At the end of last year NIACE held their Learning at the Digital Frontier conference which included a debate on whether adult education should embrace the MOOC culture.
I was delighted to be invited to take part and used the opportunity to advocate the development of a new model of facilitated online learning at scale which would meet the access and support needs of our adult learners. I argued that the changing digital landscape offers new opportunities for adult learning providers.
Here is a summary of the points made at the conference:
What is a MOOC?
Jisc programme manager David Kernohan has noted that:
”The term MOOC is increasingly being used generically covering all forms of online learning at scale”.
The term is usually used to describe higher education-level courses which offer a mix of video lectures, other online course materials, discussion forums, and often some form of assessment and accreditation. These courses often have high literacy requirements and many have a high dropout rate.
Could a MOOC be used to address the issue of low numeracy skills in the UK? Currently in the UK there are about 8.1 million adults who lack basic numeracy skills. Probably, if they all tried to enrol onto existing, traditional maths courses right now, there wouldn’t be enough capacity and trained maths tutors.
At the same time, there is a growing ownership of smart mobile devices. Improvements in the availability and cost of an internet connection means that many more people are now able to access online material in ways that they could not just a few years ago. This is one of the factors that has made engagement with MOOCs a possibility for large sections of the population.
The promise of free, widespread access to high quality learning is a very attractive one and the MOOC phenomenon has generated considerable interest amongst those looking to bring about positive social change through education.
The Learning Maths Online project
Could MOOCs be used to help adults to learn basic maths skills? I had an opportunity to explore this idea whilst working on the Learning Maths Online project. This was part of the NIACE Maths4Us programme in which Jisc was the technical partner, providing project management and technical leadership.
This project involved the creation of three of the key elements of a MOOC, namely:
- High quality learning materials, including introductory and explanatory videos
- Informal assessment
- Links to further resources
In addition, the host platform has the potential to use certain plugins for group communication, social interaction and aggregation. ALT used these tools for the delivery of their OcTEL MOOC.
A new model of facilitation and support needed to meet the needs of adult learners
At Jisc Regional Support Centre (RSC) London we are now in a position to deliver an online, possibly MOOC-style course on adult maths, drawing on the Learning Maths Online course materials as well as other high quality resources such as Maths Everywhere. However, in order to make it work for our target group of learners, I¹d like to propose an entirely new model of facilitation.
I am proposing a decentralised structure, where we reach our learners through skilled intermediaries. These intermediaries could be tutors in traditional learning providers, or people facilitating maths learning in the workplace or in prisons. They could also be people working in Citizens Advice Bureaus, job centres, housing associations, voluntary sector organisations or possibly even relatives and friends wishing to support someone with their maths.
Whilst popular MOOCs communicate directly with and offer online support to learners, this model proposes communications and online support targeted at the skilled intermediaries or facilitators. This ensures that learners’ support and access needs are addressed in a way which does not require high levels of literacy. Those few learners with high literacy levels who wish to access the course directly without facilitation would use the same support mechanisms, though it’s expected that these learners would be in the minority.
Skilled intermediaries would have the opportunity to interact with others in a similar role around the country (or maybe the world) so in addition to being a course for learners, this model also has the potential to serve as powerful CPD for maths tutors and facilitators.
The role of the learning provider or other organisation remains key, as does the skill and experience of the facilitators. This is where structured, additional support comes from.
There are efficiencies of scale, but we are preserving the group experience which we know makes for the best learning.
This new style of facilitated, mediated MOOC has the potential to bring new, high quality learning materials to many more adult learners than can be reached through existing provision because it is not limited to use in traditional organisations in a face-to-face setting.
Is this proposed model a genuine MOOC?
Maybe, or maybe not. Let’s not get too hung up about the use of the term. Let’s make use of the very best that technology has to offer and what resources are already available. Let’s combine it with the needs of target groups of learners and what is known about the way in which people learn. Let’s use the organisations and support structures that already exist and combine all these elements to reach out to learners in ways that simply weren’t possible a few years ago. Let’s define a new type of MOOC for adult learners.
At the NIACE conference, I urged delegates to make the most of the MOOCs phenomenon and use the energy and enthusiasm out there to bring about positive social change.
Since then I have been invited to design a pilot to trial this type of delivery. I would love to hear your views. You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.