Monday, 22 July 2013

ScHARR MOOC Diaries - Part XVII - Gold Rush or just Fool's Gold - A Quick Look at the Literature

Image used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) Licence. ©

Anyone following the evolution of MOOCs might agree that the M in Massive does not just apply exclusively to the number of participants. It could also be applied to the sheer number of articles, posts, papers, posters, reviews and events that appear every single day, this blog piece being one such example - apologies for clogging up your news feed.
Whenever I see Professor Brian Cox on the BBC explaining something mind-blowing about the Universe he always uses big numbers, 13.7 Billion years ago it all kicked off, so on and so forth. And that is how it can feel with regards to MOOCs, 160,000 students here, 80,000 there. The number of articles being written every week shows no sign of slowing down, so much so that if you were to put every word together (size 12 font) written about MOOCs it would stretch to Alpha Centuri and back 17 times over...probably.

All of this literature has lead to several ideas on where MOOCs are going and try to push them in that direction. We have cMOOCs to xMOOCs, and no doubt other variations - personally I’d like to push BOOCs (Boutique Open Online Course). Added with that are the idea of badges, certificates, merchandise, professional pathways and fee paying MOOCs delivered by industry experts to name but a few.

Even though MOOCs are not a new thing and can be traced back in one form or another to the last century, the last year has seen a massive upheaval in higher education as Universities decide it is better to be in than out. Whether in the long term MOOCs turn out to be the educational Emperor's New Clothes nobody knows. One thing for certain as new ideas and institutions appear on the scene it does start to look like a gold rush of the 19th Century. The result of that rush was that a lot of people got very rich whilst others perished and died. Articles have been written predicting that MOOCs will herald a new era for openness and innovation in learning whilst others see it as the beginning of the end for many institutions. All, in all, MOOCs have been one ‘massive’ wake up call for higher education.

Following the topic on my ScoopIt page and via Twitter searches amongst other systems I have certainly seen a shift in how MOOCs are being viewed with many of the earlier articles reflecting the movement in positive terms. As more and more articles appeared the predictable counter-arguments started to surface. There are two possible reasons for this, the first being that MOOCs have not brought about the changes and benefits we expected ‘just yet’ and therefore attracted criticism. The University of California announced last year that in fiscal terms, their MOOCs had not panned out as they would have wished. This openness and other examples from how to set up a MOOC (such as documented in the blog) have helped document and shape how other institutions run their courses and potentially learn from failures and successes. Whilst the other reason for the negative articles can be simply put down to something my old journalism lecturer used to call ‘perverse journalism’. This meaning taking the opposite argument from the rest, purely to stir up debate. There have been a few articles writing about the apocalypse that will befall most global universities now MOOCs are with us. The End of History and The Last MOOCs highlighting the most radical of futures where: “The last MOOCs will most probably serve independently as academic ATMs for delivery of resources, tests and “academic credits”, charging just few cents per transaction.”
The chances are that given the global financial climate and growth in higher education in Asia that some universities may fall by the wayside. ‘Who’, ‘how many’ and ‘when’ is anybody’s guess.  I’m a keen fan of The Gartner Hype Cycle which I apply to countless technologies and ideas including MOOCs, something that Timothy Chester writing for Educause touches on in his article Why MOOCs are Like Farmville. Chester believes we are at the ‘Peak of Inflated Expectations’ with regards to the Gartner Hype Cycle. It would be interesting to find out if he felt we had slipped into the trough of disillusionment about now. Chester compared MOOCs with the huge Facebook game ‘Farmville’ in that: “that failed to live up to their early hype and were doomed by poor quality and a lack of financial support”. Of course it is not that simple as institutions are all having different experiences, tackling the development of their courses differently and at different stages of delivery. Nevertheless there are some critics who do believe we are in the trough of disillusionment and it might not get any better. The report on Australian Universities by Ernst and Young opened with the line: ‘Over the next 10-15 years, the current public university model in Australia will prove unviable in all but a few cases’. 10-15 years is a long time and with regards MOOCs it is hard to predict where we will be in one year’s time. On a more positive note Alan Cann from the University of Leicester argued on the LSE Impact of Social Sciences Blog that MOOCs would eventually augment higher education not replace it. The human element of learning and MOOCs is touched on by Douglas Rushkoff for CNN who shows concern for the future of education regardless of MOOCs, saying: “Now that this massive collaborative learning project has succeeded, it would be a shame if we used it to take the humanity out of learning altogether“. Certainly on a similar theme Mark Guzdial wrote about existing issues highlighted by MOOCs in his article, saying: MOOCs do what the external world thinks that University teachers do”.

As for another kind of openness, looking at the institutions who have released post course data such as The University of Edinburgh and their EDC MOOC, the early signs are that MOOCs are still very westernised as you would imagine as they are being delivered predominantly from the west. In addition still mostly taken by people who already have studied at an academic institution. over 70% participants who completed surveys from the EDC MOOC confirmed they have at least studied at undergraduate level. So in terms of them being massive, online and courses we can all agree on, the open part is still yet to be fully exploited as most of what appears to have been written or talked about is within academic settings. Completion rates continue to be a thorny issue for MOOCs and how they are reported, Julia Lawrence writing for Education News is just one article critical of this in her article MOOCs May Have a Long Way to Go Before They’re Effective. I believe despite their growth in the academic setting, if you were to go up to 10 strangers in the street you may just find one who could tell you what a MOOC was. Yet that should all change following high profile coverage such as a piece on BBC’s Newsnight for example. As Justin Reich wrote about MOOCs and Higher Education’s Non-Consumers arguing if this form of learning was truly going to disrupt higher education it would need non-consumers to play a critical role.

A good synopsis of what is potentially good and bad about MOOCs is captured in the slideshare presentation by Martin Weller, Professor of Educational Technology at Open University. His presentation titled Surviving the Day of MOOCs, set to some apocalyptic - or should that be MOOCalyptic as I keep reading - background THAT gives five reasons why to do a MOOC and five opposing it. Another article by Cathy Davidson called for unity rather than polarisation in the MOOC debate bringing the bigger issue of higher education in general to the table.Davidson said: “Whatever else one may think about MOOCS, their vast popularity proves, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that very many people want – really, really want – more not less higher learning.”

Certainly from my own perspective, MOOCs can have the appearance of academic phishing, with institutions trying to hook the attention of masses of students by getting as many on board as possible, but that is the nature of entities being online period, so why should education be different? There are several articles talking about the quality of courses and even websites focussing on it, such as Mooc News & Reviews. An article by  Scott Carlson and Goldie Blumenstyk titled: ‘For Whom the College Being Reinvented?’ highlighted the interesting suggestion by Peter J. Stokes, executive director for postsecondary innovation at Northeastern's College of Professional Studies. Stokes said the: “whole MOOC thing is mass psychosis," a case of people "just throwing spaghetti against the wall" to see what sticks”.
An interesting thought, but one befitting higher education given that experimentation can be very much part of the learning and discovery process. Going to one of my favourite ever quotes, Einstein once said that: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”



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