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.