Tuesday, February 17, 2015

On-line courses can support social interaction

Professor Jason Potts from RMIT, writes "Why MOOCs will fail – they're not dating sites" (Online Opinion, 11 February 2015).

Fixed: a team of students I mentored last year has built "Bringpeer", a social network just for university students, just for university students. It has been released first for Australian National University students in Canberra. ;-)

On-line courses can support social interaction

More seriously, as a student, designer and teacher of on-line university courses, one of the things I have noticed is the isolation the students can feel. On-line tutors are trained to counter this by getting the students to first introduce themselves. This is not compulsory, but each student is provided with a bio page, where they can put their photo and a little about themselves. Many advanced on-line courses also require students to form teams to do project work (I am meeting on-line tomorrow with a team from Kenya, Norway, Japan and Canada). Some institutions also provide a way for students to meet up face-to-face to study (but this requires some safety protocols).

Many MOOCS do not cover these social aspects well, not because the technology can't support it, but because the courses have not been well designed by competent instructional designers.

The case for MOOCs

The case for MOOCs is not, as Professor Potts suggests "they can deliver the same educational services, but at a fraction of the cost". Distance education (DE) courses, of one sort or another, have existed for more than one hundred years. Replacing paper with broadcasts, video tapes or the Internet has not made much difference. Such DE courses don't provide the same education and they are not necessarily that much cheaper. These courses provide access to a different form of education (in some ways better) for people who would otherwise not have access.

MOOCs are not cheap or easy

Professor Potts seems to think that MOOCs are cheap and easy. However, very few of the people who sign up for a free course ever finish it. Doing one MOOC will not get you the equivalent of a university degree. Some of the MOOC providers offer a "professional" program, but if you add up the cost of all the courses required, it is not necessarily cheaper than a conventional higher education program (especially as MOOCs have a lower completion rate).

Be it on-line or face to face, what I have learned as a student of higher education is that it is very hard work being a student.

But are MOOCs more effective ways of dating?

Given that many people now find their partners via an on-line service, there is no reason to believe that on-line eduction programs which have a social component can't be equally effective as face-to-face campuses.

On-line courses are going to challenge their business model

The real story is that on-line tools are already being used to supplement most university programs in Australia. It would be difficult to find a university course which does not provide some services to the students on-line. Many are now "blended" with the on-line component being an essential part of the course.

Very few courses and programs are offered entirely on-line. However, this will change in the next few years, so that the norm will be on-line courses, supplemented with classes. This will be a challenge for Australian universities, as they will then have to compete with those from around the world. Torrens University Australia is part of Laureate International Universities, which already provides education on-line to 800,000 students.

Even today there are enough on-line programs for a student who wants this option. When selecting a postgraduate program in higher education, I was able to select from several purely on-line programs offered in Australia (although I eventually decided to enroll in North America).

The argument about the viability of on-line courses seems a little outdated, like discussing the benefits of email was fifteen years ago. There were some people who "got it" and the rest had a few years to catch up. I started delivering on-line university courses in 2009 and, apart from the occasional guest lecture, have not been back in front of a class since then. The idea that myself and my students would have to arrange to assemble in one geographic location somewhere in the world, just so that I could talk at them for an hour now sounds weird (and research shows it is not a very effective teaching technique).

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