The demise of a traditional university learning environment has been predicted for many years, yet still they exist in their varying glories; from the traditional to the new, the small to the large, the grandiose to the ϋber-contemporary. We have been told that the days of the physical university are over since the start of the Open University 42 years ago, and when the World Wide Web became such a profound source of information (still less than 20 years old as far as most users are concerned) that surely meant the death-knell for traditional learning – why crawl out of bed at a designated time and travel to a physical location when you could download the information at a time that suited you? There are many arguments for why people still like physical learning, and that is not my discussion for this piece – I want to focus upon the latest chapter in the battle between the physical and virtual learning worlds; the Massive Open Online Course (that’s MOOC to me and you).
MOOCs are the next big thing in education; the ability to package together learning and provide it to tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people simultaneously – and for free. That’s right, learning without paying for it. Join a course for free, get all of the information and the course study materials virtually, designed by some of the finest minds in the world… who could possibly argue with that? Certainly not me, I think that is the great part – I’m a firm believer that education is the greatest thing there is and everyone should make every effort to educate themselves in as many ways as possible. MOOCs have the ability to help people broaden their knowledge base and anyone who thinks that is a bad thing is an idiot. Yes, there are issues that still need to be resolved with regard to the cost – after all, there is no such thing as a free lunch. At the moment MOOCs are free because they do not produce a recognised qualification and so the requirements for marking of exams, coursework, etc., are not factored in. Once you do that then someone has to pay for it, and so costs will be incurred, but probably still at a lower level than traditional university fees. (I might as well add what I think is the other reason MOOCs are currently free at the moment – they’re building a market in the same way that you give a free taster of your product, it’s a simple psychological business tactic).
‘Sign me up’ I hear you cry – especially those faced with a lifetime of debts from attending university in the future, particularly if the MOOCs start providing recognised qualifications. But there is a down-side; there always is. MOOCs have a negative side, and a potentially devastating element to them for a number of people.
Virtual Studying: Not for the faint-hearted
Virtual studying is hard… I know, I’ve studied for degrees at a physical university and the Open University, and the OU degree was tougher to do. Not the work but the motivation, the isolation, the feeling that you are on your own and that studying comes second to work. ‘Study in your own time’ is a great slogan but much harder to put into practice, particularly when you consider the length of time it can take to complete a degree (2 years minimum full pelt, 3/4 years average full-time and 7/8 years part-time). It is a massive commitment, and things can happen that make studying take second (or third, fourth or fifth) place in your life. It is easy to let things slide, you can disappear from your course and no-one knows. That is why the OU has such a high drop-out rate – it is not their fault, they have plenty of support there for those who seek it, but it is easy not to seek it. Many people need someone there to give them that shove they need to get over the finishing line and the sheer size of MOOCs means that it is unlikely anyone will be there to help with that.
Students helping students?
In a massive course of tens of thousands of people there is no way to provide any sort of ‘personalised’ guidance for study. A generic email/guest appearance in a chat-room is the best you could possibly expect from the tutors. So, who can students turn to in order to understand the material when they are stuck? Step up you fellow students who can help each other… except there is a bit of a problem with this. As in all walks of life, some people are complete dicks and students are no exception to this rule. I have never got involved in the online ‘study rooms’ provided by the OU but have looked in on them for each course I have done and, without exception, they follow a similar pattern; students start discussing things, a couple of students decide to impress the rest by showing how knowledgeable they are and how stupid the rest are, everyone else gets pissed off and the study room turns into the dicks trying to outdo each other in pretentious dickishness. And that is in a study room of 30 students – multiply that by 1000 and imagine what it will be like (but pass me the popcorn, I want to watch it happen).
Want to leave? Here’s 10,000 to take your place
You’ve created the best MOOC out there – 200,000 people have signed up to your course (that is not an exaggeration, some courses have those sort of numbers). Apply a standard attrition rate of 5 – 10% (it will probably be higher, virtual courses tend to have higher rates, but we’ll work with the standard physical university rates) and that is 10,000 – 20,000 people not making it through the course. But that would be pretty much acceptable because that’s still 80 – 90%, tens of thousands, who will continue. What about those 20,000 though? They are not just numbers, they are people. To misquote Stalin, the withdrawal of one student is a tragedy, the withdrawal of tens of thousands a statistic. No-one will care, except for the poor individuals who experience the failure. That is not my idea of encouraging education.
If MOOCs work for some, what about the rest?
There will always be physical universities. They may have to change to meet the demands placed upon them in a new technological society, but they will be there. For the rich, the talented, maybe but nothing will destroy them completely. What about for the average university student though? Not rich; not a genius; but someone who wants to engage, to learn, to improve themselves in their knowledge, abilities, and career prospects. If MOOCs do enough damage to the physical university system and lead to less places then all that is left for many of these students is the MOOC. This changes the MOOC model from being one of choice to one of necessity, regardless of whether this would benefit the student or not. I have worked with a number of students who needed the close attention that we could give them in a small university environment, and they achieved because of this. Take this opportunity away from them and it is highly likely that some of them would not have got their degrees, or would not have done as well on them as they did. It does not make them less knowledgeable about their subject when they leave, it just means that they needed or used what we gave them. Take that away from some people and you truly change their outcomes.
The MOOC argument and the academic catch-22
Academics from all areas, all universities, all FE colleges, all schools, need to be involved in this discussion; it is the very future of education that we are talking about. However, it is a hard debate for us all to have. Anyone from a university such as mine who criticises MOOCs will immediately be met with the argument that we are negative about MOOCs because they will cost us our jobs. It is a hard argument to counter – all I can say from a personal point of view is that I think I’ll be ok, so MOOCs don’t threaten me personally. Nevertheless, we are the ones on the ground who see the potential impacts of MOOCs. I can see the good and the bad side to them, and that puts me in a pretty ambivalent position – the potential to educate many, but also the potential to fail many at the same time.
MOOCs have their place, as do physical universities. However, we need to make sure that they work side-by-side to produce the best possible outcomes for the education of as many people as possible. Adversity will only lead to damage; to the systems but, more importantly, to the generations who will come after us and be stuck with the systems we create. It is very difficult to undo what is done and so we should not rush to embrace in an all-encompassing way these changes just because we can. We need to include as many people as possible in the discussion, to listen to all sides of the argument, and not draw battle-lines of physical versus virtual. This is about people, not statistics.