“Imagine Tomorrow – Change Today” on MOOCs

“Imagine Tomorrow – Change Today” on MOOCs

I was delighted to be invited by NUS Scotland  to guest blog on MOOCs this week. The issue I decided to address was what direction MOOCs might take, now that the hype about them has started to quiet down a bit… MOOCs have the potential to be a powerful tool for Access to Higher Education, but they can also be a very persuasive marketing agenda to attract new students in universities. So which direction will they head in? It’s a topic I’m keen to hear more discussion on, so I’m looking forward to any thoughts on the matter!

Scenarios for the future. What would education look like in 2025?

Earlier this year Goodison Group in Scotland and Scotland’s Futures Forum published a report “By 2025, Scotland will be regarded as a world-leading learning nation: Scenarios for the future”. The report is based on the evidence the authors collected through desk research, seminars, discussions, workshops and talks. The results show four possible scenarios of what our education system will look like in 2025.


Each of the above shows an extreme version of what could be our education system if we focus on a certain aspect of it. All scenarios show what the society looks like and how this affects the education – and how the education affects the society. Positives and negatives can be found in all possible futures… and the question remains –  what is the learning society Scotland is aiming for?

In each version of 2025 we can find a discussion on what schools, colleges and universities look like and how they respond to their learning societies. Looking at the report closer, we can also see where MOOCs fit in the picture.

Market-Driven Learning Society

Education is largely employer focused, universities have become private organisations responsible to shareholders, the focus is on transferrable skills and training in this is given from early education to University. The college sector has become redundant, no national strategy for vocational education which has led to it being operated by employers. There is no support for adult learners – part-time or full-time. Universities have become globally competitive and their reputation is built by the quality of the distance learning courses.

So – how would MOOCs look in a world like this? This is the only scenario that actually mentions MOOCs. In 2025 MOOCs are used as a marketing tool, allowing students to get a feel of what a course looks like before they enrol. However, in a society like this one, MOOCs can allow Scotland to restore its Access to HE agenda and provide people who would otherwise be unable to go to University continue to acquire knowledge in an area. If by 2025 MOOCs offered qualifications as well, they would have become a very big competition to the private Universities. However… would MOOCs remain free and how would the qualifications they offer compete in the market?

Local Learning Society

The focus is on equality and social justice. Lifelong learning and support for people who want to be in education are available to all. Scotland is not focused on what the rest of the world are doing, and is concerned only with how the education system serves the local community. Access to education is widely available with many links to Higher Education through colleges and learning hubs opened. Employers are supportive of lifelong learning initiatives and encourage employees to participate in such.

MOOCs are not mentioned in this scenario. In this possible future, student mobility and global awareness are not considered to be important. With so many opportunities for lifelong learning, perhaps MOOCs are not a necessity, although they could strengthen the initiatives and allow another way for the society to continuously develop. What MOOCs also bring is a huge international community – which might allow Scotland to open up slightly to the rest of the world as well.

Global Learning Society

In this extreme, the government is building the learning society. There is a big focus on research and lifelong learning is looked on as a way to boosting economy growth. Funding has been continuously targeted towards early years education and deprived areas, the college sector has close relationships with schools and HE and entrepreneurship is fostered. Scotland is recognised internationally for its education values.

In this society, concerns are being raised for social isolation because of the wider use of technology to deliver education. Although MOOCs are not mentioned at all in the scenario, they could also be one of the factors that has contributed to this. However, it is also possible that as Scotland has become internationally recognised for its provision, Scottish Universities can be also leading in their provision of Massive Open Online Courses and thus maintain and increase their profile, foster exchange and contribute to the global economy.

Divided Learning Society

This is the most gloom of all the proposed futures. In this society, there is a huge social divide and this has been accepted by both communities. There is a significant inequality existing in educational aspirations and opportunities between the rich and the poor. Support is offered locally, rather than nationally and there is a huge increase of health and mental issues in deprived areas. Education is often not an aspiration within the deprived communities.

As in the previous scenarios, MOOCs have the potential to help the society through an increased education provision. However, the unavailability of resources in deprived communities is a huge issue and the ones that would need this provision the most will not be able to take advantage of it.

Which of these futures do you think we are going towards? You can read about each one in more detail through the link provided at the top of this post.

Student Engagement… Online?

One of the aspects of most quality assurance review methods is to measure the student engagement. Depending on the method, reviewers look at what mechanisms for student engagement exist, how active is the student body, the student learning experience or simply monitoring attendance/drop-out rates/ withdrawal rates and etc.

Student engagement is not always easy to detect. As mentioned above, it can take place through different forms so it is not always very obvious. Many institutions are now striving to create better mechanisms for their students to be involved with the “behind-the-scenes” of their learning, and thus increase how much their students are engaged with them.

