In his recent Jisc blog, David Kernohan asks: ‘Why bother paying inflated fees to attend university? …What if you could get it all for free, online?’ Of course, it is tongue in cheek, because as my title above suggests, you don’t get something for nothing.
And that brings me to our recent decision in the University of Edinburgh to join our colleagues in North America and offer our own MOOCs - or massive open online courses - through the Coursera consortium.
It has been a very busy few weeks. After taking the in principle decision, there has been a tsunami of sorting the legals (you might be surprised at how much of this there is when you place your courses with another organisation, even if those courses are free!); choosing the MOOCs to develop; making sure we have enough capacity for shooting a lot of short videos in a tight timeframe; informing senior colleagues and University Court; organising publicity and responses to queries – at times it has felt over-whelming.
I must acknowledge here my academic colleagues for their enthusiastic response to our search for suitable MOOCs, and my real indebtedness to two of my staff, Sarah Gormley and Amy Woodgate, who have worked tirelessly on the big stuff and on the details.
So, why did we decide to ‘go MOOC’? My colleagues and I have been watching MOOC developments since their earliest days, aware that they offer interesting opportunities to explore new ‘educational spaces’ in which the scale goes way beyond large on-campus classes, and where assessment has to be thought about differently.
Of course, much of what we are designing is based upon experience with technology for on-campus courses and for our expanding range of fully online taught Masters programmes, and technology in our open LLL/CPD courses, but nevertheless it does have different dimensions. Over the years Jisc has helped enormously, with our participation and learning from others through programmes in pedagogy, learner experience, open content etc – its easy to forget that, because so much knowledge just becomes internalised.
For me, MOOCs sit as part of current thinking in open educational practices (OER, OCW, OERu, connectivism etc) – ways to flex and bend the constraints that much of our traditional HE formats impose on us, and on our learners. Currently, we are exploring some of this in an EC project OERtest, especially routes to offer credit for OER/OCW/MOOC-based learning. Out of the MOOCs we expect to learn about different course designs, to reach learners from a much wider base than normal, and of course, there is reputational value for us too.
So, the preparedness was there – the big decisions were How?, With partners or solo?, and When (early adopter or mainstream)? An invitation to join Coursera, extended by Daphne Koller to our Vice Chancellor Tim O’Shea (Chair of Jisc Board) whilst he was on study leave in California, gave us the opportunity to answer all those questions, and we decided after some brief but intense reflection that now was the time and with peers in the US was the route.
This meant that we didn’t need to build our own infrastructure but could concentrate on the pedagogy and course construction.
We shall offer our courses *as a university* rather than from individual academic staff working without our support or formal involvement. We will quality assure all our courses to ensure appropriate quality. They will be short (5 weeks in the first instance) as we feel these learners may find sustained study at a distance hard going (as do those on taught online courses), and we will also stick to first year undergraduate level.
What did it cost, and is it sustainable? As with all online courses, the costs are front-loaded but even more so for MOOCs of this type, where the delivery cost (especially teaching) is low. We will spend effort and money on all our courses to get them to the right quality. We didn’t find that we had most of what we needed to hand to ‘re-arrange the pieces’ to form MOOCs, so we are going back to the design stage and creating new where necessary. One example is video lectures; we do have lots of 50 min video lectures but they really are not what we want to offer – we want shorter, focused segments with associated study and assessment. Ditto for assessment. So, it isn’t cheap for the typical university course to ‘go MOOC’. On the other hand, no knowledge is free and as we wish to explore this space, we feel the return will be worthwhile to us, and to those who take our MOOCs.
How will we sustain it? The model is to share with Coursera of the modest charge for the ‘certificates of completion’, and we will use that income to pay for our support for learners, offered in the light-touch form that these types of MOOC use. It should break even!
And for the future? I am cautious as to where the ‘MOOC movement’ will go. Some of the wilder speculation about ‘free online degrees’ and the ‘end of HE as we know it’ doesn’t help serious debate. Currently we know little about MOOC learners, about how to design and deliver successfully in a range of subjects, and most importantly at a range of levels (eg final year undergrad). Is the experience helpful to learners, and do they get value from their certificates of completion? Much more research is needed, and perhaps Jisc might find this a useful area in which to support the UK HE community.
I can see openings where MOOCs might find a useful place in HE – enabling those in less privileged HE settings to access courses in subjects that they cannot take, individuals with weak formal qualifications who might demonstrate competences at advanced levels as part of portfolios for recognition of prior learning, as a more formal way to learn for those ‘just interested in that subject’, and for teachers in universities to pick up new ideas as to how to teach and learn online.
MOOCs won’t suit everyone, any more than on-campus courses or distance education suits everyone but extending the menu of choices is valuable. They may not be suitable for all subjects.
I am sure the next few months up to launch of our courses and then through first delivery will be fun, and also hard work. I am really looking forward to it, and I must continue to resist the temptation to keep checking how many thousands of people have registered interest ;-)