MOOCs as 1st year undergrad replacement

For top-secret research I am undertaking, I'm looking at a range of MOOCs, both xMOOCs, cMOOCs and flavours inbetween (although, definitely not ridiculous variations such as SPOCs). Here's some breaking news – they are all pretty good. Take away all the hype, commercial bubble and rabid arguments on both sides and you are left with some good teaching material. 

As I've been going through them (admittedly not as thoroughly as a student), I've begun to think that a mix of them would probably represent a good grounding in a topic, equivalent to a 1st year of an undergrad degree. It wouldn't teach some of the other skills you develop, I'll come to that later. Let's take an example, say I want to study a degree in Psychology. The following MOOCs would give me a good knowledge base:

Now, I think that would give you a good grounding in knowledge. I know from doing my first degree in Psychology that the first year is really spent bringing everyone up to speed. A second year could then start on the assumption that all of the above is known to all students. This is where a conventional (campus or distance) university can step in. The MOOCs only take you so far. They're good at getting across content, but not so good at developing skills. As a Psychology graduate there are key skills you need to develop (the elusive qualities of 'graduateness'), such as critical thinking, reading and interpreting scientific literature, debate and communication skills, experimental design, etc. These are really best developed by interaction with other learners and experts in a more structured, focused manner than most MOOCs offer.

So here's a model for a university wanting to offer something different – come to us with certificates in all of the above MOOCs and we will enroll you on a shortened two year degree programme. Because we want to be competitive our fees (assuming a UK uni here) are set at £7K per annum (compared with the usual 9K) and that means your degree will cost you £14K, not the usual £27K. That begins to look like a good offer, and I would be willing to bet that there would be no difference between these students at graduation than those that have studied a three year programme.

Of course there are a whole host of objections to this model, for instance it can undermine universities, it plays along with the broken funding regime, a three year degree programme is the right length of time for personal development, and so on. I wouldn't disagree with any of these. And I wouldn't suggest that this is the only model that should be pursued, but rather it is an example of how changes in education, and open education in particular, could offer a wider diversity of university models.

One parting thought – if this model was used successfully I wonder how long before the MOOC providers started charging for their courses to be used in this way?


  1. Techczech says:

    I have no doubt that the difference in terms of knowledge between students in the traditional model and this new model would be almost zero. But there’s a lot more going on at university than learning things. In fact, if you look at any of the ethnographies of campus life, learning things is a side issue. People spend their first year in all sorts of liminal activities – being socialised to a community of practice and generally growing up. Can a MOOC make up for that? I’ve suggested a flipped school year idea as an alternative model that could make up for some of these things.

  2. Simonrae says:

    Techczech, your comment seems to assume students starting university straight after school when, I agree, many do benefit from ‘all sorts of liminal activities’ in their 1st year. However (as the UKOU knows) there is a large market of what used to be known as mature students (ie not just out of school) who a) have already done a lot of ‘generally growing up’ and b) are looking for personal and/or professional development. Martin’s model offers them something new … although I share his worry shown in the final paragraph.

  3. mweller says:

    Hi Dominik – I agree completely, which is why I was only suggesting the 1st year replacement. After that I think MOOCs run up against their limitations. But 2 years study at a university I think provides ample opportunity for the type of development you suggest. And I’m arguing this is _one_ model, not _the_ model, so many will prefer the full 3 year experience.
    Hi Simon – yes, it’s a varied picture, the OU made it more varied many years ago, and I think we will see greater variety entering the system now

  4. PatParslow says:

    Hi Martin,
    I’ve been thinking for some time that a pre-Uni course would be highly beneficial for students. A MOOC would, for the most part, fit the bill. But for me the key learning needed before the 2nd year is not so much ‘knowledge’ as learning skills. Having said that, it is also necessary to bring everyone up to more or less the same level in the knowledge too.
    I would think it should be possible to create a MOOC (or other online, non f2f) course which teaches learning skills with the domain knowledge as an ‘exemplar’; this is an approach I am increasingly taking in f2f teaching, and so far the experience seems to be that it equips the students better for subsequent years.

  5. mweller says:

    Hi Pat, yes I was thinking something similar – I wanted to include a general study skills MOOC but couldn’t find one. Maybe I could have used the OU’s learning to learn one. But something about skills around reading, critical analysis, etc. I think a lot of those skills are developed through more structured, ‘formal’ learning with human feedback (which is where the MOOC as 1st year model would be weaker) but I think we could do something along the lines you suggest. Our level 1 OU courses have a lot of their ‘real estate’ given over to developing these general skills, but as you say, within the context of the subject domain.

  6. Your conjecture would only be true if a first year undergraduate course was about content, which it isn’t.

  7. Dkernohan says:

    My memory of my first years (I had two) was that in the sciences I learned hands on practical skills (lab skills, reaction mechanisms etc) and in the arts I benefited most from detailed feedback from staff and peers and kind of an inculcation into the “academic” way of doing things. I’m guessing psychology is more like the latter – and my suspicion would be that most bright laypeople with an interest in psychology would already know most of the content in the first year. I’m not sure what a MOOC would add in terms of academic skills and detailed iterative feedback.
    I know Candace Thille at OLI (Carnegie Mellon) saw her fully automated online courses as a first year/remedial module replacement but I’m not sure that they were ever used as a replacement. Would recommend a chat with her if you got chance.

  8. Sheilmcn says:

    Hi Martin
    I can see where you’re coming from, but it does worry me that these kind of models assume that learners can do an awful lot on their own. I your and Pat’s comments are starting to address this, but I do think we may be continuing to create models continue to exclude those that “don’t fit”, the ones that need more non traditional support encouragement and engagement. MOOCs seem less and less revolutionary and more and more like the status quo.

  9. mweller says:

    @Alan – I think that would only be the case if I was suggesting replacing the whole undergrad degree with MOOCs. I agree students will miss some of the learning skills development in this model, but I’m suggesting that the remaining 2 years would be sufficient to develop them.
    @David & Sheila – I wouldn’t disagree, but I guess the argument might be this would appeal to people who currently won’t study at all, because of fees and fear of signing up. So it might only appeal to say 10% of learners, but that would still be a valid number. My conjecture here is not that it’s better or the winner but that we might have a greater range of models and I think that might be a good thing.

  10. Leohavemann says:

    Research on MOOCs and a lot of anecdotal evidence is suggesting that learners who can best cope in the MOOC format are actually those who are already well-educated; they have learning skills and literacies as well as self-motivation and regulation to stay on track. So although I can see the enormous appeal of the concept of MOOCs as a form of pre-entry qualifications or to replace entry-level studies, I am not convinced that MOOCs as currently constituted are going to be particularly suitable. Generally speaking, as you progress through the UG levels and on to PG studies, you become increasingly self-reliant. Arguably first year is when you need a teacher most, not least.

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