MOOC approaches and impact on those beyond the reach of formal education

So I read this morning that Tony Bates, speaker and consultant on all things related to online learning, is retiring. As part of his blog post announcing his retirement, Tony takes aim at MOOCs as he sees them in the largely North American model of EdX and Coursera: “Lastly, I am concerned that the computer scientists seem to be taking over online education. Ivy League MOOCs are being driven mainly by computer scientists, not educators. Politicians are looking to computer science to automate learning in order to save money. Computer scientists have much to offer, but they need more humility and a greater willingness to work with other professionals, such as psychologists and teachers, who understand better how learning operates. This is a battle that has always existed in educational technology, but it’s one I fear the educators are losing. The result could be disastrous, … .”

Tony raises excellent points. It is true that computer scientists have been the power behind the really big MOOCs, the predominant features of which are recorded lectures and machine-marked assessments. This was how they could handle 100,000 students. For teaching artificial intelligence, this may have been an ok way to do it. But is it ok for other subjects, other purposes?

In the UK, we have FutureLearn, which is strongly influenced by the BBC. Overall, I would say the FutureLearn MOOCs lean more toward edutainment. Which approach is better for learning? Which approach is better for marketing purposes, one of the crystal-clear purposes of MOOCs? There are new platforms in Europe which bear watching: Iversity from Germany and a new platform coming out of the EMMA project. It will be interesting to see whether these new platforms present opportunity for new teaching and learning approaches.

Are any of these approaches likely to benefit those beyond the reach of formal education, the original ideal of the open educational movement? To my eyes, the main ‘gap’ is technological — those beyond the reach of formal education are often also beyond the reach of the internet and computerised learning materials which require a certain amount of computer power. The lowest hanging fruit at the moment may be offered by mobile-friendly solutions such as FutureLearn and possibly iTunesU. As smartphones come down in price, it may be that the gap will narrow just enough for new communities to take advantage of MOOCs and other free (hopefully open) educational opportunities. It will then be incumbent upon those creating such materials to be offering good teaching which will be of real benefit. As I am privileged enough to be able to join both the upcoming OCWC Global Conference in Ljubljana and OER14 Conference in Newcastle (there’s still room for you at both of these conferences if you haven’t registered yet!), I’m hoping to learn at the conferences some answers and ways forward on these issues.

Terese Bird, University of Leicester