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The MOOC in Further Education Colleges – distraction or lever for change?

When not one, but two, Government Ministers start dropping the word ‘MOOC’ into their speeches and tweets, should those of us working in the field of Educational Technology be encouraged or worried? And, furthermore, when part of the rationale for such support is that British education is now part of the Coalition Government’s 2012 Industrial Strategy and some of the collective rhetoric comes close to a chauvinistic claim for the superiority of the British education system, then we seem to be entering into a global skirmish to put a competitive British MOOC into cyberspace. In recent months there has been such a litany of commentary in the media about the anticipated ground-breaking and money-making possibilities of the MOOC that I hesitated about adding to it , but do so because I have yet to see a focus on the sector I work in – Further Education Colleges in the UK. Here’s my starting point:-

1. Are MOOCs any different to the promise of Virtual Learning Environments – introduced through ring-fenced funding into FE colleges back in the late 1990s? Most, if not all, colleges will have a VLE (Moodle, Blackboard, home-grown) sitting on a college server or in the Cloud somewhere with all of the functionality they need to develop and host a MOOC – so why hasn’t it happened on any significant scale to date? In the early days of the VLE bandwidth and access issues meant most of them acted as online repositories of text-based documents and content was a big issue. With 97% of the world’s information now digitised and millions of great, free, media-rich resources on tap via Youtube, Khan Academy and the like, context not content is now the issue. Funding for online learning activity was deemed to be an issue and a barrier to uptake as the funding model that colleges were tied into did not recognise time spent learning online. I well recall arguing the case for online learning to be funded in a mainstream programme many years ago at City of Sunderland College and, because we were able to provide the Management Information data to support our case, the argument was accepted. Unfortunately, funding for online learning seemed to depend on individual auditors and was always done on an ad hoc basis. I am told that in the post-Learning and Skills Council world that this has changed, but the view persists that learning online will not count for funding purposes. This needs to be nailed once and for all or it will remain a stubborn obstacle wherever new online learning opportunities are suggested in FE colleges.

2. There has been much hype around the MOOC, often prompted by ‘celebrity academics’ teaching huge numbers of students. In the era of YouTube and TED, the ‘teacher as performer’ has taken root, and academics who would previously have stayed in their dusty lecture halls are now clamouring to be on stage. This has bred the era of the ‘rock star’ or ‘celebrity academic’ who measures his or her standing in YouTube or TED hits. Would it have caught on if ‘celebrity academics’, such as Sebastien Thrun and Peter Norvig, had not been involved and legitimised the method? Then, think of someone you admire – say, Bruce Springsteen, Steven Spielberg or Raymond Blanc- and imagine getting the chance to have them as your teachers – what’s not to stop many thousands of people being attracted to such courses? Having said that, let’s remember that, in our globally connected and often anonymised world, the value of local voice and context is not to be underestimated and is, indeed, often to be highly prized. Too often we dismiss talent sitting right in front of us – both literally and figuratively (e-learning teams have been an easy casualty in many of the culls of staff across the sector in the last two years). So, encourage your staff to record their lectures and workshops – and make it easy for them to do so. Do your own TED-type events and create your own YouTube channel – you might be surprised with the results.

3. Institutionally-based MOOCs, hosted on colleges VLEs, have a huge advantage over the offshore versions such as Coursera, Udacity and edX in that they enable the Management Information system in the FE college to inform and support learning. Learner analytics is another hot topic in Educational Technology: think of how companies like Amazon, John Lewis and other online retailers interact with their customers and you’re close to the power of learner analytics. They get to know their customers through crunching the data they hold on them – when you shop, how you shop, what you buy etc – and then use this data to let their customers know about products they might be interested in. So, I say, stick with your own platform, encourage your students and staff to experiment and trial some fully online courses underpinned and supported by your MI data.

4. How then should colleges engage with the large ‘industrial’ scale MOOCs – being developed by the so-called elite universities? We should not easily dismiss the role they can play – and the value of freely available high quality content. Think of them like an amplification of Open Education Resources and use them as such. Dip into videos and lectures, download quizzes and resources and encourage your students to use them. Test out a range of MOOCs to see how content is delivered and how social media and collaboration tools are deployed. Do a review of your VLE against the MOOC and use this as part of the process for developing an updated strategy for Information and Learning Technology in your college. What have you to lose? Remember the ‘offshore’ MOOC course does not sit on your MI system, so it does not impact on your retention rates – and most of the major MOOCs, for the moment at least, remain free to use and seem very relaxed about the low retention rates on their courses.

5. Finally, beyond the hype of the MOOC it will have been a worthwhile distraction if it mobilises leadership and policy makers to engage seriously with Educational Technology and support the sector in providing the conditions for it to flourish. That may be the MOOC’s biggest contribution to the field. And, if nothing more, you should ask yourself what, in fact, is the business and pedagogical model for a MOOC in your college? Is it reaching out to students you would normally not engage with? Is it providing flexible courses for your learners who are often juggling study, home and work requirements? Today, more than ever, the business model may be simply dealing with the fact that if you don’t offer what your learners expect and what they can get from a range of other providers, you may not have a business at all. With the ever growing commodification of education students may be attracted to the brand and promise of certification from high ranking international institutions, offering free or affordable courses with accreditation, so the pressure is on FE colleges to go further than they have to date in learning technologies and make them truly mainstream in college.

