MOOCs – Distance Learning Done Badly?

Long ago, in the dim distant past, when mobile phones were the size of suitcases and browsers were just people looking around a shop I studied using distance learning materials. It was the 1980s, and I was serving in the Army. I studied with the UK’s Open University and did a number of modules in science and maths. There were no entrance qualifications, and one of the OU’s goals was to make university-level education available to as many people as possible. The only ‘entrance’ restrictions, if we can call them that, were that you paid fees and you had to study foundation modules before moving on to study higher levels. The foundation courses assumed no prior knowledge and minimal or dormant study skills, and taught to that demographic bringing everyone up to the level where they could tackle more advanced courses. The materials were multimedia – they used TV, text, audio cassettes, workbooks, and practical kits, and their quality was excellent. The books the S330 Oceanography course team created were recommended reading when I studied marine biology at a conventional university. Lalli and Parson’s Biological Oceanographyfrom that course is on reading lists at the university where I now work. I still look at the materials I create or use now and ask myself ‘are these OU quality?’. The TV programmes were on Saturday mornings and at other, less sociable hours, and these both publicised the OU and drew people in. One of the reasons I enrolled with the OU was because I’d watched the TV programmes.

I loved studying with the OU. I measured the distance to the moon using a variant of this method. I explored the population dynamics of insects using holly leaves collected from a local wood. I calculated the valency of elements on the kitchen table using the experiment kits. I stared fascinated down a geology microscope at the beauty of thin rock sections under polarising light. I even enjoyed the assessments. There were questions within the texts and at the end of sections to check understanding. I submitted my TMAs (Tutor marked assessments), which came back not only with a mark, but with rich and detailed feedback. CMAs (computer marked assessments) were multiple choice, which I answered by putting a line through the letter for the correct answer and posting the sheet for the computer to scan and mark. When I the time came for my first exam, I was on active service. My unit pulled me out of the field, transported me to the assessment centre, I took the exam and then did the reverse journey and went back out on patrol. It’s certainly one way to put exam nerves in perspective, but not a technique I could really recommend :-). In fact, it was the attitude of my next unit to my studies that was a major reason in my decision to leave the army, but that’s a different story.

In later courses, I joined study groups and attended tutorials, and of course, the residential summer schools. These were a week at a conventional university using their labs and facilities, and where breakfasts could be livened up by ‘people watching’ to see who came down with who, or which pair, apparently inseparable during the rest of the summer school, made a point of coming down to breakfast separately.

So why this nostalgia? Well, it seems to me that the current crop of MOOCs such as Coursera and Udacity, for all the hype they’ve received, are trying to achieve similar aims to the OU, only with different technology and a few decades later. They make claims that they’re open and that anyone can study with them, which is true to an extent, but I question whether a MOOC student without well-developed learning skills would be able to study these courses effectively. There is no ramping up of study skills, and partly that’s due to the length of these courses, but it’s also down to bad pedagogy as I’ve explored in other posts. The forums quite often have a number of posts from students about to drop the course because they find themselves out of their depth, and those students are probably a minority compared to those that silently give up.

The learning design (in the MOOCs I’ve enrolled on) is mostly based on the transmit content and test model. The test can usually be taken a number of times, but feedback tends to be minimal, especially if students need to achieve a particular mark to gain a certificate of completion. Udacity has a better approach to formative assessment with in-video quizzes liberally scattered through the presentations. There’s no real collaboration around making sense of the content, there’s no real conversation to use Laurillard’s model. It’s as if the OU, rather than creating its own materials, simply posted a textbook to the student, scheduled an exam for the end of the academic year and left students to talk amongst themselves if they wanted to. We wouldn’t expect that approach to work offline, so why is it suddenly thought to be a viable model when moved online? And not just viable, but innovative and disruptive? Online learning has a huge role to play in the future of higher education, but not using the model of the Coursera-style MOOCs, which although having solved the problem of scale, has lost much of what we already knew worked well.


My last couple of posts may have come across as me being critical of MOOCs. I’m not, although I do have criticisms around how some of the MOOCs are implemented and whether they’re as disruptive and innovative as they claim to be, but I’ll save those thoughts for another post. I like MOOCs and just to prove the point, I’ve started another three this week: Computing for Data Analysis, Social Network Analysis  and Writing in the Sciences, making a total of four courses. Actually, it would be five if I’d ever started the Introduction to Sustainability course as well. Luckily, the workload will drop over the next two or three weeks as courses end, but I’m feeling a little like the MOOC dial has been turned all the way up to eleven, so I may drop a course if it proves too much.

Writers are told that if they want to write well they need to read voraciously, so should I want to ‘write’ a MOOC in the future ‘reading’ so many is a positive advantage. Coursera as a brand isn’t a monolithic whole – the way that each course is presented varies quite a lot. In one course I’m doing the videos are basically presentations with an audio soundtrack and a short ‘talking head’ sequence at the start. In Statistics One, the videos show the instructor (tablet and stylus in hand) and the slides in the background which the video cuts away to when necessary. Some courses have certificates of completion while others don’t. In some the discussions in the forums are a key pedagogical feature, while in others the forums function more like a helpdesk. The Social Network Analysis course steps outside the Coursera box by having its own Twitter account.

A new feature I’ve noticed this week is the concept of late days. Each student has a number of late days that they can spend on extending the deadline for an assignment, which means no more missed deadlines because Saturday is going to be taken up with Aunty Ethel’s birthday party. This is great because it’s such a simple concept, and shows how online learning should take account of a student as a human being, a person with a real life of normality enlivened with the occasional triumph and disaster. It takes account of the student beyond their existence as an educational entity and allows flexibility in the course to accommodate that. So this week, I’d like to finish on a positive note: a round of applause for late days please.