higher ed,  MOOC,  OU

Appropriate use of MOOCs


One of the unfortunate downsides of all the MOOC hype is that it pushed people into opposing camps – you either buy into it all or reject them absolutely. And of course, MOOCs are not going to kill every university, educate the whole world, liberate the masses. But they can be used for some purposes effectively.

Today the OU, FutureLearn and University of Leeds announced a mechanism by which you can gain credit for studying MOOCs and transfer this to count towards a degree. Getting this set up is the type of thing that just takes ages and lots of negotiation (we never cracked it with SocialLearn), so well done to all those involved.

Some will suggest this marks the beginning of the much heralded unbundling of higher education. But I am increasingly inclined to always resist big claims, and instead focus on more modest, realisable ones. I don’t think this model will appeal to everyone, and is unlikely to massively transform the university sector. But what it does allow is more flexibility in the higher education offering. One of the claims the OU has always made for OpenLearn, who are also working in accrediting learning, is that it helps smooth the transition into formal learning. For lots of learners, committing to a three year full time degree is off-putting. This was partly why the OU was invented in the first place. But even signing up for a course complete with fee commitment is a high threshold. MOOCs with a smaller accreditation fee offers a lower step down still.

I suggested a while back that MOOCs might offer a first year replacement, thus reducing some of the financial barriers. The OU itself has run programs where students can study with us for two years and then complete on another campus. More of these hybrid models in education is generally a good thing – students come in many different shapes and sizes now, and will have different needs. But loads of students still want the traditional, 3 year campus model. And that is the key – stop trying to replace one universal model with another one. It is less about blowing up the core and more about fraying the edges productively.


  • AJ Cann

    I don’t see any way MOOCs are a first year replacement. Year 1, like primary school, is where we enculturate (yes, I said it) students in the practices of academia. Unless you want Year 2 to be the new year 1.

    • Jon K.

      Perhaps an alternate solution is to have a “transfer” course that’s mandatory before beginning studying locally. That course ends up becoming a culture/how to cite/source, how to identify peer-reviewed journals, etc. etc. Could be as short as 6 weeks.

      • admin

        Yeah, I was probably wrong to throw that in there – it could work for a few people but I take your point the first year is where those student skills are picked up. More generally the curriculum could be expanded by including one or two MOOCs from elsewhere. But I don’t think it’s a game changer

  • francesbell

    I’m with Alan. Final Year tends to be costly – mainly in terms of teaching-but Year1 students need plenty of support which also costs. Replacing with MOOCs sounds a bit like the French system (not sure if this is still the case) where there was a massive dropout rate- Survival of the ‘fittest’

    • admin

      Yes, I don’t see it as a major thing, it might work for a few. More likely picking up one or two along the way might be an option

  • Rolin Moe

    Flexibility is important in a number of contexts. Most notably, this would seem to benefit those non-traditional students who have significant job experience and are looking for a degree for any number of purposes (promotion, new career ambition, finishing something they wanted to finish). That is a population often forgotten in these discourses…people who are not autodidacts and not necessarily motivated by extrinsic means. If this is a foray into a degree for such people, good for OU and Leeds.

    At the same time, a great deal of MOOC frustration is less about the platform and more about how it has been sold, as a bastion of democracy, equity and upward mobility. The history of such initiatives shows we will end up with some great case studies of handfuls of people picking themselves up by their bootstraps and utilizing this initiative, but that those people were likely going to still use their bootstraps to find another initiative. Unless there is a thoughtful and unique system in place for more specific outreach to the first-year replacements, this probably becomes another opportunity for people who are already good at taking opportunities.

    • admin

      I agree – and more to the point is this more modest goal worth the massive amounts of investment? We could have got here with OERs years ago

      • AJ Cann

        Except that it’s not about resources, it’s about practices. That’s why over0-concentration on OERs devalues what teachers do. We built it. They didn’t come.

        Sorry, I’m not trying to nit pick on your post, but I think there is=are some potentially serious errors here.

        • Steve Bamlett

          Hi Alan

          I’ve a lot of sympathy with where you come from here but I do have a problem (you predicted it in your earlier posts) about the role of ‘enculturalisation / socialisation’ that is the presumed function of year 1 courses.

          My experience has been that much of the content of that socialisation has very little validity outside of a very narrow definition of academic culture – one very much predicated on conventions of the ‘appropriate’ with tight socio-geographical / socio-political and socio-historical boundaries.

          I thin the Robin De Rosa article nails some of the problems of that culture – particularly its fetishisation of models of authority (of which ‘His Majesty the Textbook’ is only one example).

          Openness maybe always has ways of critiquing any attempt to ‘enculture’ it. The academics of tomorrow need less scaffolding I think or a less tight one because the internet makes selection from abundance – OK curation – so central a skill.

          To me, old now, I think this is our route back from the academic as a set of stifling conventions about who owns what (attributional authority) to the primary importance of critical thinking – which feels to me to have taken a backseat recently (merely a subjective impression of course).

          All the best


  • Mark Smithers (@marksmithers)

    A very sensible post Martin but like AJCann I actually see it going the other way. I’d like to see the first year experience available to as many people as possible with the rest of the qualification completed flexibly and mostly in the workplace. This would formalise what effectively happens already, allow learners to learn in the workplace in partnership with a university and allow learners to earn as they learn. It would also help develop ideas of life long learning which is an area that traditional universities have gone missing in despite their rhetoric.

    • admin

      Yes, I regret linking back to the year 1 post now! I think more generally there is some room for MOOCs adding into the mix, but not as a replacement

    • Frances Bell

      l visited George Mason University in 1998 and for practical reasons, fairly specific to that context, there was a pattern on computing/ IT degrees of Students shifting from full-time to part time during Y2 and Y3 as they accepted job offers in the Defence Industries who were crying out for programmers/ analysts at that time. The university was flexible but adminstratively it was complex to manage eg fulfillment of degree requirements over several years. BTW this was what I was told in an interview -not my direct experience.
      The impression that I got was it was about students funding their education. An outcome was that much of the teaching wasmuch of the teaching was in evening slots and the Uni ran free buses to and from the light rail system. I don’t Know how this is translated into online nearly 20 years later.

  • newbouldblog

    As you point out, Martin, any OU course, studied part time – whether a MOOC or a standard 30/60 credit course – offers an intelligent hybrid opportunity for students. We should promote these opportunities more widely and explain the benefits, especially for people who are non-traditional students, or who want to continue working while studying in order to help pay for their qualifications.
    It’s not as though the OU hasn’t been doing this for decades, with credit transfer agreements – it just needs better promotion.

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