HERE I AM in Melbourne Australia doing a course with the University of Edinburgh in Elearning and Digital Cultures. I have about 40,000 fellow students. The course is five weeks long. It’s free.

This is the new reality of the MOOC – a Massive Open Online Course (if it’s education or training, then someone will always devise an acronym).  Elearning and Digital  Cultures is conducted through Coursera. Other popular MOOCs are Edx, Udacity and Alison. Coursera is connected to thirty three highly credible universities around the world, including Stanford, Princeton, Michigan, California and recently, Melbourne University.Coursera’s aims are noble:

We hope to give everyone access to the world-class education that has so far been available only to a select few. We want to empower people with education that will improve their lives, the lives of their families, and the communities they live in.

MOOC is a comparatively recent phenomenon, starting with some trials back in 2008, but really getting underway in 2012. I did my first course with Coursera in July 2012;  Internet History, Technology, and Security with Prof Charles Severance.

The numbers of people joining each course from every connected country in the world are indeed massive. For the Internet course, 41,000 enrolled, and with Elearning, about 40,000. The scale is somewhat scary.

Most courses provide a certificate of attainment, so some assessment is conducted. With the sheer numbers of enrolled students, this is an issue. Multiple choice tests are provided (automated marking) and essay assignments are peer assessed – each student having to assess five others in the course. As far as I can tell, these are not double blind markings.

As assessors in the Internet course, we were given clear guidelines on how to assess – a set of marking criteria. I found the quality of the essays variable, as some students clearly struggled with English language because many were from non-English speaking countries. We could also recommend excellent work that we came across to highlight as samples of high achievement.

Charles Severance

Charles Severance

The courses vary in structure and design. The Internet course run by Charles Severance was an intimate and engaging experience. All the ‘lectures’ were provided on video, and communicated in a very easy and friendly way, with Charles sitting at his desk and casually conveying his insights and understanding, coke in hand and all. You felt his real presence as if you were the only one involved in the course. Online forums were set up to discuss various set questions and problems, but I felt little need to go there as Charles and the subject matter itself was very engaging. He would also email often to let you know how the course was progressing, and he also set up face to face cafe meetings with students at places around America, which were then filmed and shared with those of us who could not be there. Charles was visibly active in the delivery of the course.

With the Elearning course, one really feels the weight of student numbers, and you do not get a sense of the presence of the course team. It’s a much more passive experience. All the content is text, including the course lecturer’s instructions, which is somewhat surprising given its focus is elearning; one would have thought it would be an exemplar in how to conduct a fulfilling and engaging online course. This said, it does not detract from the excellent quality of resources and content provided – videos, animations and text articles.  They also have a live video “Hangout” at the end of the first week, where the panel of course lecturers discuss issues of content and delivery – at least we can here ‘see’ who is behind the course, and some of the issues they may be encountering in managing it.

The Elearning Forum is very interesting, but massively overwhelming. There are hundreds of posts on each of the set discussion points, many of them excellent and insightful, but there is no way that anyone, teacher or student, will read them all – there are simply too many. In addition to this, many students have set up their own blogs dedicated to the course, making further detailed comments and suggesting resources they gave encoutntered. This is a wonderful sharing knowledge experience, but somewhat messy, and alienating. It is not conversational or interactive as such, and slightly self consciously promotional, in displaying one’s unique insights and erudition.

There is generally a high drop out rate in these MOOC courses, with only about 10-15% completing the final assessment and receiving their certificates. So although there are large numbers who actively participate, there are many more ‘lurkers’ – just into it for a quick look. After all, it is free to do so.

It’s obvious with a course this size there is no individual tuition as such. The is no authority to discuss questions with, no feedback, no one to seek assistance with if you’re having problems understanding something, no mentoring. This is why the course is free: to provide academic support of this sort would be an inordinate cost to the universities over and above the provision of the course.

The business models that sit behind MOOCs are only being devised.

Coursera receives large funds from venture capital, so they haven’t had to deal with the direct cost of provision. There seems to be several options to make it economically viable: to follow the app model, and charge a micro-fee for enrolling in a course, say $4.00 (or even $20.00). This would quickly eliminate those people who are just in for a look. Secondly, to provide external accreditation to those who want to go down this path, and provide the academic support necessary. This would of course attract a fee, similar to attending a standard university course.

Other options suggested are where the university collects data on the students and sets up an employment service  directly with employers,  so it becomes a giant recruiting agency for those who it perceives as the best students. This seems a difficult option to implement, especially for those students in places away from the physical source of the content.

MOOCs will have profound implications for the future of tertiary education. At present, the courses tend to be mostly computer and science based, but the is no reason why Humanities could not be delivered this way Home Page. The courses could be integrated into standard degree options, so if a student was to complete the MOOC assessments, and these were valid and authentic, they could contribute credit towards a formal degree course.

The collaborative nature of the enterprise, the provision of knowledge to countries (see Map) that may not have access to this level of education, and the fact that poor students can access the content (so long as they are connected) are highly admirable, and hark back to the days of Ivan Illich, advocate of connected, de-schooled, free education.

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