MOOCs – A Sceptics First Experience.

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March 8, 2015 by Doug Napolitano-Cremin

The acronym MOOC stands for, ‘Massive open online course’. Put simply, MOOCs are free, open courses delivered by various institutions online. The format of these courses vary but they often employ the use of a range of media to teach users about a particular subject. A useful introduction to MOOCs can be found in this Guardian article.

They have been touted by some as the future of education. We will soon have no need for teachers or establishments like schools. We will all be able to learn whatever we want, whenever we want and wherever we want. Apparently!

My views on this are very similar to those expressed by Derek Muller (@veritasium) in his video, ‘This Will Revolutionize Education‘ (see below). I consider the social element of education, the interactions that occur between pupil and pupil, and the interaction between pupil and teacher, to be an important factor in the learning process. As useful a tool as technology can be, I don’t believe that it can be a replacement for the important human element of education. A naive point of view, maybe, but I have yet to see anything that has persuaded me otherwise.

It was therefore with a sceptical mind that I enrolled on an online course with – a website run by MIT and Harvard universities offering courses from a range of institutions from around the world. I chose an education-focused course as I am always eager to find ways to improve my practice and if I can do that for free – even better!

The course I enrolled on was called ‘Leaders of Learning’. The introduction material detailed that during the course I would think about what my own personal theory of learning is and my ideas about how learning occurs. I would then be able to use these ideas to think about different types of leadership and the types of organisations that I may be drawn to as a result of my own ideas about learning.

By the end of my course, I have to admit that I was definitely won over. I am a sucker for a prestigious institution and being able to hear from lecturers who normally occupy the ‘exclusive’ lecture theatres of Harvard University without having to leave the house was definitely a thrilling experience. The course material did live up to the star billing of the provider. The videos and materials that were provided were engaging and informative. The case studies I read inspired new ideas and I was introduced to a number of resources (such as the Teaching Channel) that I continue to use long after the course completed.

As well as the resources, the content of the course was interesting and kept me coming back every week to complete the readings and assignments that were set. One of the best things about the course was that it featured numerous videos of several educators from around the world. It was really interesting hearing from people who had different levels of experience and who work in different educational settings. The course did not give me all the answers, but it did what I believe most of the best courses do, it left me asking myself better and more focused questions then I was asking before.

After my first MOOC experience, I still believe we need teachers (not surprising considering my personal bias!) and I still believe in the power of a physical school building where learning can take place. I do however recognise the role that MOOCs could play in certain elements of education. In an era where it can be very difficult for teachers to ‘escape’ their schools for a day or two, the MOOC could be an incredibly powerful tool for teacher CPD. The possible materials available to you and the fact that many of these courses are free of charge are huge advantages. You are not limited to attending meetings/lectures/tutorials at particular times and you are not affected by the distance of the providers from you. My own personal experience over the last few years has shown me that there is a trend within schools for staff to have more choice in the training that they take part in and on the content of the INSET sessions that they attend. Being able to choose which courses you become involved in could e very powerful in the future if MOOCs are used in teacher CPD. The choice of providers is not huge by any measure, but it is continuing to expand. The ability to opt-in and out depending on your circumstances is another benefit of the MOOC model. Many of the courses on also provide official accreditation that can be used as evidence of completion of the course. Some of these do require the payment of a minimum fee but informal evidence was also offered free of charge.

Overall I have learnt that MOOCs do have a place in education, but I believe mainly in post-secondary education. It is the open-access nature of MOOCs that I believe is particularly beneficial. They can provide experiences to people that would usually be closed to them. They may be only a fraction of an experience compared to studying in the physical environments of these institutions, but they could provide the inspiration and the impetus for people to pursue education in all of its forms.

A revolution in education? I think not. However, MOOCs could provide us with incredible opportunities to reach people who would previously be beyond our grasp and inspire in people a love of learning. And isn’t that one of our ultimate goals as a teacher? For our pupils to leave us wanting to learn more about the world. To leave us asking better questions about themselves and the world around them.

My notes from the Leaders of Learning course can be found on my Evernote page here.

I have signed up to another online course, ‘Assessment for Learning in STEM teaching’ which is due to start April 2015. Have a look at more details about this course here.


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