09 December 2013


Having emerged from the Graduate Certificate in Tertiary Education - "the horror, the horror" - I can savour The Maturing of the MOOC, a UK government report [PDF] that "aims to capture the state of knowledge and opinion about MOOCs and ODL, how they are evolving, and to identify issues that are important, whether consensual or controversial". It's a lit review of over 100 items.

The document comments -
Conflicting perspectives on MOOCs divide education communities
Elite institutions in The Academy, primarily leading US universities, are widely engaging enthusiastically in MOOCs by lending brand, content, funds, staff, badging and policy support. They see opportunities for brand enhancement, pedagogic experimentation, recruitment and business model innovation. (A few have actively disengaged (Duke, Amherst) but these are a minority.) The pro-MOOC impetus is producing a conspicuous literature. It reports positively on these experiments, describing a process of maturing, expansion and deepening. There are dissident voices in the elite institutions, however, and the arguments they are assembling against MOOCs remain strong and vocal.
Smaller or less prestigious institutions have not so far engaged strongly with MOOCs, either through lack of appetite, lack of capacity, or lack of opportunity. Often, smaller players who have considered the MOOC issue have sounded alarm bells – they see threats of being left behind, of losing market share and recruits. They also charge that MOOCs are unable to serve learners with more complex learning needs. Although such perspectives would appear to represent the position of the vast bulk of post-16 educational activity, the sceptical literature reflecting these concerns is less visible and less extensive.
Learning Practitioners disagree about the value of MOOCs
Learning practitioners have engaged by contributing extensive critical review literature in peer-reviewed journals, the specialist educational press, blogs, and the general media. Two conflicting strands of opinion run in the critical practitioner literature.
1. A strand of enthusiasts welcomes the shake-up and energy MOOCs bring to learning, teaching and assessment. They report positively on learning experiences and innovative formats of pedagogy, and spotlight themes such as access, empowerment, relationship building and community. This strand is particularly prevalent in the general press. Examples include Shirky and Legon.
2. A strand of sceptics tempers the general enthusiasm along two themes:
The supposed benefits of MOOCs were already realised in previous generations of ODL innovation – and the innovations of MOOCs are the victory of packaging over content
The MOOC format itself suffers from weaknesses around access, content, quality of learning, accreditation, pedagogy, poor engagement of weaker learners, exclusion of learners without specific networking skills.
Formal comprehensive analyses of MOOCs mostly concur that they are disruptive and possibly threatening to current HE models
National and international authorities, research brands, think tanks and professional bodies have actively commissioned formal expert appraisals and overviews of MOOCs. There is often a brief to explore issues of national strategic importance. The focus of these overviews is more the Universities, than the learners.
This literature, typically more impartial and comprehensive than the other types, tends to acknowledge (with a few exceptions) that MOOCs bring an impetus of reform, research and innovation to the Academy. All reports foresee dramatic imminent change as a result. Some suggest, however, that the MOOC proposition lacks novelty, and the scale of MOOC impact, along with its potential to transform Universities, may be over-hyped. This literature detects failings in the MOOC format around sustainability, quality, equality, equity, financial viability, learning quality and accreditation. However, it also reports initiatives to address them, and consistently identifies MOOCs as a tipping point for HE.
Reporting of MOOC learner experiences is positive
Learners who have completed MOOCs emerge from the literature as relatively enthusiastic about the MOOC format. Different kinds of learner experience have been identified, and passive consumption or lurking in a MOOC is a common pattern. The consensus is growing that lurking and auditing have validity as a learning activity within MOOCs, and that non-completion is not a significant problem in this learning format. The benefits of MOOCs to learners come in the form of access to high quality material, and new kinds of collaborative learning experiences in some types of MOOC. Most studies show that the MOOC experience demands skill and aptitude in online social networking, and that these baseline capabilities are not widely enough shared for MOOCs to present a realistic format for many learners. Credit does not appear to be a major motivation for learners who have chosen MOOCs so far; however, there are clear signs that this will change.
The MOOC is maturing – and engaging with its business and accreditation issues
The Burning Issue in the MOOCosphere is the search for business models – and all the associated sub-issues of scale, sustainability monetisation, accreditation for MOOC learning and openness. Our report focuses in depth on analysis of this topic in the literature. The survey suggests that after a phase of broad experimentation, a process of maturation is in place. MOOCs are heading to become a significant and possibly a standard element of credentialed University education, exploiting new pedagogical models, discovering revenue and lowering costs.
The authors comment that "In view of the level of controversy, and the different approaches of different types of literature, we have divided the MOOC literature into three classifications" -
  1. Contributions by individual authors on MOOCs which are often polemical and even parti-pris. These cover MOOCs from the perspective of institutions, and learners
2. Formal and comprehensive surveys carried out with methodological approaches
3. General press writing and journalism.
The overview literature contributed by informed writers covers the MOOC phenomenon from two distinct perspectives: its impact on education institutions, and its impact on learners.
Whether the MOOC is a welcome or a threatening prospect for HEIs divides informed writers. There is consensus that MOOCs, correctly deployed, do offer education institutions a useful lever for restructuring and transition. On balance, the literature expresses the view that MOOCs will probably not threaten traditional forms of University teaching in the short term, but a significant sub-group of credible writers forsees wide and sudden changes and disruptions to HEIs from MOOCs.