12 thoughts on “The MOOC in Further Education Colleges – distraction or lever for change?

  1. Having worked in the Further Education sector for 7 years (4 year previous in HE). I support a number of point raised here.

    The key benefit of a UK FE MOOC as far as I can see it is pooling of resources – the biggest being marketing. Marketing of online products and services in my experience is incredibly time consuming and very expensive, if College’s were to pool their resources I can see that any monies that were pooled would have a much greater impact on marketing.

    I am not convinced MOOCs are the panacea for the future of learning. An area that I am watching is smart TVs as this form of technology involves especially around live streaming and interactivity I think there could be some real opportunities for Colleges to develop some new business models.

    One of my biggest concerns is that as BECTA has gone and now LSIS is going as far as I am aware there is real vacuum for the FE sector to collaborate and innovate with a coordinated vision. I know there are plans for the guild but I have not heard if they have any remit around technology and innovation. If there were opportunities I for one would love to be involved.

    Paul Rolfe
    Twitter: psrolfe

    • Paul – You know me I don’t buy into panaceas. Technology sadly remains the often hidden strategic asset in many colleges. You are one of the exemplary colleges in looking beyond your immediate horizon of technology and asking questions – with outstanding leadership that recognises its potential and wants to maximise it. It’s been too often the case that innovation gets beaten out of people when it is not valued by the organisation. What I am trying to say in this piece about the MOOC mania is that we should hold our nerve in FE – review the assets we have in our technology, in our people (staff and students) and not seek permission from other sectors to legitimise what we can offer. Let’s just see where our collective creativity, expertise and commitment to our learners can take us!

  2. Pingback: The MOOC in Further Education Colleges – distraction or lever for change? | Learning Futures Lab | Cathy Ellis | Networked Learning - Learning Networks | Scoop.it

  3. Pingback: The MOOC in Further Education Colleges – distraction or lever for change? | Learning Futures Lab | Cathy Ellis | Learning with MOOCs | Scoop.it

  4. You make a good point to be mindful and not underestimate the ‘value of local voice and context’. Celebrity academics may be exciting and inspiring but don’t and can’t focus on what is needed for some learners within their immediate and individual environment. Therein lies the value of teaching and e-learning staff, many of whom are inspirational as well as effective.
    My experience of Moocs so far has made me consider VLEs as being even more useful as a basis for online learning. This supportive structure can be supplemented and expanded to include a ‘massive’ amount of online resources, media and collaborative content. It doesn’t have to be one or the other and I expect that a middle ground of some description will gradually develop.

    • Claire Thank you for your thoughtful comments. With the recent launch of AoC India and the sector’s international aspirations it will be interesting to see if these ambitions provoke a discussion and action about local vs global – and what this means for FE colleges in terms of technology infrastructure. I read a recent paper about how Chinese students are drawn to elite brands (see @YongZhaoUO) so the ‘elite’/HE MOOCs will continue to be attractive and grab the headlines with their mega numbers. However, as you say, we would do well to ensure that our VLEs are pushed to their optimal performance or enhanced before getting too excited about chasing alternatives.

  5. Pingback: The MOOC in Further Education Colleges – distraction or lever for change? | Learning Futures Lab | Taking a look at MOOCs | Scoop.it

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  7. I agree that MOOCs are overhyped, a theme on which I have posted at “MOOCs and other ed-tech bubbles” at http://wp.me/p27xY2-7Q.

    But I would say that the same goes for VLEs and OER (if on a slightly more modest scale). The central flaw of all three approaches is the misconception that there is anything very useful about circulating expositive resources (See also “What do we mean by content?” at http://wp.me/p27xY2-2N). The point at which the needs of education intersect with the key capabilities of the computer are at interactivity and adaptability – not the dissemination of information.

    I think the evidence that the current generation of VLEs have much to contribute is pretty thin.

    • Crispin
      Thanks for commenting. I enjoyed reading your ‘MOOCs and other ed-tech bubbles and find much resonance in what you say. I agree about the issues of scalability and the danger of just another broadcast model – what Negroponte and others criticise as a return to instructionism. Some stats I came across recently make the point that the promise of the democratisation of education is still some way off target : 4% retention rate; data on MOOC enrolments – 90% male and 46% with Masters or PhDs. I find it encouraging when I read that Yale has adopted an approach ‘to sit back, watch, and evaluate’ – see more in http://bit.ly/WTaCwH and I like this comment from Peter Stokes, Executive Director of Postsecondary Innovation in the College of Professional Studies at Northeastern University.

      ‘Watching and waiting — and strategizing — can be a difficult choice to make given the “herd mentality” that has developed around MOOCS’

  8. Pingback: The MOOC in Further Education Colleges – distraction or lever for change? | Learning Futures Lab | Opening up education | Scoop.it

  9. Pingback: The MOOC in Further Education Colleges – distraction or lever for change? | digitalNow | Scoop.it

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