As those who follow me on Twitter will know, I recently took the plunge and signed up for my first MOOC. MOOC, for those of you to whom this is newspeak, stands for Massive Open Online Course – it is, apparently, the new disruptive technology that means we won’t need universities any more and everyone will just access electronic higher education from the best professors more or less for free. Or, alternatively, it is the development that will lead to a dystopian nightmare of low-paid part-time staff doing all the actual dealing with students while star professors record a couple of videos, fees calculated on a per appearance basis, and students become utterly detached from any form of intellectual community. You can read the fears and dreams that cluster around MOOCs in articles appearing in the educational and popular press more or less weekly, and if you want some chunky analysis of the language that gets used, you should go and read Melonie Fullick’s Speculative Diction blog, which has some excellent pieces unpicking the rhetoric that both sides use on this subject.
Now, I am a selective Luddite – you won’t find me near an e-reader, but I do apparently get on with quite a lot of this new technology stuff reasonably well. So I decided that rather than sit and nay-say about MOOCs, the only sensible thing to do was to sign up for one and give it a go. I decided to sign up with FutureLearn, which is the first UK-based MOOC platform, because they were running a course on the English Literature of the Country House, which appealed since I like both literature and country houses. I was also curious about the FutureLearn platform, as it’s still in development but looks like it’s marketing itself very much as the UK option for universities interested in providing this sort of thing in the future.
So, what did I learn? Well, quite a lot about the country house and the literature associated with it, as it happens, but that’s sort of a side point to the point of this post. The course materials contained both good and bad examples of what the MOOC platform can potentially be used for – for instance, some videos were more successful than others, some texts seemed to resonate with the learners better, some discussions engaged more learners than others. But these things are all features of any classroom course – in my Roman Literature first year module, not everyone loves Lucan (although I think they all should), and not every lecture I teach will be of the same standard, because my energy level will vary from day to day. One of the benefits of the MOOC platform is that videos can be re-recorded, assignments can be tweaked, and texts shifted as the teaching team work out what’s clicking for their audience and what doesn’t. Given that this is many institutions’ first venture into the MOOC format, we’re all learning.
What struck me most, though, was my experience as a learner. I started out as engaged, focused, doing half an hour or so a day and engaging with other students’ comments. But a business trip around week three of the course threw me out of that pattern, and I started being the Bad Time Management Student – cramming all the work into a couple of days towards the end of the week so not really getting involved in discussions as they evolved, hurrying through assignments as quickly as possible to be able to say I’d completed the week’s requirements (even though the point of a flexible course is to be flexible), always feeling a bit behind and a bit half-hearted. Which, in a way, is fine, but the way the first few weeks worked out and the discussions I could see I’d missed made me feel a bit grumpy about my own – well, partly my own busy-ness, and partly lack of inclination to do anything about the situation. Once you got behind, or if you were short on time, it was tricky to catch up again and feel part of the wider learning community.
Now, I had nothing to prove. My PhD is going to trump any completed MOOC course. I was doing this as an experiment, with nobody expecting a certificate of completion at the end to prove anything. The sort of person I am wasn’t going to give up without finishing, and because I’m quite happy operating in an independent way, I pottered to the end of the course more or less on time (mainly because the final week was given over to review, which helped), so got to pat myself on the back and feel I’d learnt a bit about something I’d never studied formally before. Great. But I now completely understand why so many people sign up to these things and don’t finish them – my determination to follow through anything vaguely academic is not typical. There are whole other issues that this raises, like how the fact that MOOCs are meant to reach those currently unable to access higher education is undermined by their inability to provide the kind of personal support that such groups may need to complete this sort of independent work. Again, these issues have been argued (and still are being argued) to death and I don’t want to get into them here – but having seen the inside, I get the problem.
Before you ask, yes, I will be taking a MOOC in the future, and in fact am in the middle of one at the moment, looking at Hadrian’s Wall. My first MOOC was, overall, a good experience for me, but I have to say that I’m finding the course I’m currently working through easier to get engaged with, at least partly because I’ve already got a good generalist knowledge of the subject. More on that, I suspect, anon.