The Great MOOC Debate

Once of the wonderful Profs I am currently doing a MOOC course with asked us to share our thoughts on the MOOC debate that is currently  making itself heard in the media and tertiary education facilities the world over.  The Prof works at a well established and highly reputable university in the US and posed questions in regards to how we might have been influenced by media commentary, how innovative and revolutionary the idea was, and if we thought the money to establish a MOOC was worth spending.  He was looking for us to share our thoughts and experiences rather than an academic essay on the topic. Here are my thought;

My feeling toward MOOCs is not influenced in any way by media based conversations. I didn’t know there were any media based conversations goIng on until I started taking a US based MOOC. I don’t live in the US, obviously, but nor do I currently live in an English speaking country and so the news I get is always online, and usually British based. Of course, I went straight to the internet to discover what this media conversation was all about and was very surprised at the furor it all seemed to be evoking. On-line, or distance learning, has been around for years so how is it an innovation and what’s the problem? In my mind a MOOC is just an online course that is suddenly available to a larger number of people. Perhaps the US is just playing catch up and this is a little threatening to those that do not want to change the status quo, or those that want to retain a stranglehold on access to education.

In the outback of Australia there have been children doing their entire educations using a distance learning curriculum for over a hundred years.

The idea of correspondence lessons for children originated in Australia as a means of meeting the quest to provide educational facilities in sparsely populated areas of the country. New South Wales was the first to adopt the method at least in theory during the 1880’s as part of their operation of half time schools. Teachers in their absence from their two respective schools were required to leave lessons for ‘the continuance of learning’. However, existing evidence suggests the theory did not become practice in this context. In effect, it was not until 1908 with the emergence of travelling schools that correspondence lessons were incorporated as part of a learning regime. (1)

The practice continues to this day, of course the digital innovations now means these children do their classes via the internet. These children often go on to university and have been in no way disadvantage academically. No provision is made to assess them differently in order for them to attend university. They are assessed in exactly the same way as a student attending a school in a suburban or city setting.

I have as number of degrees and graduate/post graduate qualifications as I was fortunate enough to be born in a time, and place, that initially offered a free university education to those that could pass the entrance exams. My first degree was free and whilst the topic area was something I never pursued it served a very important purpose. It opened new doors, inspired a love of learning, and allowed me to see what was really available and how much I loved learning it. I have continually gone back to university, sadly no longer free but worth every penny I paid, in order to pursue that need to learn. My child also saw me constantly learning and grew up believing that everyone went to university and made sacrifices to go there. She too managed to complete three degrees by the tender age of 27. One of those qualifications was undertaken as an on-line course, yes it had a practical component, but the majority of the course was online and she loved it. I believe that she too will continue to return to the university throughout her life to gain knowledge.

I was also fortunate enough to be born in a well-developed country and a country that valued education and made it available to everyone, even today at a reasonable cost. There are few people in Australia that can use, ‘it’s too expensive’ as an excuse to not attend university if that is what they wish to do. Yes, there may be a debt at the end, but it is usually a reasonably manageable debt, nothing on the lines of the costs involved in many other nations.

There will always be a need for those great ivory towers and I believe they have a huge part to play in education, but they should not be available only to those born in the right place or to the most affluent. I now choose to work in third world countries trying to inspire the students I teach to develop a love of learning too. Many of those that I teach will never be able to attend a university, or get a legitimate degree, but through MOOC s they will be able to access the knowledge that is so often only shared in a university setting.

MOOCs allow students in less developed countries to access westernised education and are a wonderful inspiration for learning. I talk to them about MOOC courses, the ones that I take and the ones they could take, and about the wonderful things I, and they, can learn and discover. They are inspired both by being able to access such courses and by a teacher that still studies. Sharing of knowledge and developing a love of learning will have a long term effect on some of these students both in their own lives and in the development of their countries. The MOOCs allow people access to teachers that are passionate about the work they do and that they are willing to share this work with everyone, not just those that can afford to pay to attend their institution, is a wonderful thing. I am so inspired by so many of the teachers I have ‘met’ through MOOC type courses and I live in hope that they will grow in number. I believe that MOOCs greatest benefit is that they will help to inspire and develop a love of learning and so they should be encouraged. I think the time, energy, and expense that universities are investing is worth every penny. In this digital age MOOCs are a way ahead and education and knowledge should be available to everyone.

The media debate that is raging in the US, perhaps in other places too but I have not researched the issue, seems to be raising all sorts of spurious questions. David Brooks in his article the Campus Tsunami (21012)  posed some of these questions.

Will online learning diminish the face-to-face community that is the heart of the college experience? …. How much communication is lost — gesture, mood, eye contact — when you are not actually in a room with a passionate teacher and students? (2)

Today, the majority of MOOC style courses incorporate a wealth of teaching tools, including video, so gesture, mood and eye contact (of a sort) are present. A passionate teacher can teach equally passionately to a camera as they can to a room full of people. Passion transfers well on film, if it didn’t the movie and advertising industry would have gone broke long ago. And I would argue that being face to face, or in the same room, with people is not a necessary ingredient to developing community. From my experience the community that develops in online course can be very strong and stands the test of time and distance. As long as the course leader is passionate and engaged that spirit is somehow imposed on the class and no matter how big the forum the students bond. I would further argue that the bond might be even stronger with an online community than it may be in a ‘college experience.’ People in online communities are judged by different criteria and that may be beneficial and in many cases better than the face to face ‘college experience.’ Your thoughts, beliefs and talk are your criteria for assessment, not your external appearance. Being one of the ‘beautiful people’ or the ‘in-crowd people’ is no longer relevant.

One other interesting question raised in the Brooks article bears comment. ‘If a few star professors can lecture to millions, what happens to the rest of the faculty?’ Do students deserve to be taught by someone who is not passionate, not invested, and not interested in their subject is, I think, a more pertinent question. Having been a student many times in my life I would argue that I really only learned from the passionate, engaged and invested teacher. If a faculty member does not fit the criteria then perhaps they need to find another profession. There is no room for mediocre in the world of education.

1. Dubbo School of Distance Education

2. Brooks, D. (2012) The Campus Tsunami. The New York Times (Opinion Pages)

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