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Moocs: from mania to mundanity

After the hype is over, e-learning will be the norm, predicts Stephen Haggard

Miles Cole opinion illustration (3 October 2013)

Source: Miles Cole

Education by computer software will be the norm for post-school learning. Most of us will earn our degrees at a screen

The supernova effects of massive open online courses include a warping of time. Academics running Moocs report working 100-hour weeks. FutureLearn invites applause for its burn rate: 10 months from zero to a full clutch of courses. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills insisted on a one-month turnaround for The Maturing of the Mooc, our complete literature and policy review. Taking a (very) short pause, I start to suspect that the power of the Mooc is an optical illusion caused by extreme acceleration.

FutureLearn’s recent launch demonstrated this. The pedagogy seemed to be that old favourite, linear instructivism: watch an expert presentation, do some reading and an assessment, then go on to the next class. Some of its Moocs are frankly bizarre: Discover Dentistry from the University of Sheffield is described as “a course for everyone”. We’ll see.

Many courses reheat existing material, with the barest of fresh trimmings. The Open University Moocs are laced with Attenborough, like the bleary corners of an old BBC2 schedule. The caution among the university partners is palpable: hardly any top names were put forward as presenters. The University of Edinburgh is joining FutureLearn, but hedging its bets by staying on Coursera, too.

Great expectations have been hung on Moocs. David Willetts, the universities and science minister, said that FutureLearn would preserve the UK’s place in the “global race of higher education”, while Barack Obama has hailed Moocs as a “tide of innovation…that drives down costs while preserving quality”. This is the victory of hype over reality. Moocs are not strong enough to bear the weight. The very term (and format) is fragmenting: Spocs (small private online courses) are the newest sub-variant – a restricted-entry course using Harvard University’s EdX platform to deliver paid-for university content for credit.

The first Moocs that caught the public’s attention were flawed. Critics rightly charged that with about 5 per cent completion rates, they were less massive than they appeared, open only to learners with excellent online social skills, and that the pedagogies were anything but new. The public seems to have recognised the problem. On a tip-off I checked the Alexa web stats for the Coursera, EdX and Udacity sites: all three are plateauing.

But Moocs are changing. From now on they will be more diverse, more pragmatic and hard to distinguish from the core activities of the incumbent players – publishers and universities.

At the University System of Georgia, for example, students take the university’s Moocs alongside regular courses as a way to top up credits and earn their degree more quickly.

The bellwether for this everyday role is Udacity’s partnership with San Jose State University to host remedial maths Moocs for California community college students who have already flunked face-to-face courses. This is a tall order for a format that, on the available evidence, works best for the highly educated. The verdict is not yet in, but the latest metrics from San Jose show that the Moocs produce more failures than conventional courses, but not dramatically more, and that the effort learners put in determines how well they do. This is just the sort of boring conclusion we need to shift the thinking about Moocs from mania to normality.

When we reflect with hindsight, five years from now, I think we will see the speed and energy of the Mooc movement as the force that swept away the old higher education world of campuses, lectures, attendance and assignment marking.

This change was a long time coming. Ask any veteran of open distance learning and they will bitterly repeat that “there’s nothing new in Moocs: it was all there years ago”. But the wave carrying Moocs – a wave of hype, venture capital, scale and prestigious colleges – is so massive that it is reshaping the landscape. It will soon recede, leaving online learning at the heart of the campus. The Mooc has also been transformed: it looks less like the giddy revolutionary “free courses for all” bonanza it first appeared to be, and more like a workmanlike setting for getting stuff taught and learned.

Should we be grateful? Yes. The Mooc has forced the campus system to prove that it is not over-expensive and underproductive compared with the alternatives. Some colleges will try to claim that their mystique still has value and some learners will buy it. But education by computer software will, for the most part, be the adequate norm for post-school learning. Most of us will earn our degrees at a screen and will be quite relaxed about it. Employers may come to appreciate it, too.

Should we be worried? The cloud on the horizon was spotted by Dame Wendy Hall, dean of sciences at the University of Southampton. The internet, she says, is built in such a way that eventually, one massively dominant player must emerge for each sector. Think online bookselling, search, video. She forecasts a winner-takes-all for Moocs, too. Now, who’s taking bets?

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