Africa: To Mooc or Not to Mooc? That Is the Question (and No, It Won't Be On the Test)

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MOOC is not yet a verb (surely only a matter of time). Rather it is an acronym for Massive Open Online Courses.

These are courses, offered free, with numbers of viewers in the tens of thousands. They are delivered typically by video and have online discussion boards and blogs to critique, expand and analyse. Platforms for MOOCs include Coursera, FutureLearn and edX.

We were lucky enough to have Jonathan Kydd, an IDS alumnus and now Dean of International Programmes at the University of London, come to talk to us this week about MOOCs.

They have a number of advantages for participants, including:

1. They are usually high quality (who wants to put their mediocre stuff out there for all to see?). Coursera's bold claim is "Take the World's Best Courses, Online, For Free"

2. They are made for social media-they can be embedded, tweeted, and shared easily --and then discussed. They are thought to lead to the building of knowledge networks

3. They can be participatory--with lots of feedback given on provided presentations and new additions to the learning materials provided by participants

4. They are a relatively low cost way (they are not free if they are using your time) of checking out a potential University or set of faculty

5. They help participants fit their learning in around other parts of their lives

They are not a substitute for a face to face set of interactions on a campus, but they are a complement (pre or post a traditional degree) and possibly an alternative. There are high drop out rates, but then the number of participants taking a final test for a certificate is very high compared to a traditional course.

Why on earth would universities or faculty want to give this stuff away for free?

1. It profiles the academics and the Universities. Look at what we do and how good we are at it. This is helpful to raise awareness and attract students, faculty and funding opportunities. Some observers think that the number of views of your MOOC might become an important element of the way academics and universities are evaluated for promotion and funding. (Would a MOOC viewed by 100,000 people contribute well to a REF Impact score?)

2. It raises the pedagogic standards--within the university (so that's how she/he does it!)

3. It helps spread ideas and viewpoints from the host university (meme anyone?)

4. It creates a wider learning network for your students who are perhaps also taking this course as one in 20 courses for a full time accredited degree

5. It is a way of getting in on the ground floor of something that might end up being really big ( a disruptive technology for higher education, as some say).

There are sceptics (see this Financial Times article from this week). Points include:

* MOOCS do not lead to greater employability -- still the key motive for first degrees

* technology/bandwidth is too big a barrier in many countries

* it is just froth--we will have forgotten about it in 18 months

* mass online=dumbed down material through new suppliers coming in with cheaper material

* it does not democratise learning, it concentrates content in the hands of the powerful

* it takes too many resources to set up a course (some estimate £25k)

* it perpetuates an American way of viewing the world (because so many of the first movers are American elite universities)

* they will not make money

* they will lead to stealing of intellectual property and rampant plagiarism

All valid concerns, but all--in principle-manageable, it seems to me. Indeed, many have managed it. And Open University have been delivering related models for a long time now (they are behind FutureLearn).

There is even a growing research programme around MOOCS (see an interesting example here).

Higher Education is changing fast (see an IPPR report published this week too). Like any new technology, MOOCs surely have the potential to be used for good teaching and learning.

Are they being used for teaching and learning in development? Have you MOOCed yet?

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