Escaping from the MOOC slipstream

Published Fri 19 Apr 2013
Leo Pollak argues that British universities will only realise the progressive potential of online education by marrying the interests of MOOCs and traditional academia.
Juncture: Online only

From the establishment of the University of London External System in 1858, through the birth of the WEAs in 1903 and the founding of the Open University (OU) in 1969, Britain boasts a rich heritage in progressive education reform that is the match of any country. It is perhaps with this history in mind that the absence in the digital era of a single globally influential education initiative originating from these shores stands out as an anomaly, despite the ambitious if misguided attempts of the early 2000s. Yet the imperative to push back against the educational inequalities that inhibit social mobility and the full realisation of people's capacities remains as strong as ever, as our higher learning institutions continue to play a critical role in shaping the lifecourse and opportunity structures of society.

As education online continues to innovate at a rapid pace, each new platform iteration presents new opportunities for the UK to restate the cultural impact of its universities at home and abroad and to realise a wide range of educational, economic and social goals in new ways. As I argued five years ago, the emerging forms of open courseware (free-to-use, IP-cleared online publications of university course materials) presented an enormous progressive opportunity for British higher education to establish a new competitive and cooperative platform from which to drive up teaching standards and better fit the variety of teaching and learning styles among British citizens and, perhaps most critically, to apply the Open University principle almost universally by allowing all citizens a new right of access to the university examination and certification system.

Sir Michael Barber and his colleagues from the Pearson thinktank restate much of this case in a rich and nuanced account of the technological and economic pressures facing higher education. They argue that the rise of 'massive open online courses' - or MOOCs, essentially open courseware modules on steroids, complete with enlightened design interaction and a variety of proctored testing and certification options - together with a proliferation of for-profit education providers threaten to unleash an 'avalanche' of change that could render much of the long tail of British universities obsolete. Where content is ubiquitous, the value of a degree as a positional good is falling, and £9,000-a-year tuition fees are raising student expectations, the 20th century model of the British universities will fail to meet the competitive challenge. They subsequently argue for a progressive 'unbundling' of content delivery from universities (with learners drawing on a curated pool of instructors teaching on a MOOC platform) and a subsequent 'rebundling', with the new 'value added' of universities coming principally from mentorship, the campus experience and labour market entry.

Given the radical changes to the funding base and research orientation of higher education over the past decade and a half, there is understandable scepticism within UK academia about the intentions and implications of the new MOOC platforms, particularly the venture capital-backed Udacity and Coursera platforms. (The third major MOOC platform - edX, a Pearson-built platform initiated by Harvard and MIT - is the sole not-for-profit provider of the three.) Yet, as the OU leads the development of a new UK MOOC response, as part of a consortium of British universities, there are two key lessons (and subsequent policy cues) to heed from the successes and failures of past and present online education offerings.

The first is that each of the MOOC platforms began as teacher-led initiatives. They were each the product of leading teacher-researchers driven by a passion to share the methods and concepts of their discipline as widely as possible, adopting a disposition that privileged the wider human benefit of their work over the pleasures that come with being part of a cloistered knowledge elite. The same can be said for Brian Cox's extraordinarily successful efforts to raise the profile of physics among the wider public here in the UK. Any teacher in the UK who wishes to expand their classroom and earn a wider audience should be able to do so as easily as possible and with assurances that any accompanying reuse and revenue-generating licences remain with their maker. This approach should underscore a renewed case for a UK MOOC offering that devolves the clearance of IP to either the faculty or teacher, while making the uploading of lectures and course notes as efficient as possible, with default and customisable user interfaces that emphasise the simplicity and directness of the teaching. Able demonstrations are provided by the hugely popular Khan Academy and current leading MOOC platform Coursera.

While the moment is ripe for bold experimentation, the appetite for learning is generalised and often serendipitous. So the second lesson is that the scope of previous online education offerings has been constrained by over-tailored targeting based on a predefined idea of who the user is. The intermediate-level managed learning of the OU's OpenLearn courses (categorised under 'Body and Mind', 'History and the Arts', 'Money and Management', and so on) arguably established a model that overlooked the diversity of learning impulses that online education can capture, while stymying the demand for learner autonomy and pedagogic range that mark the most popular and effective experiments elsewhere. While the forthcoming UK MOOC offering has great potential, the FutureLearn brand moniker (being oriented more towards the manager than the user) doesn't bode well in this regard.

A faculty and citizen-oriented MOOC platform (most likely adapted from edX technology) can offer the prospect of British university course materials being opened to the wider public in both simple and experimental forms, while working as a useful countervailing measure against the enclosures that emerge in the wake of growing financial and market influences on the sector. With universities likely to assume a more, not less, important role in positioning the British economy to benefit the next generation of workers and entrepreneurs - alongside an enhanced social status (assuming a strong UK MOOC offering that achieves real cultural traction) - the argument should now be made for treating higher education as a priority national asset in the upcoming spending review.

An honest appraisal of the shortcomings of past approaches and a creative drive that draws on the transformative potential of MOOCs can best uphold and expand collegiate values while liberating the energies of British teachers and learners.

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