Tuesday, December 10, 2013

MOOCs and Science Education

Greetings from the Australian National University in Canberra, where "Teachers to the Node: Rethinking Science Education in the Digital Era" is being held. This is in conjunction with Inspiring Australia. There is a live webcast from 6pm (AEST).

Nobel Laureate Professor Brian Schmidt presented the case for MOOCs. He is preparing an ANU MOOC on astrophysics, for general release in 2014. This is intended to, in particular, give school students a useful introduction to the topic. Professor Schmidt argued that the software was superior to that used for traditional on-line learning (in the case of ANU this is Moodle). Also he explained that while he could not answer individual questions from thousands of MOOC students, in a large university course normally the graduate students tutor the undergraduates.

Professor Schmidt has previously proposed limiting tutorials to 15 students. Clearly this is not feasible for a MOOC, with hundreds of thousands of students. I assume such tutorial groups will only be available to students who enroll in a closed course, which could use some materials from the MOOC, but is not open to everyone.

The invitation for this event claimed that "Increasingly, Australian universities are rethinking the delivery of their educational programs by making the foray into MOOCs to complement existing face-to-face courses". But I don't believe this is a good strategy. Universities should concentrate on re-skilling their staff and re-equipping to deliver for-fee on-line and blended courses. A limited number of free on-line courses could be used to help to promote the for-fee courses, as ANU is doing, but this should not distract universities from the necessity to move all their courses, at least in part, on-line.

Australian universities have, perhaps at most, five years to flip their teaching to primarily on-line format, if they wish to remain in business. MOOCs may be a dangerous distraction from this harsh reality.

Massive Open On-line Courses (MOOCs) are a form of distance education. MOOCs are an adaption of on-line education techniques, which have existed for more than a decade. The preliminary results from the MOOC Research Initiative (founded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation), confirm that MOOCs do not tell us anything new about how students learn on-line. As with any course, unless students are engaged, they rapidly loose interest. Few students ever finish a MOOC, in contrast to conventional on-line courses, where the completion rate is similar to face-to-face delivery. MOOCs are a distraction from the future of higher education, which is with smaller, for-fee on-line courses, supplemented by classroom tuition.

For at least one hundred years universities have offered extension programs, where the general public could have an introductory university experience at no, or low, cost. These initiatives have a checkered history, with confusion as to the aims and uncertain funding to maintain them. MOOCs are will experience the same boom and bust, with the bust likely in the next six months. Only a few of the organizations being set up to provide MOOCs will be in existence a year from now. Some universities may also go out of business as a result of betting their future on MOOCs, more will suffer from having failed to put the investment needed in conventional e-learning.

I suggest that institutions should not be distracted by the idea that somehow creating free on-line courses will attract students to conventional for-fee on-campus courses. The opposite is more likely, with students doing the free MOOC and then enrolling in a cheaper, better on-line course elsewhere.

Institutions should not assume that creating MOOCs will result in an enthusiasm for, and expertise in, on-line course creation to spread amongst their academic staff. Staff will object to resources being diverted into what they see as courses of questionable academic rigor and thus harden their resistance to any form of on-line courses. Institutions need to invest in the capability of creating on-line courses which work with the academic traditions, not against them and are both educationally and financially viable.

Education systems should not fall into the trap of assuming that someone else will create free MOOC content for them, which they can use to lower costs. Those MOOC providers who are likely to survive in the long term are putting in place revenue streams to make MOOCs profitable. While the basic MOOC make be free, to be educationally useful the student, or the educational system they are part, of will have to purchase optional "extras", such as tuition and certification. Institutions may be able to add their own tuition and certification to some one else's MOOC, but they will then be competing with the MOOC provider for the student's dollar and in a downward spiral to the lowest cost course.

There is also the danger that MOOCs will distract the Australian education industry from the need to rapidly re-tool its operations for on-line education. Otherwise, within five years, Australian university education will not be a viable industry, unable to compete for domestic or international students. The only remaining domestic universities will be a few concentrating on high level research and some satellite campuses of international on-line institutions of the minimum  size needed to meet government registration requirements.

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