WHY IS IT that every time a new idea comes about, both the proponents and opponents argue that it will replace everything hitherto, especially when the new thing involves technology?

If we look at music and the MP3, the digital audio format MP3 radically changed how we listen to music, but in the transition from CD to MP3, the content (music) and the skill to produce it (recording) changed little.

So too with the MOOC. Certainly, it’s a new way to deliver education, but the principles and pedagogies remain the same as for any educational enterprise. The expert content has to be there, the instructional design, the learner engagement and challenge, the assessment protocols, the feedback, the personalisation, the quality, all must be addressed for it to be effective and successful.

And it’s only difference with other ‘closed’ online learning is that it is massively attended and free. This makes it tremendously accessible, but the problems of delivery remain. The high dropout rate (15% completion) is an indication of this – that it’s free means that people can pick and choose, or lurk, or fit it in with other busy schedules, get some basic insights that might help them in their work, or make choices about careers, or other courses, or whatever ( I know of someone who is concurrently doing 4 Coursera courses, and who will not doing the minimal assessment for any). The drop out rate may also reflect the low level of learner engagement, particularly if the course has poor levels of personal support and feedback (and this can be the case with any elearning, open or closed.)

It’s not as though all subjects can be delivered effectively through MOOCs. It’s hard to see it being used as a complete education pathway to becoming a doctor, lawyer, scientist, engineer, air traffic controller, pilot or teacher.  Although I can see its application for theory based courses – the liberal arts, computer based subjects – programming and design – mathematics and some science subjects.  Although with those subjects that require essay writing, research reports, etc, it’s a bit difficult to see this being accommodated by peer review as it is used now to cope with the huge numbers of students enrolled.

The element that’s missing in most discussions about MOOCs (see two excellent articles: Napster, Udacity and the Academy and The Crisis in Higher Education) is any reference to the skills that are necessary to prepare content for the MOOC; that is, the information architecture and graphic / media design that is suitable for this kind of delivery.

This skill invariably lags behind what the technology offers. Digital communications technology provides much more dynamic and robust human interface possibilities than the majority of the online courses utilise –  whether closed elearning or MOOCS.  It’s delivery rests on the skill of the content providers, the experts, to encapsulate their knowledge in an accessible and engaging manner, and this unfortunately is often lacking. This is the same whether it’s a lecture theatre, or a virtual online course. Just because the person is an expert on Chinese history, doesn’t automatically mean she is a excellent teacher.

Take a PowerPoint presentation for example. Most are extremely tedious, text bound presentations.  But the technology can incorporate test, graphics, photography, audio, video and animation in powerful combinations. It’s not intention that’s missing, but the design skills of the person who creates the PowerPoint. They just don’t have the visual design and architectural skills to make it engaging.

This applies to any of the technologies you care to name. If we want to incorporate video into an elearning product, its quality will  depend on visual framing, sound recording, lighting, positioning of the subject, etc.  We only need to play around with an IPad to see this is true. Successful commercial applications utilise the technology to its fullest, incorporating text, graphics, GPS location, screen manipulation, design elements, etc.  Compare, for example, the standard iPad OS Notes with Evernote. They basically do the same thing, but Evernote exploits all the technical possibilities that the iPad offers, and that is why a user will gravitate to Evernote and be willing to pay for it.

There seems to be an institutional reluctance to invest in content development, whether open or closed systems. They are willing to invest in the technology, and then believe that it’s sufficient for content experts to set up and monitor the course. Unfortunately, this is how it is with all content platforms. The technologists benefit, but the content producers suffer, both those who have the skills to do it but are expected to provide their services and expertise for free, and those who could do it, but don’t have the requisite skills to do so.

See also: Functionality V Design in elearning and Feedback is the essential ingredient in elearning

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