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MOOCs and their impact on jobs for academics (or maybe not)

I was recently approached by some students from a University in the US with the following questions, and I thought, due to the interest in the community around MOOCs, I would share the questions...and my responses. It would be great to hear if you agree. disagree, or have something to add :-)

1- Can you tell us about your experience with MOOCs?  Have you worked with anyone who offered or has taken MOOCs?

I have been interested in MOOCs from when they were first conceived by George Siemens, Stephen Downes and Dave Cormier, which is based around the concept of Connectivism. MOOCs in this form involve learners who gather online to collaborate in sense-making, and to exchange knowledge and share experiences. The course is fluid, and can be changed by participants, who also select their own ‘learning path’ to develop their own ideas and skills within a focus or project of their own. Activities within such a MOOC are likely to include remixing, re-purposing, feeding forward, curation and aggregation (Owen, 2013, source).

I signed up a couple of years for a MOOC that was offered by Siemens, but admit that after an initial flurry of activity I found it tough to figure out what to do and did not complete the course. I have worked with colleagues who have participated in MOOCs, some successfully completing them, and others, like me, dropping out. The Coursera type model of MOOCs, however, is a very different approach to the original concept of MOOCs, and, having explored several of them, they appear to be the same as conventional online, distance learning offerings available...but with more students enrolled.

2- Would you categorize MOOCs as disruptive technology? 

MOOCs aren’t a technology, but rather they make use of some of the affordances of technology. They can only be thought of as disruptive if they are seen as developing a way of learning that made the most of the opportunities offered by near-global connectivity, and which (as mentioned above) are closely related to the connectivist theory of learning (Owen, 2013, source). Only in this format, I feel, can they be seen as disruptive, whereas the Coursera type approach to MOOCs tends to be based around a face-to-face course adapted to an online environment. They are still teacher-centred, and content-focussed.

(b) If yes, would you think that they would soon replace universities or would they work in    conjunction with one another?

I don’t feel that MOOCs will replace universities. There is still a lot of uncertainty, and no small amount of bias, against qualifications studied for online, and I’m not convinced that these will be overcome. I suspect, therefore, (Connectivist) MOOCs will offer an alternative way of learning that will suit some people, while the more structured online experience, will suit others. I suspect that they will be offered until other alternatives are developed.

3- What’s the biggest attraction with the MOOCs from a user perspective?

A few of the key benefits of (Connectivist) MOOCs are that learning is contextualised, happens in a relatively informal setting, and can connect across disciplines, organisations, and institutions. In addition, you don’t need any formal qualifications to participate, and there are no physical barriers, as long as you have some form of connectivity (Owen, 2013, source).

More structured MOOCs are marketed as free, and offering content and highly thought of educators.

4- What is the biggest shortcoming of MOOCs?

All online offerings are only as good as their design...and many MOOCs (both types) are, I feel, poorly conceived and designed.

5- Would you suggest that there is only limited number of topics that can fit in to a MOOCs model? From your experience what would is the best course profile for MOOCs model?

Your question about topics appears to be blurring of the notions of knowing about (topics / content), learning to apply (skills), and becoming an expert in something (duration of experience). This aspect links into a much wider discussion about what learning and ‘knowledge’ comprise and how we participate in those experiences (formal, non-formal and informal). So, I would say that it would depend on the purpose of an online course, and who it is designed for and how, that are important, rather than the topics per se.

6- Do you find that distance learning is more popular in certain regions of the world? If yes, what would be a possible reason?

Access (especially connectivity) is a major influence on who can study online, although many of the more remote places where access is an issue are actually the places where online learning needs to be available. An additional influence on the popularity of online learning is the education system through which a learner has progressed. In other words, a learner who is used to a face-to-face environment, and is perhaps from a culture with a strong collaborative, oral tradition, may prefer to learn in a face-to-face environment. Online learning experiences would need to be blended to begin with, and then carefully scaffolded, and designed such that the online community aspect is strongly fostered.

7- Has there been any major feedback from the students? Has there been a theme in the feedback?

Feedback from learners suggests that timely, personalised support from a tutor and from peers is fundamental to completing an online course, especially where there is no extrinsic motivation. Often, learners hit ‘speed bumps’, either because of technology frustrations, or because they can’t figure out a concept or skill by themselves. As such, being able to connect with a peer on the course, synchronously, is essential.

8-  Do you have any comments on the effect on MOOCS on the academic job market? (Massive course given to thousands of student by major university may lessen the need of academic teachers in other universities)

I really don’t think so. If the model being adopted by universities was that of online courses informed by the principles of Connectivism, then I might feel that there could be a reduction in the demand for ‘formal’ educators. In part this would be because we would start to value more the experiences and skills that all participants in a course bring to the learning experience, rather than relying on the teacher as the ‘expert’. However, given that universities have fallen back into a traditional model of online course design and learning, then it suggests that the institutions themselves, the businesses who will hire graduates from them, and the people who want to learn in them...are not ready for an alternative take on the value of learning versus qualifications.  Therefore, even with the potential offered by MOOCs, I suspect it will not be realised...and, in turn, the demand of academics will remain similar.

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