing a move to providing resources rather than courses. This approach is all about providing materials and support to enable learners to approach the subject according to their own preferences. Though many of our clients in the corporate sphere would be nervous about the ‘open’ element of MOOCs, there’s much of interest for learning designers (and others in our field) in terms of looking at how MOOCs are being presented and how people are using them.

Joining a new MOOC on Moodle

With this in mind, I recently signed up for my first MOOC. Run by the good people at Moodle, the course at learn.moodle.net is designed to offer an introduction to the Moodle LMS. For me, this seemed like the perfect course to start with.

I’m already familiar with the features of Moodle, so I’m confident of not being overwhelmed. But our dedicated platforms team are the experts, so I usually get to hand over responsibility for Moodle solutions to them pretty early on in a project. This means I rarely get the chance to get my hands dirty by playing around with the settings and testing out for myself the practicalities of setting up a Moodle. So this seems like a good opportunity to deepen my knowledge and gain some practical experience.

This particular course could be the perfect match of form and content, as the course allows you to actually set up a Moodle and play with it. The practical, hands-on nature of this seems to me to fit perfectly with the learner-driven approach that MOOCs encourage.

So I’m interested to see how this works out in practice. I’ll blog again shortly to let you know how I get on – are MOOCs the thing for me, or will I be one of the 93% who drop out before making it to the end?