Another side of student engagement is the activity in the classroom. How much are students involved in their own education through directed and self-directed learning. How much are they getting out of a course, are they doing the minimum or look for opportunities to learn and do more. Monitoring student progression throughout the different stages of learning is now becoming very important in education. To some extent, it has always been there, in the form of stats and figures, but now institutions are looking for the why. Why aren’t students performing well on a course? Why have students decided to leave a course? Why have students decided to progress on the next level? Perhaps online learning has somewhat of a head start on this.

In traditional HE it is not easy to measure the levels of engagement in a class room, or even on assignments and work done away. Yes, to some extent the end result can be seen, as well as snapshots of the progression, but often the picture is not full.

When the learning is done fully online, the tutors have the ability to see a much more detailed story. Through an online learning platform the student engagement on a course can easily be monitored – what content do they engage with? Which parts of the course do they go through? How much time do they spend on different parts of the course? As already discussed, just monitoring is not enough. However understanding how each student, and the whole cohort, engages with the material they have been provided with can also allow tutors to act early and make changes/address issues as the programme runs

For example, if a student is not logging in and working through the materials for a week, the tutor can easily connect with the student and understand why they are not engaging with the online community. One might argue that this is no different to what happens in a traditional HE course, however when there are 100s of students in one class room it is not always so easy to spot those who are not regularly attending or are behind on their learning.

The ability to act instantly when one notices that not everyone is engaging with the materials is what could perhaps increase the quality of the student learning experience. Immediate and individually tailored support when needed – just imagine how much this can help deal with drop out rates and allow students to see how they can cope with the course better! This is where online learning has an advantage

However, this is true when it comes to SPOCs (Small Private Online Courses) or distance learning courses. But how can this be included in a MOOC? The answer may well be in the fact that MOOCs offer what other online (or not) courses can’t – a community or a forum of thousands of people doing the exact same course. Perhaps this ability to speak with such a large amount of other students, with various experiences and backgrounds, is an alternative way to offer this type of support.

What’s the craze about MOOCs?

Over the past year every Higher Education event, conference and seminar I have attended has had some sort of a discussion on MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). Key-note speakers, talks during the coffee breaks, presentations… the sector is truly buzzing.

And even though there is an incredible amount of talk on the topic, I still find people who are not very aware of it. I have to admit that the first time I heard about MOOCs I wasn’t terribly excited. However, very quickly I realised how much potential MOOCs have to change and develop our education systems.

In this post I intend to shed some light on what MOOCs are and why are so many people talking about them… and why you should too.

What is a MOOC?

 MOOC stands for Massive Open Online Course. A MOOC is essentially a fully online course, allows for unlimited participation and is open for access by anyone on the internet.  They offer a large community of students and peers, web sources and a distributed knowledge base. Because of this, MOOCs essentially promote great student engagement, independent learning and networking with other people interested in the subject.

This videos offers slightly more detail on what a MOOC is: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eW3gMGqcZQc

Essentially MOOCs are the most recent development in e-Learning. Utilising web resources, not physical contact time and fully online materials, contents, learning activities. The main difference between a MOOC and an online distance learning course is that a MOOC is not currently credited, while a distance learning course also includes assignments and can lead to a qualification. Both, however, offer learning through online materials and communities. While distance learning courses are limited to a number of participants, MOOCs are open to unlimited participation which can open up a very large forum of people, and a huge learning community.

Why is everyone talking about MOOCs?

The term MOOC was first mentioned in 2008 and the first MOOCs emerged from Open Educational Resources (1). 5 years later, MOOCs are regarded as “revolutionising”, “game-changer”, “worldwide phenomena”.

Why? It is already evident that they attract huge numbers of students. According to The Wall Street Journal, Coursera (the largest MOOC provider) has attracted 5 million students, edX – another provider – 1.3 million (2). The courses come from institutions such as Harvard, Stanford. MIT and so many more. They are also free. Imagine the possibilities – potential students trying out a subject before they enrol; Access to education; Life-long learning; no geographical obstacles.

Even mainstream media are now engaging with MOOCs. AMC‘s critically acclaimed TV show The Walking Dead, based on comic books of the same title, has started a MOOC entitled Society, Science, Survival: Lessons from AMC’s The Walking Dead (3). This is a great example of how open MOOCs really are.

What MOOCs offer is a huge choice of courses, communities and the possibility to study something that was previously unavailable to you. These are all great things. The big subject variety, the choice of providers and generally the availability of information are things that have the potential to change how we develop our current education system.

In this blog I will be posting about current issues and trends regarding MOOCs, what effects they are having on Higher Education, and providing regular press round ups. This post is the first of many to come, and provides an overview of what MOOCs are. I hope you will find the blog helpful and I am looking forward to your comments!


1.  http://davecormier.com/edblog/2008/10/02/the-cck08-mooc-connectivism-course-14-way/

2. http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303759604579093400834738972

3. http://www.wired.com/underwire/2013/09/walking-dead-mooc-online-course/