Traitor to the cause? Why I wrote a MOOC

After I handed in my notice, I could have let things wind down gradually. The Open University requires a long notice period, six months, but unlike brick universities it doesn’t have just a couple of days in each year on which you are allowed to go, so I could pick my time. However, I delayed this because I received an offer I couldn’t refuse: I was approached to write a six-week, three hours per week, MOOC. As a result, because I’ve added MOOC-writing to my daily pattern of work, the last few months have been exhausting and exhilarating, in roughly equal measure. However, not everyone approves of MOOCs. Why not, and why do I?

MOOCs – the next chapter?

Shortly after I started working for The Open University, MOOCs – free, Massive Open Online Courses – were touted as the future of education. When, in 2012, the Open University announced the consortium of universities (now expanded, and including institutions) that constitutes FutureLearn, the then-VC announced that they were going to be the ‘the next chapter in the story of British higher education’. FutureLearn was by no means the earliest platform to offer MOOCs – Coursera and edX, for example, were there first – but it has learned from what they do well or not so well, and has proved particularly successful, recently passing the 5,000,000 students mark.

The FutureLearn design is engaging: short ‘steps’ comprising around 750 words of text or a mix of text and video, building up into units representing an hour’s work (‘activities’), with a week’s work typically made up of three activities. Every single step has a discussion forum, and although there’s no obligation to talk to other learners, many do. There are normally multiple-choice ‘formative’ quizzes which simply enable you to see how you are doing along the way – and a ‘summative’ test at the end, which counts if you want to pass the course. When writing, we set clear learning outcomes and have to explain how each step contributes to these. Some older MOOCs on the first platforms to launch looked just like traditional learning, but recorded. For me, a FutureLearn MOOC beats hands-down the old model of an ‘online lecture’ in which you listened to someone speaking for an hour. I don’t learn in that distant way, and I’m not unusual in this.

Those in traditional universities have argued that what students really want isn’t online learning, but traditional lectures backed up with some optional online resources. However, this is missing the point. The MOOC learner is often a very different sort of person, and the MOOC is a different sort of learning experience carried out for different personal goals. (Since originally writing this blog post I’ve discovered there are categories of learner, like ‘fixers’ who just want to find out a specific thing, or ‘advancers’ whose main interest is to progress their career)

Why MOOCs?

Before England raised university tuition fees, and also made registration for a degree a condition for receiving a student loan, many people took the odd module here and there with The Open University. Over the years – and sometimes decades – they would add in more modules and then perhaps put them together and make them into a degree. It was a gentle, organic process. A 60-credit module, which would take you a year, cost maybe £650: now it would cost you around £2,700 for an Arts and Humanities subject. In this new world, doing a degree has become a serious initial commitment rather than something to be explored slowly. It now matters to The Open University that students ideally complete their qualification in 6 or 7 years of part-time study: in the previous system, it was fine to take decades. I remember the first OU graduation ceremony I attended (an inspiring experience), where the previous VC asked every student how long it had taken them, and announced the longest period at the end – 40 years. There was massive applause!

Where do MOOCs fit in? The original idea was that these free courses would entice people straight into formal, paid-for, learning. Some have been designed specifically to bridge the gap between school and university, or between undergraduate and Masters’ level work. But many learners (the FutureLearn word for students) are more like the leisure learner who used to be the staple of The Open University Arts modules. The majority have a degree already. These people, retired or not working, but wanting to keep their minds active, can’t afford the OU any more, but they love to learn, and not just in the subject of their original degree (if they have one). I think I’ll be joining their ranks once I retire. Indeed, I already have!

Becoming a learner

I’ve taken various MOOCs in preparation for writing one; I started with the excellent World War I: Trauma and Memory and then took the Brexit MOOC (which was being written as events unfolded – a challenging model!) before dipping into some language, health and history courses. I’ve mixed courses where I already know something (it’s interesting to see how well a Lead Educator summarises complex scholarly literature) with ones where I previously knew nothing (everyone needs to be challenged!). I’m currently taking the Hadrian’s Wall MOOC which some of our students have very much enjoyed; a long time ago, I taught a Roman Britain course, and I wish this MOOC had been around then.

As part of being a learner, I’ve discovered how clicking on fellow learners’ profiles reveals the extent of the appetite for education which MOOCs – rather than OU modules – are now feeding. It’s very much an international appetite, so those writing MOOCs are encouraged to make sure that their prose is appropriate for those with English as a second language. Many learners have taken dozens of MOOCs across very different subject areas and, on the discussion forums, they may greet each other as old friends. Their profiles, visible to other learners, are on the lines of ‘I took early retirement in 2003; I have tried to keep my brain active with OU courses while I could, and now MOOCS’. Fuller stories from learners confirm the presence of those trying to ‘keep their brains active’ but demonstrate how many other motivations there are, and how this varies between subject areas.

MOOCs as the enemy

There is understandable resistance to MOOCs within the OU, but I think some of this is misplaced. MOOCs were sold to us as a way into formal higher education, and that hasn’t happened yet. Maybe it never will. So, at present, MOOCs still require a lot of OU investment (in a climate in which other areas of our operation are being cut). This is clearly a major issue.

