Sunday, April 28, 2013

MOOCs - Are They Worth The Paper They Are Written On ?

Statistics One | Coursera
Statistics One | Coursera (Photo credit: AJC1)
The rise of MOOCs, as popularised by Coursera and being rapidly followed by a number of other university affiliated or independent learning companies, has led to a number of questions concerning the internet and its place in education.  Many voices in traditional education have raised the concern that the easily accessible MOOCs are not only diverting vital funding away from traditional education, but that they also do not keep students engaged and that a tiny fraction of on-line students actually complete each course.  Added to this are concerns that MOOCs are not as rigorously academic as traditional further education or traditional distance learning such as The Open University.

My personal perspective on MOOCs is that that some of these concerns are entirely valid, it is for example ridiculously easy to drop out of a MOOC when compared to dropping out of a brick university - you just stop logging on to the site.  No interviews, no pressure from fellow students or lecturers to continue, just go back to playing CoD instead.  The ease of signing up for MOOC courses, you just log in, provide an e-mail adress and that's about it, influences the ease of dropping out.  Of the four MOOCs I have signed up for, I have only completed two of the free courses.  I am not however about to drop out of The Open University to whom I have paid hundreds of pounds in tuition fees.  Free and easy can mean fast and loose.

Ivy League logo
Ivy League logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The question of academic quality is probably less easy to answer.  At the better end of the MOOC spectrum there are prestigious universities putting forward highly respected lecturers, many of whom have numerous specialist papers and other publications to their names.  You would assume that educational institutions who are either Ivy League or Russell Group members, or those who are not, do not want their reputations besmirched by peddling sub-standard educational material.  At the lower end of the scale there are a number of organisations offering MOOCs whom you will probably never have heard of, and of which an internet search provides little in the way of encouraging information.

It is probably best then to choose a MOOC presented by a high quality and respected educational institution in order to ensure that the information you will be receiving is of good quality.  But will this in itself ensure that the MOOC is worthwhile ? No. The most basic ground rule of all MOOCs is always going to be that you only get out what you put in, and in this way MOOCs perform in exactly the same way as any other method of education.  Those that work hard, engage the most, read around their subject and do a high volume of research for their MOOC essays and projects are the students that stand to gain most from their learning experience.  The students that just watch a couple of videos and then perform a perfunctory cut and paste job on their submitted work will gain little by way of retained information from the course.  The biggest problems with many MOOCs as they stand is that both of these styles of student might well pass their course.

As MOOCs are free to use, and tutors are not being paid a wage to mark essays, then must perforce rely on a peer marking system to generate results.  I mark four essays and I am guaranteed that someone will mark mine.  The pitfalls here are many and obvious.  In marking other people's essays; have I understood the concepts involved and the issues raised.  Obviously I do not have the depth of historical knowledge possessed by Jeremy Adelman,Walter Samuel Carpenter III Professor of Spanish Civilization and Culture at Princeton University, yet here I am scoring essays on 15th century diasporas. I don't have the cultural and musical experience of Dr. Carol Muller, Professor of Ethnomusicology at the University of Pennsylvania, but the MOOC course was happy to have me grade the submissions of my fellow students.

University of Maryland to Offer Four Free Cour...
I would argue though that although there are quality problems with the MOOC grading systems, the courses themselves do offer well researched and good quality educational material, bearing in mind my earlier point about which course you choose.

So far I have taken part in four MOOCs, and have passed two of the four.  'Listening To World Music' presented by Dr. Carol Muller of University of Pennsylvania was a 7 week course which introduced the student to world music from South Africa, Tuva, Kalahari, Central African region, Cuba and Aboriginal Australia and it was fascinating.  Muller talked about the music, its social and cultural meaning, about how each style of music had reached western ears, how this had become an exchange of ideas and to what extant the music or musicians had changed because of it.  Similarly 'A History Of The World Since 1300' was an in depth and enthralling exploration of major world events told from a far less Euro-UK-centric point than I am used to receiving.  I am really sorry that I didn't manage to finish this one.

The short and sweet four week 'E-Learning and Digital Culture' MOOC from University of Edinburgh presented a mix of textual information with video lectures, short films and audio in order to look at the future of e-learning and the theories surrounding it. I passed this one.  In two weeks I am beginning another MOOC, 'Nutrition, Health, and Lifestyle: Issues and Insights' presented by Jamie Pope, Nutrition Instructor at Vanderbilt University, again in conjunction with Coursera.

To sum up, a MOOC is only ever going to be as good as the student makes it. If you are planning to go down the MOOC route in order to expand your education it will help if you are already self-motivated, the easy going nature of free online learning isn't ever going to force the unwilling to write essays.  They are marvellous tools though. The idea that you can now 'sit in' on lectures given by some of the world's most prestigious universities is fairly radical.  Choose a course that suits you, work at it as you would work for a brick university and you will come out with something worthwhile, at least in terms of personal achievement.

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