Developing countries and the MOOC learning revolution

Learning on the job could make a real difference to healthcare. Tricia Wang

Universities are being shaken up by a new mode of learning. The world’s elite institutions are opening up courses so thousands of people can learn for free via their laptops, mobiles or tablets. And these Massive Open Online Course (MOOCs) have the potential to play a significant part in improving healthcare and even economic growth in developing countries.

MOOCs do not require qualifications to register and can be accessed from anywhere in the world. They are available to anyone with access to a computer and can be joined without the need for classrooms or lecture halls. All this makes them a potentially powerful tool for bringing higher education to developing countries.

Opportunities for professional development can be limited in some nations. With the arrival of MOOCs, there is a chance not only for those who want to learn to improve their skills but to do it with the help of leading universities. That is particularly good news for healthcare as many more professionals in this industry can build on their skills.

One example of an open professional development course is Fundamentals of Clinical Trials. This was launched in October 2013 by the Harvard Medical School, Harvard School of Public Health, and Harvard Catalyst via MOOC provider edX and tens of thousands of students from around the world have registered. The course covers designing, implementing and analysing clinical trials and includes an exploration of the ethical issues that can arise during the trials process.

Clinical trials are a complicated and costly business but they are fundamental to medical progress and can play a significant role in bringing in economic return for developing economies. MOOCs are exciting because they offer everyone a chance to study for their pleasure or development but courses like this show that they could also play a part in development. If healthcare workers from poorer nations have the opportunity to pick up skills like conducting clinical trials, they could use those skills to support the economic progress of their countries, improving healthcare along the way.

Untested method

But MOOCs are incredibly new. The number of courses being made available has grown exponentially in a short period of time but not much has been done to assess their actual value. We don’t know much about how people learn through MOOCs and what they do with the new skills they pick up.

Researchers from the Caledonian Academy at Glasgow Caledonian University have been funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to investigate what strategies and behaviours people adopt while studying on MOOCS in the hope of adding some evidence to the debate.

The Harvard MOOC will be subject to investigation as part of this work as it reflects the priorities of the Gates Foundation.

Work roles are evolving rapidly so learning for work has to be personalised and self-regulated. That could well mean that MOOCs have the potential to become an integral part of an individual’s career. But organisations have not yet taken advantage of the widespread social, semantic technologies - such as Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin - that could support self-regulated learning.

The MOOC environment provides new structures and mechanisms for learning through interaction and feedback. However, a MOOC is still structured as “course”, which has a long tradition of accepted values and norms. Learners put in a certain amount of study time, receive information from tutors and can even take tests. We also still fall back on the metrics we have always used when we assess success, such as drop-out rates.

New forms of learning

Perhaps there is an opportunity here to move away from these norms. Many MOOC designers miss opportunities to take advantage of learning via the web. We need to think about new forms of learning where the learner decides the learning pathways and goals and knows who to link with to gain the knowledge they need. We can’t rely on the old model of the teacher as the expert.

The Caledonian Academy research team hopes the findings from this study will move forward thinking around MOOCs in two ways. Firstly by viewing MOOCs as a way professionals can extend their professional knowledge, rather than as only an adjunct to undergraduate courses and secondly by gaining insight into how people plan and perform learning activities within these new environments.

The study ends in April 2014 with results reported to the Gates Foundation in December 2013 and May 2014.

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