MOOC,  open courses


You can probably dismiss this post as 'stop being defensive', but I'll log it now while it occurs to me.

As I mentioned in a previous post, the sudden interest in MOOCs from mainstream universities and the media is exciting, and has a number of benefits, but is not without its pitfalls. In the rush to fuel the MOOC hype it seems to me that some commentators have confused the possibility of running large scale (always the large scale gets them excited) open courses with running large scale online courses. The two are not synonymous. I believe it is the open element of MOOCs that is really intriguing – for me they are moOcs, whereas others see them as Moocs (if you get the distinction).

Millenium Bridge

<Image by Gerry Balding>

Henry Petroski suggests we forget fundamental lessons in bridge design every 30 years, because that is the average length of an engineering career. I wonder if the same is true with distance education. We've been designing large scale distance courses, and then large scale online courses for some time now. And the differences are worth noting, because I would suggest there are differing design approaches, pedagogy, and economics for open courses and 'traditional' ones.

I haven't done a detailed analysis of (large-scale) online distance ed courses and (large scale) open courses (I expect there are a few PhDs beavering away on this very topic), but here is my off the top of my head set of characteristics for the two (based largely on my own OU experience of course).

Traditional large-scale online courses are 'production heavy', ie they spend a lot of time in crafting the course material. This material forms the basis of the content, and so goes through multiple edits, critical reads, and is produced by a team. There is a structured, supported tutor model, whereby each student is a member of a small tutor group, so they have personalised support. This is combined with cohort wide communication and interaction, typically in forums which are moderated either by the course team, paid tutors or students. The course has accredited assessment, and feedback on this forms an essential part of the student-tutor dialogue. This is a pretty standard distance education model, modified for online delivery to a large-scale. In this paper Ley Robinson and I describe the set up for a 1999 course with 12-15,000 students (that isn't as massive as the Stanford AI course, but it's essentially a scaleable model). They are costly to produce and run and therefore carry a study fee. Jones et al compare three open universities and their respective models, which are variations on this.

Large-scale open courses , or MOOCs, tend to have less focus on production I would contend, but then are more flexible and adaptable at the delivery stage. They seem to be focused around an individual instructor/academic rather than a team. Support is provided through peer networks and automated feedback. Assessment is either informal, paid for separately or automated. They can be delivered fairly cheaply by a single academic and are usually free to study.

I am definitely not trying to suggest one is better than the other. But I think it's important to distinguish the two as they may meet different needs. If studying for free is the overriding factor for you as a learner, then MOOCs are obviously the way to go. If you feel that support is important then the more traditional route may be better.

We are seeing an inevitable, and innovative, blending of the two, so this distinction shouldn't be seen as absolute. For example, some MOOCs will offer support for an additional fee. (The cynic in me think that in a few years time someone will unveil the 'completely supported MOOC' which will rather resemble my traditional model above).

In the rush to embrace MOOCs I think it is a disservice to them to fail to appreciate that it is the open element which is truly interesting, and a failure to appreciate the different needs of learners to ignore the other models of large scale online delivery. The defence rests. And has a cup of tea.




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