Learners’ experiences in MOOCs are examined in literature, both through statistical analysis and anecdote. The statistical approach has yielded insights about different types of learner behaviour in MOOCs, creating a distinction between learners who are “auditing”, “sampling”, “disengaging” and “completing”. Statistical analysis has also captured a trend of diminishing learner participation in MOOCs over course durations. Writers assess MOOCs as challenging environments which can discourage or disorientate many learners, as witnessed by the low percentages completing. However, the literature also shows that mere completion is not a relevant metric, that learners participate in many valid ways, and that those who do complete MOOCs have high levels of satisfaction. There is as yet no agreed satisfactory system of measurement for assessing the quality of MOOCs from the learners’ point of view.
Formal analytical reporting of the MOOC issue almost invariably diagnoses MOOCs as potentially disruptive and likely to threaten existing practices. With the exception of Canada’s early “MOOC Model” report written in the optimistic moment of the first cMOOCs, authorities who commission or produce systematic MOOC analyses receive variations on the same conclusion: MOOC formats will pose huge challenges for existing HEI business models, for institutions at all levels, for pedagogy, and for international education.
Analyses vary in the amount of positive energisation they discern alongside these disruptive elements of MOOCs. At their most benign, MOOCs may drive innovation and experimentation, leading to improved learning and lower costs and a managed restructuring. At their most ferocious, MOOCs will force many HE players to radically transform themselves, or die if they fail to adapt, and a chaotic rout of the sector is in prospect.
Challenges for learners also emerge as a consistent thread of analysis. There will be benefits in terms of flexible pathways and accessible affordable learning. However, the literacies and skills required to benefit from MOOCs are very specific, and existing educational curricula may be unsuited.
Journalistic writing is significant for this topic, because popular discourse in mainstream media titles is shaping the MOOC trajectory. Public attention creates a bubble. The Maturing of the MOOC of hype and a “must have” factor, which may be contributing to a herd mentality and a stampede to produce MOOCs
Positively-spun press articles hail MOOCs as the hi-tech engine of a transformative revolution that will remake education as a highly engaging, open and low cost activity.
Critical journalism decries the hype surrounding MOOCs and claims that their benefits are illusory, and that in reality MOOCs harbour undesirable and inappropriate behaviours.
Clear numerical evidence of the balance between these two opposing “spins” of press coverage is hard to obtain. However, anecdote, observation and a count of search query returns suggests that the proportion of negative commentary may be rising.
The burning issues for MOOCs are the exploration of a viable business model and the accreditation of MOOC learning.
The maturing of the MOOC format is attested to in the literature by analysis of an emergent (and still incomplete) picture of MOOCs’ falling costs and growing revenues. Whether this adds up to a viable business model is being tested with a new generation of low-cost accredited degrees based on MOOC principles being prepared by some leading US colleges.
Accreditation is discussed in the literature mostly to the extent that it offers a route to revenue for US MOOC platforms and possibly for colleges. This debate has not been seriously applied to the UK yet – but there is every reason to expect it will come. For the time being, discussion of the models for assessing learning, which would be essential to credentialed outcomes, is not highly developed. However, some new potential methods, specific to MOOC technology, are starting to emerge.
Some specific issues for MOOCs in HE and FE are handled in separate sections:  Education theory: are MOOCs an innovation or a continuation of prior ODL; Futurelearn – the UK MOOC platform: what will it offer; FE – can the sector profit from the maturing of MOOC formats; Completion and drop-out rates and metrics for MOOC quality; Technology evolution: how will learner analytics develop to enhance MOOCs
The MOOC skillset – what skills will a MOOC-shaped world require? The extent to which MOOCs are a genuine innovation, or a mere repackaging of prior heritage in open learning, is a significant theme in the academic literature. Overall, we see that a wide range of views obtain on this topic, with many competing theories and models advanced to account for different pedagogical models. ...
The literature on MOOCs and FE is sparse. However, primary research shows that the UK FE sector is adequately aware of the issue. Educational experimentation and development of online pedagogy is, however, taking other non-MOOC tracks for the time being. Marginal uses, for example in FE teacher development, look well established. The US community college sector shows ways in which FE might exploit MOOC opportunities. These involve partnership with MOOC-producing HE.
On MOOC drop-out rates, authors argue from a variety of perspectives that the high crude drop-out rates of MOOCs are an irrelevant issue, despite the frequent reference to these numbers in popular discourse. Reasons include the high drop-out rate in many types of learning, and the evidence that with no penalty for exit or entry, lapsing from MOOC enrolments is simply not a significant decision.
Learner analytics technology, already theorised and explored in a mature and established debate rooted in the ODL literature, comes to its full potential with the scale and mechanisation of MOOCs. Applications will enable students to be served more engaging material based on their individual profiles. Adaptive learning is a real possibility. Interventions can be targeted to secure completion.
The networking, reputational and learning skills that MOOC environments require for successful learning are an important issue for many writers. Online autonomy, group formation and inclusion/exclusion feelings among learners are a vital dynamic in MOOC learning, and are probably insufficiently understood. It is also likely that primary and secondary education curricula are not addressing these learning skills adequately.
MOOCs demand policy and research responses from policymakers