Don’t dismiss MOOCs – we are just starting to understand their true value

Ready to learn. Creativa via Shutterstock

Over the past couple of years, massive open online courses (MOOCs) have taken the academic world by storm. Despite much debate about whether the idea of running free online courses for everyone is both a good and cost-effective idea in the long-run, MOOCs are teaching universities valuable lessons about how students want to learn.

In a recent article for Times Higher Education that shocked many academics, Diane Laurillard claimed “free online courses that require no prior qualifications or fee are a wonderful idea but are not viable”.

I sincerely hope we are not already dismissing MOOCs as an expensive and unsuccessful experiment. As someone who leads and manages the MOOC project at the University of Leeds. I know that freely available online courses have enriched many people’s lives – both students and academics. They are also provoking real transformations in the way we think about learning and teaching on our campuses.

Costly, but long-lasting

Initial investment in designing, creating and delivering online courses is considerable – between £20,000 to £30,000 per course at Leeds. Filming academics giving a five minute introduction to their subject from a script using autocue, green screen, multiple cameras, professional microphones and lots of retakes is costly in time and resources.

But the learning materials live on. The end product, overlaid with animation and available as video in multiple formats, an audio podcast or a written transcript, can be repurposed, published and re-used in multiple contexts after the online course has finished.

While a proportion of academics are dismissive of MOOCs, there is evidence that others are taking some of the underpinnings of digital learning into their own academic practice. They are increasingly recognising the potential for digital approaches to support learning, increase flexibility and access to a range of multimedia and interactive materials and encourage active student engagement.

In many learning situations, “blended” learning – a mix between face-to-face and digital – may be best. In a recent survey of academic staff at Leeds, 70% said they would recommend a MOOC to their students to supplement their on-campus learning.

These courses offer students the opportunity to interact with and question world-leading authorities in their subject, at the same time as learning with their course leaders and peers in on-campus lectures, seminars, tutorials and workshops.

In secondary schools, students are already taking MOOCs as part of, and alongside, their classroom curriculum to extend their learning. This is motivating individuals to engage with higher education, supports the transition to university and increases their knowledge.

At the other end of the spectrum, a growth in collaborative ventures between universities, employers and professional organisations to co-produce online courses and embed them within degrees and professional training will increase employability, graduate skills and support the knowledge economy.

Personalised learning

One of the criticisms of MOOCs is the poor student-to-staff ratio, alongside questions on how learning purely online can be effective. First, most MOOCs attract highly qualified individuals. They are a ready-made pool of mentors, learning supporters and in some cases “teachers”.

We have seen a number of examples on our courses of school-level students being offered advice and mentorship from experienced practitioners in discussion forums. These interactions have emerged spontaneously and may dissolve quickly, but in some cases endure throughout the course. Harnessing this knowledge can enrich online courses considerably.

All MOOC designers know that there is so much more we could do to enrich the online learning experience for participants, particularly given the wide range of skills, knowledge, learning goals and expectations that learners bring to online courses.

For example, we already know that more than 50% of our online learners have never studied an online course before. We will soon use this knowledge about participants to offer them more choices. These could be choices about the way the content is delivered to them, the interaction with other participants and educators and the style and extent of assessment.

In the future, algorithms based on learner analytics will offer participants a dynamic and personalised experience, based on sound educational research evidence, learner preferences and cohort analysis.

Our collective experiences of MOOCs and the data coming out of them has the unique opportunity to offer insight into online learning which can also be used on our campuses to enrich either the blended or face-to-face experience. We should not be too quick to dismiss them.