Monday, 12 November 2012

MOOCs and disruptive change

Over the weekend, the Guardian published an article on the disruptive effect of MOOC's, massive online courses.

As someone's who's pontificated about universities in the past I read it with a degree of interest.

And it does contain a word of warning to existing universities. For example, at the university where I work we've put a vast amount of coursework onto our VLE, which allows students to catch up when they miss classes and simplifies and speeds up marking of assignments, and also means that large classes can be taught more easily.

Interestingly, we have arrangements where student from some other universities that do not teach some of our specialities study them via our VLE but get credited for the module by their home institution. And it's not one way, we do the same for specialities we lack the resources to teach.

MOOC's are an extension of this. They represent a step change because of their scale, but they are only an evolution of what's already happening.

The other thing to understand is that VLE based courses have limitations. They're great for all the basic knowledge functions, like naming anatomical structures or describing chemical reactions.

Great for what used to be called General degrees some thirty years ago in Scotland, where people studied a range of subjects and once they had enough credits qualified for a degree.

The real difference is where you want people to think and discuss material. In my discipline of animal behaviour it consisted of trying to work out what a behaviour meant.

In languages it consists of trying to understand better in order to better communicate complex material.

I'm sure anyone with a different academic heritage will have other examples, but it has the common thread of moving from demonstrating knowledge and competence by dealing with closed questions to being able to apply it to the analysis of open questions – something for which discussion and interaction is essential.

In other words, I've no doubts that MOOCs can replace lectures but not special topic tutorials. I may be being snotty and out of sorts with the times but I always thought the purpose of a university education was being able to think and analyse, and along the way being extremely knowledgeable about a specialist subject or two.

It's like IT training courses – its one thing to learn how to install and configure an application – it's another thing entirely to understand the end to end design of the process in which it will be used. One is analytical, the other is not.

So MOOCs will be disruptive. But not in the way people expect. Some universities will use them as way to supplement their teaching. Others will undoubtedly give credit for successfully completing them – either as foundation material or to allow students to skip some of the entry requirements for an advanced or honours course.

And some universities will stop teaching a whole range of courses purely because the MOOCs are better.

But the thing to remember about disruptive change is that it's disruptive – things will undoubtedly turn out differently to how we expect ….


While we're on this theme, Clay Shirky has a well argued post on this theme that's well worth a read and much of what he says has resonance with the above


Anonymous said...

That Shirky post is really good, thankyou for linking it. Yours also is interesting, of course, as ever, but his analogy with the music industry really resonates with me, and I find it disturbingly hard to argue with. Much to think about here...

sonabinu said...

Been using MOOCs ... here are my thoughts