Perhaps even more importantly, they rely on the community of learners to talk among themselves, rather than having an experienced person overseeing things – in OU-speak, this is the AL (Associate Lecturer), also known as the tutor. She or he is a named individual in the subject field with whom you can meet face-to-face in your area, and who keeps in touch by email, phone, Skype and online forums. A tutor will be responsible for a group of maybe 20 students. Your tutor is with you for an entire 60-credit module, so you will form a much closer bond than with a module tutor in a brick university where, typically, modules are only 20 credits long. Your tutor knows you and you know them. They’ll help with study skills and motivation and will also first-mark your work.

There’s nothing comparable in a MOOC. MOOCs on the FutureLearn platform are typically checked 24/7 for abusive language, but otherwise are monitored in a light-touch way, with real human beings just looking for any problem with the material or any point raised by lots of learners; for example, if one comment on a forum is ‘liked’ by a large number of students. The numbers make anything else impractical; with 500 or so comments being made in a few days, it would take ages to respond to them all. So a MOOC is nothing like an OU course with its historic close tie between each student and their named tutor who guides them through the printed or online material, supports their study and grades their work.

The lack of a tutor is part of what keeps MOOCs free at the point of delivery. You can buy a ‘certificate of achievement’ to prove you did the MOOC, but that only requires ticking 90% of the materials as ‘completed’ and scoring over 70% in a short multiple-choice, computer-marked test at the end. Other than that entirely-optional extra, there’s no cost for the learner. For a MOOC ever to become credit-bearing it would need more human contact, in support and in grading work, and that has to be paid for. So far, very few MOOCs are going in this direction; at the OU, it is happening in Business Studies, but the cost of the assessment module which will convert eight MOOCs into 30 credits of a degree is £699.

MOOCs cost a lot of money to set up. It isn’t just the writing (I’ve been blessed by two collaborators, from whom I’ve learned a great deal, who are as keen as I am to explore what a MOOC can be); it’s the filming, the rights to the images, and the staff time of all those who arrange this, who advise on and then edit the text, and who get it all online. Yes, a MOOC once written can be run more than once, but the initial investment is staggering.

But so are the numbers. Thousands may enrol for each presentation of a course. However, the flip side is that the drop-out rate is very high indeed, partly because people sign up for free, and then feel no commitment to struggle on through weeks when the rest of life takes over (my attempts to brush up my Italian went that way…). In an OU module, you make a commitment by enrolling, and your tutor can then help you find a way through, but none of that personal contact exists in the MOOC model.

Me and my MOOC

For me, there are both personal and institutional reasons to join in with the MOOC movement. Personally, I want to talk to more people and make them excited about the ancient world. I wrote a little book on ancient medicine some years back, but a MOOC enables me potentially to reach a far larger audience. I’ve also been able to collaborate again with two of my favourite colleagues, Patty Baker at Kent and Laurence Totelin at Cardiff. We worked together in the past to produce a paper on pedagogy, sharing our experiences of teaching some of the trickier aspects of ancient medicine, so I knew how they would enrich the MOOC with their different expertise and their openness to new ways of teaching.

In terms of The Open University, I believe that leading a MOOC is an important way of showing that that we are here, and that we offer an undergraduate degree and a Master’s in Classical Studies (as well as many other degrees in which you can take Classical Studies modules).

Most of all, I believe that offering MOOCs is part of our mission to bring learning to all people, a mission that extends beyond what is already available on OpenLearn. OpenLearn is free and open to all, but it doesn’t include interaction with other human beings, or any self-testing. Yes, today, learners could simply read and search the internet for themselves, but the structure of ‘taking a course’ can be very important in encouraging learning. Learners also have lots of life experience to bring to the new topics they pick up, and an environment in which this is shared with fellow learners – even just on an unmoderated discussion – will benefit everyone.

Update: ‘My’ MOOC, Health and Wellbeing in the Ancient World, went live for the first run in February 2017. It attracted 7000 learners. That’s at the small end of the scale for a FutureLearn MOOC, apparently. It felt like a lot, though! In the weeks leading up to that, it was wonderful getting tweets from people who were as excited to be enrolling on it as we were to write it. And I was delighted to have been able to do this in my last months of employment. Subsequent runs have attracted 3000-4000 people and the sixth run is in June 2019. That’s a lot of people who’ve been introduced to the topic!

Traitor to the cause? I don’t think so.

6 thoughts on “Traitor to the cause? Why I wrote a MOOC

  1. I like MOOCs. Long before anything was done with FutureLearn, I took a few MOOCs with Coursera. I’m bad at finishing them these days, but I still occasionally sign up. I may well sign up for this one. I absolutely agree that one of the things they are very good for is providing for the hobbyist students that the OU has priced out of its market, people who want a more structured learning experience than can be provided by reading a book, but who don’t particularly want to get another qualification.

    My objections are to the misuse of MOOCs, to those who advance them as a valid replacement for the conventional degree. They can’t, because the model doesn’t allow for the support that students sometimes need from their staff. Peer assessment can’t be moderated, and without fair moderation and recourse for students, it can’t be used as a basis for accreditation. MOOCs can only work as replacements for degree courses if large numbers of adjunct staff are taken on to support and assess students – at which point the MOOC becomes indistinguishable from the distance learning that the OU already offers.


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