Thursday, November 27, 2014

Blow up the MOOC

Yesterday the Australian National University hosted the last of this year's series of events about the future of education, focusing on Massive Open On-line Courses (MOOCs). A Podcast of the event is available. The event was called "Blow up the lecture?", but it is MOOCs have outlived their usefulness.

The panel was made up of and experienced MOOC maker from the USA,  Professor Armando Fox, Faculty Advisor to the UC Berkeley MOOCLab; an ANU professor developing a new MOOC at ANU, Gabriele Bammer from the National Centre for Epidemiology & Population Health; an ANU student who has taken some MOOCs
Benjamin Niles, President of the ANU Postgraduate and Research Students' Association (PARSA); and Year 8 student from a local school who has studied some MOOCs.

All the panelists were enthusiastic about the potential of large scale low cost or free courses to broaden education. While I am equally enthusiastic about making education broadly available, MOOCs are not the way to do it. Decades of experience in developing on-line courses, with hard lessons as to what works and what does not, are being ignored by MOOC enthusiasts. Also the recent evidence that MOOCs are not delivering claimed benefits is being ignored.

Fortunately most universities have only made a modest investment in MOOCs. There will be little financial or reputation loss if MOOCs fall out of favor over the next few months. Universities can, and should, continue to provide free and low cost extension courses, as they have done for hundreds of years. However, universities should not be distracted from their main role in degree education.

The idea that developing MOOCs will some how improve the overall quality of education at universities is flawed. This thinking needs to be flipped back to the traditional university approach, where materials from degree courses are adapted for short and extension courses. University degree programs are changing from a face-to-face mode to blended and on-line. Some of the materials and techniques used for teaching degree students on-line could be  adapted for the broader population. This is essentially the approach one of the panelists, Professor Armando Fox, . He did not get the chance to speak at length but discussed it in a previous presentation "How MOOCs Can Reinvigorate Classroom Teaching". Note that Professor Fox uses the term "Residential Education" to refer to face-to-face teaching in this presentation (not students living in dormitories),

In addition, universities need to keep in mind that there are other educational institutions tasked, and better equipped, to provide broad, low cost education for the community. The most enthusiastic proponents of MOOCs have tended to be prestigious western research universities. These institutions tend to have the least experience in on-line education. The less prestigious teaching universities, which have developed expertise in on-line education over decades, have tended to be sidelined in the MOOC hype, but continue to turn out well educated graduates each year.  Australia's TAFEs and Registered Training Organizations are set up to deliver unglamorous, but educationally sound, low cost on-line education.