EdTech Opinion

I’m Making a MOOC

I was never been a fan of MOOCs or what they represented when they first arrived. During 2012, which was apparently the year of the MOOC, I was a pretty vocal opponent to what was taking place. The hype around disruption and the injection of venture capital only added to chaos that the education sector, from K-12 through to Higher Education, was going already in as governments pulled back funding and kept setting higher expectations for less money. The fluster that happened as University Presidents from elite institutions started to get FOMO and jumped on board with the VC funded hype machines and “discovered” what distance and open education providers around the world had been doing for close to a century – educating the masses who live outside the hallowed halls and ivy covered walls – was galling. I spent a bit of time critiquing the claims (1 2 3) that came out around them. I was comforted by the headlines appeared pretty soon after 2012, and continuing till now, about the death of MOOCs being upon us. MOOCs encapsulated so many of the most awful things about education in that period.

In the last two months I’ve changed jobs, moved cities and institutions, and I find myself in the position of gearing up to actually develop a MOOC (or six). And I’m legitimately excited about it.

Since the heady days of 2012 most of the criticism of the MOOC hype played out. The lack of a business model, the exorbitant costs of production, the unsuitability of the platform to many disciplines, the limited learning design – all led to significant failures, pivots and losses. Yet MOOC have remained.

And that’s because not everything about MOOCs was bad. The hype demonstrated that there was, and is, huge demand for education. That the qualification itself didn’t turn people away. That online platforms allowed education to become global and not regional. That you could deliver great learning experiences online. Institutions could capitalise on your staffs specialisations and find an audience for narrow focussed courses.

MOOCs were never the bad guy. It was the hype, diversion of investment, historical amnesia, whitewashing and lack of critical engagement that were.

So why am I making a MOOC?

Firstly, this “MOOC” fits the broad use of the term – any sized (so not necessarily massive) non-award online course. It’s not being planned to be truly massive, nor is it going to be free or made entirely open (as in supporting or being made of OER or published as Open Source). It’s a MOOC because it’s a non-degree award online course that will be available on EdX.

And the reason that it’s a MOOC is that the MOOC platform is exactly the right space for this kind of course.

I’ve felt that the lessons from MOOCs have never been learnt, or ever unpacked. It’s a thing that happened but the kind of thing that Higher Ed doesn’t really speak about, we never got together an had a proper debrief about what the hell happened. There’s been little discussion about MOOCs and what we can learn from them, we got stuck on low completion stats and never went beyond that. Sure they had low completion rates, but MOOCs also pointed to a demand. That the hallowed credential that universities hold onto isn’t as all powerful a drawcard it once was. Hundreds of thousands of people singed up to explore knowing full well that what they were doing wasn’t going to count towards a degree or be a "stackable credential", they signed up because they were interested in learning. Whether they did or not is almost an aside, what MOOCs showed was that there was a desire and a willingness to look beyond the credential and the certificate.

The other lessons for me was that MOOCs provided a platform for experimentation. Those who love to talk about disrupting education and forcing change into a system that apparently hasn’t changed in millennia, seem to forget (or are so far removed from operations) how regulated the education system is. It’s damn hard to implement any change within the system itself. Yes, you can disobey and protest, experiment in your own class, but testing and trying out new models is incredibly hard. So it’s often overlooked that MOOCs provided that outlet and space to innovate. For many institutions places like EdX and Future Learn provide a reputable, paywalled environment for universities to offer something other than their traditional degree programs. It doesn’t rely on integrations with existing systems, especially the nightmare that tends to be the student information system. It provides universities with a safe space to do something different and outside the box. It gives universities the kind of space needed to do innovative teaching and learning, because it’s a pretty tough sell (and murky ethically) to justify doing it with fee paying students.

The ability to innovate in a proper ‘live’ course is incredibly hard and difficult for most institutions because there are so many rules, accreditation requirements, and quality assurance measures now in place that MOOCs are almost a last bastion for experimentation. And while I may have besmirched the outlandish claims of MOOCs at their outset, I cannot argue against creating space for innovation. I know first hand how difficult that is to get access to that space, and how necessary is it for universities to engage with in order to carve out their own futures.

And that’s what we’ll be doing – utilising the MOOC space to innovate and explore some different approaches to creating online courses and a unique online experience. This MOOC will give us a lot of freedom compared to the other projects we’re working on. We’re able to be more creative because we’re working on some really tricky problems and the platform isn’t as restrictive. It’s also an opportunity to put into practice a load of ideas we’ve been working on and to work in the way our team have been preaching – in an agile and iterative way. We’ve got awesome academic staff to work with, our team has the facilities and the resources to develop some amazing content and interactive elements and we’re lucky enough to have the freedom to get on with it. One of the other aspects I’m really looking forward to is getting students into the project and being part of the project, not just to test and refine the course, but to actively develop it with them, rather than for them.

So I’m making a MOOC. Not to jump on a trend or because we’ve "discovered" something new, but because it’s actually fit for purpose. We need the flexibility, we need the trust in the platform and we have a really interesting purpose that’s driving development. I hope I can talk to that in the future.

So now the only question is – what lowercase letter can put in front of the MOOC to describe this one? We’ve got cMOOCs and xMOOCs – what else do we need?


By Tim Klapdor

Passionate about good design, motivated by the power of media and enchanted by the opportunities of technology.

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