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What can FE colleges learn from the MOOC model?

As the word ‘MOOC’ enters everyday usage, it is worth considering the role Massive Open Online Courses could play in the further education sector. I have recently completed a MOOC and would like to share my experiences and thoughts.

The course I undertook was an Introduction to Digital Sound Design, compiled by Stanford University and hosted on the Coursera platform.  The course is free and attracted 92,000 students worldwide. Certainly ‘Massive’ and definitely ‘Open’.

It comprised a series of video lectures combined with online multiple-choice assessment. As such, it offered ‘self-service’ learning with little interactivity. However, students were also encouraged to participate in online forums related to the course and to some degree, these forums compensate for the lack of interactivity and human contact in the primary course material. If a student required clarification of a key point, they would seek guidance in the forums from other students. The course also included live ‘guest talks’ using Google+ Hangout which are also recorded for later viewing. It should be noted that the course videos were studio recordings that had been professionally edited and as such, the quality was much higher than typically seen in a classroom lecture-capture system.

The resulting course exhibited the degree of automation required to deliver on this scale and yet maintained a significant amount of student interaction and collaboration.

So what could today’s FE colleges learn from the MOOC model? Currently, universities and higher education institutions offer the majority of current MOOCs. The business model is, in most cases, unclear. Delivering the global reach, high student numbers and video-rich learning resources would require a massive investment in infrastructure and it is unlikely that a single FE college would be able to offer MOOCS in the accepted sense.

However, there is a lot to learn from MOOCs. The highly automated, self-service delivery could work well as part of a ‘flipped classroom’ strategy. At a college level, this could be delivered through an existing virtual learning environment (VLE) or media server. The overall student experience would be greatly enhanced with personalised instructional support or intelligent tutoring based on learner analytics derived from the system. It wouldn’t be ‘Massive’ and it wouldn’t be ‘Open’ – but it could provide a method for getting the most out of student contact time.

The smaller, closed nature of VLE delivery offers other advantages. Students can be identified and authenticated with a high degree of confidence, allowing access to additional, high-value resources such as the eBrary library provided as part of the Jisc-funded e-books for FE programme.

In my role as a MOOC student, the biggest surprise was the effectiveness of the video lectures as a learning resource. I thought they would be dry, linear and un-engaging but this was not the case. This should come as no surprise in the age of TED and YouTube, ‘Edutainment’ and ‘Celebrity Teachers’ are now part of the student reality.

However, generating high-quality and engaging video lectures could prove to be an expensive and time-consuming endeavour. This is mitigated by the reusable nature of the resources, allowing them to be used in new and innovative ways. It is possible to foresee a time when a MOOC-like course is hosted on cloud-based servers and accessed by a number of colleges. They, in turn, would add a ‘wrapper’ around the core materials – consisting of tutorial support, final assessment and certification etc. The central materials might be developed in partnership between colleges or licensed from a new generation of commercial content providers.

Despite some initial skepticism regarding the ‘video lecture’ approach I found that it worked well. As a student, my only criticism of the course would be the rigid timetabling which results from the automated delivery. Overall, I learned a lot from the Coursera MOOC and would certainly enroll on another.

John Potter is the acting manager at Jisc’s Regional Support Centre (South East)

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