Will MOOCs transform universities?

Written by Martyn Sloman on 9 October 2013

The start of the University year is a time to reflect on the challenges facing the sector and, in particular, the impact of technology. This year's hot topic is the emergence of MOOCs: the massive open online courses.  What are they and how important are they likely to become?

The idea is simple. An educational or commercial provider produces a module that can offer on instructional lesson (from a subject-expert), be used in collaborative activity and/or assessment, and offer any number of other bells and whistles. It is delivered on-line (in the classroom or through a PC, tablet or mobile) to a course group or to an individual student. Content is designed by experts outside the learner's institution but embedded in the syllabus by teachers or lecturers in that institution. Educators are thus able to grasp a new opportunity and the nature of their job will change. To use a traditional aphorism: they will move from being 'the sage on the stage' to 'the guide on the side'.

There is an old Oxford joke that runs: "What is the difference between God and Professor Winfield?" "God is everywhere and Professor Winfield is everywhere but Keble College where he is paid for teaching". A little unfair, maybe, but there is some truth in the implication that the ultimate aspiration for many academics is to jet round the world talking to a group of their fellows at Conferences and spend the rest of the time working from home.  For the Professor Winfields of this world it may seem that Moocs offer a huge opportunity. They can leverage their expertise, demonstrate their expertise through a new medium, and their physical presence will become more greatly valued. 

Certainly much of the current discussion on MOOCs suggests that great change is just around the corner. Two IMD Professors and an IMD Researcher began an article in the Financial Times by claiming: "The arrival of MOOCs will make 60- to 70 per cent of existing business school teaching faculty either superfluous or unprepared in the next five years in terms of the skills and mindset."  

However, once again I must ally with the sceptics. First, because we have heard all this before. MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) made the headlines when it announced that it was making many of it courses available on-line; this announcement was made in April 2001 and few others followed suit. The UKeU (UK eUniversities Worldwide Limited) was established as a vehicle to deliver the best of UK higher education in online fashion across the world. Launched in February 2000, it was closed four years later, was having cost £50m and recruited only 900 students. This is the second reason for my scepticism: it is the learner that will determine progress not the technology.  

However, there is no doubt that technology does affect university teaching in all sorts of ways: some good, some bad. It is now expected that all relevant course information, including lecture slides, is placed on a repository (Blackboard is the name of the best-known proprietary product).  Good students load the slides well in advance and many follow the lecture on their laptops; poor students use it as an excuse for non-attendance. Other effects of technology are less obvious. The Business School where I undertake most of my teaching invested in state of the art teaching technology in all its classrooms. It was incredibly complex, instructions were difficult to follow; it took an age to boot up the system from scratch. The main practical effect was that you always tried to arrive ten minutes before the previous lecturer in the room was due to finish and signaled frantically through the glass that you would appreciate it if the system was not switched off. This did mean that you were assiduously punctual - I think this iscalled an unintended consequence.

So why have MOOCs suddenly captured some many professional imaginations? Undoubtedly enhanced technology creates new opportunities. We now have high-speed mobile networks, cheaper phones and tablets, and more technology-aware students. However, I suggest the main reasons are commercial. Particularly in the US, a lot of venture capitalists who had bad experiences during the dotcom boom now have surplus funds. They are returning to the education technology (edtech as it has become known) and investing heavily. It is in the interests of recipient companies to talk a good game and the invention of the term MOOC is a clever manifestation. 

What will happen? My view is that techoology will advance and create new opportunities; teaching patterns will change gradually. 

About the author
Martyn Sloman is a visiting professor at Kingston Business School and a teaching fellow at Birkbeck College. He is principal consultant to TJ's L&D 2020 project and can be contacted at martynsloman@me.com
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