Thursday 3 July 2014

MOOCs - Which Way Now? An ALT Event

Last week I attended an event run by the Association for Learning Technology MOOC Special Interest Group. I take a lot of MOOCs so I was interested from a personal point of view but I also wanted to hear about the courses from those involved in running them.

This post will just focus on my main take-aways from the day as there was too much information to cover everything in one post. The presentation above is something that I put together for a local feedback session (WARNING: the word MOOCs always makes me think of cows so you may notice a slight theme with the presentation!)

Are MOOCs delivering what they promised?
This first theme came up in many of the presentations throughout the day. Now that the initial excitement about the MOOC concept has passed it's worth asking if they are having the drastic impact on education that some predicted.

According to the research carried out so far it seems that MOOCs are mostly being taken by those who already have a university education. They take the courses for a range of reasons, from gaining new skills for the workplace to personal interest in the topic. Whilst this is a positive step as it shows that MOOCs are delivering education, are they delivering on their promise to create an educational revolution? If most MOOC participants already have a high standard of education are MOOCs only further adding to the skills of the already skilled?

MOOCS were supposed to broaden not just access to education but also its reach. It seems that based on the research there is still work to do - with some people arguing that MOOCs actually help to widen the digital divide rather than close it.

There were calls to go beyond measuring the number of people signing up to or completing a MOOC and measure the meaningful impact that they make on people's lives. This is especially true of those who need a non-traditional route into education such as early school leavers. If we can demonstrate that MOOCs are making a difference to people in need of education then we will have something concrete to show - as one presenter put it - that MOOCs transform education rather then just e-enable traditional education.

Benefits of developing MOOCs
Working on a MOOC can enhance the reputation of both the institution and the individual who does the presenting. Being present on screen in any way during a MOOC will instantly make people more memorable to students. An important point highlighted is that this can easily backfire if not enough thought is put into the planning process so it's worth spending time on.

Those who had developed MOOCs talked about the hard work that setting one up takes but they also highlighted the wealth of transferable skills that you can develop. MOOCs can also help to bring people together - not just teacher and student but across the institution. Different faculties are given the chance to work together in order to harness their collective expertise. This factor could be especially useful for libraries who are often looking for ways to develop relationships with faculty.

A final point demonstrated in this section is that MOOCs don't have to break the bank. Students responded well to content filmed via webcams and mobile phones and this could be easily updated in the future if needed. Certainly much more efficient than having to record a fancy new presentation every year!

Creating a community
To me this was the most important point to come out of the day. The fact that MOOCs create a strong sense of community was highlighted repeatedly as well as the fact that we need to stop thinking about MOOCs as online courses and start thinking about them as ways to draw a community together. In fact, MOOC participants often cite membership of a community of like-minded people as one of the main draws of the format.

Mini-MOOCs were presented as a solution to the problem of lack of participant time. Many MOOCs are quite intensive and this contributes to drop-out rates. By having shorter, less intensive courses you can hopefully retain participants. The main example of this given was in providing technology training to teachers. In a format similar to a 23Things course participants were introduced to various technological teaching aids. This resulted in a lot of discussion both inside and outside the course about how people had used various tools in practice. It was hoped that people would then go on and teach others outside the course.

Part of the sense of community comes from this sharing of people's ideas as a way to create new knowledge. I've personally taken part in some MOOCs which had a really strong sense of community which resulted in friendships and collaborations forming. The formal learning part of these courses ended some time ago but the learning still continues today.

Another point that struck me was that MOOCs should be used to teach people what THEY want to learn rather than what we THINK they should learn. This is an argument that has come up before in the library world, in terms of areas such as information literacy teaching. If you teach people what they want to learn you will attract them and stand a better chance of creating a cohesive community.

The final point I want to note was highlighted by one of the presenters: education is not broadcasting, it's a two way engagement between learner and teacher. MOOCs give us an opportunity to connect with people on a large scale and learn from them as well as teach. Hopefully this is something that MOOC creators and participants will both take forward.

Although I mostly attend library related events it was good to attend something which gave me an outside perspective of something that many libraries are involved in, either directly or indirectly. Those who presented at the conference were all directly involved with MOOCs in some way and the day gave me a lot to think about as a MOOC participant (and maybe one day a MOOC developer!)

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