Knowledge Is Free . . .

. . . But Teaching is Priceless

Have you heard of a MOOC? It’s the latest buzzword in the further education sector and stands for Massive Open Online Course.

As part of my work I’m helping out with a few bits and pieces on one the University of Edinburgh’s MOOCs, Animal Behaviour and Welfare. (Well, you didn’t think I’d be helping on the astrophysics one, did you?)

I’m aware that I’m failing at getting a fortnightly blog out there and considering I spent the last two days sorting students, lecturing, writing KT presentations and listening to discussions about MOOCs, I thought it would be an excellent opportunity to talk about some of the ways we can exchange knowledge with a wide audience.

The University of Edinburgh have chosen Coursera as their platform for delivering MOOCs. Each MOOC is 4-7 weeks long, is aimed at a general audience, but delivered remotely by university staff. You can take a MOOC because you’re interested in the subject, because you want to know if a subject is something you might like to study in the future, because you want to demonstrate interest in Continued Professional Development to your employer, and in some cases even to get a few university credits.

The numbers of users on these courses is staggering, with thousands of people actually finishing the course. But, like many new ideas, there is some resistance to them within the academic community.

One of the issues is: who are we really aiming these at? The user base is so huge and so diverse that trying to pitch a course can be difficult. There’s some hope that we can use these as taster sessions for our Masters courses, but if they’re interesting for someone who has the pre-requisite knowledge for a Masters course, will they be accessible enough for the layperson?

The Equine Nutrition MOOC which ran last year did end up recruiting some future Masters students, but it was also hugely successful with the horse owning populace. It is possible to strike that balance, at least for an audience with enough interest and motivation to complete the course. It’s something to be aware of – the old saying is more true than ever: Know your audience.

Another issue is the level of work involved. While they’re intended to be short courses, videos, quizzes, resources amalgamations, I’ve heard the tutors say its hard to walk away from people who want extra support. As someone who schedules ten minutes ‘I’m here to be talked to’ time at the end of every lecture, I get that. Students like to talk. They like support. And I think they deserve support. Anyone who wants to learn deserves a little attention, but when so many people want to learn, how do you split your attention? I’d be interested in knowing how internet literate these users tend to be. After establishing a user base, would it become possible to initiate users who had completed the course as forum mods? As we say on the IRC channels, half ops to our ops?

I think this might be part of the problem. Academia may have been where the internet was invented, but not all of us are wonderfully computer literate ourselves. In my experience, internet communities can be great places, but they work best when they have a strong, recognised leader (Shout out to any of my Bungie.Org friends who followed the advertising links! We all know who our fearless leader is). I could imagine MOOCs becoming great places for people to congregate, to find out information from good, recognisable sources, and to help each other learn.

But I can also see MOOCs falling victim to academia’s other big problem: where’s the money? The courses cost money to make, and the revenue path is not clear. I’ve been thinking about this over the last few days and I’ve come down on the idea that we have to put MOOCs under the umbrella of ‘knowledge transfer’. It’s a way of communicating structured information to a large audience, cheaply. My personal opinion (and do remember that all opinions expressed on this blog are mine and do not necessarily reflect those of my employers and colleagues) is that you can’t look at a MOOC as a money making exercise. But does that mean that the students can’t expect to be treated like customers?

What I can say is that the next couple of years are going to be fascinating for further education.

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