I’m rather excited by the rise of the MOOC. For those of you who haven’t come across the acronym MOOC, it stands for Massive Open Online Course. MOOCs allow anybody with an internet connection to sign up for free online courses, mostly provided by Higher Education Institutions.
The classes are usually scheduled so that modules are released in specified weeks. So as well as receiving short video tutorials from the course providers you can elect to join lively discussion forums, from participants all over the world. Tens of thousands of people sign up to the most popular MOOCs, although the completion rate is quoted at around 9%.
So far I’ve signed up for an Introduction to Philosophy from the University of Edinburgh, and the Fairness and Nature Course from the University of Leeds. My primary reason for doing so was to look at the video components of these courses. Academic enlightenment was a welcome by-product. There are numerous pedagogical debates on the value of MOOCs. Their potential to bring education to those with limited resources ticks the democratization of education box. On the other hand, surely this disruptive technology can’t compete with the immersive experience of face-to-face teaching? Or is the real value of MOOCs the flipped classroom experience, whereby you watch a video before your class, so the classroom becomes a place for discussion after you’ve nailed the basics?
Distance learning is, of course, nothing new. The Open University has been at it for years. Army information films have long been a feature of military training; as far back as 1920s US radio stations were broadcasting university lectures to the masses. So what’s so different with MOOCs? I would argue that the biggest advance is the opportunity for data collection. Course providers can see when, where and how much of a course you’ve consumed. They can also rate a MOOCs success by the volume and quality of debate it generates, and assess the education level of their audience through questionnaires.
But what to do with all this data? You could use it to see if you’re reaching your target audience such as high-school kids from non-traditional backgrounds rather than graduate retirees. You could assess whether foundation course students who take a MOOC perform better in subsequent exams. Or you could interpret it as a popularity contest to see which lecturers attract the most attention to your particular brand of education. As a video producer from a TV documentary background I’ve seen how ratings information can have both positive and negative effects on the commissioning process. Bad ratings can kill off dull, indulgent shows. Good ratings often spawn a raft of low-risk uninspiring clonesthat are the enemy of innovation.
My hope is that course providers don’t become ratings slaves, but they are respectful of the figures. Figures such as the optimum length of a video module, and whether a bigger budget graphic rich MOOC engages people better than a simple talking head based one. It would be naïve to think anybody has the answers at this stage, but I am willing to predict one thing. The most successful MOOCs will feature the very same academics who already blow their students' minds in tutorials. Yes, you can mix things up with fancy graphics to explain concepts or have them presented by a media-savvy young post-grad, but for a knowledge hungry audience nothing beats the privilege of having the finest tutor talking to you directly, even if it is through your tablet. It’s the highbrow equivalent of a celebrity tweet directly to your phone, and the cerebral thrill that’s one of the great joys of higher education.
Capture that in your MOOC videos and the audience will definitely becoming back for more.