MOOCs and quality – a report from a day conference in London by Dr Matthew Nicholls

I recently attended this QAA event on MOOCS in London for the University. Speakers included David Willetts, the Minister for Universities and Science, and Sir Timothy O’Shea, Vice Chancellor of Edinburgh University which has been running 6 MOOCs for the last year (including very popular courses on philosophy and on equine health).

The guiding topic for the day was the incorporation of quality assurance into the products and ‘ecosystem’ around MOOCs, especially as they begin to move from being free-to-all offerings to involving elements of cost and/or accreditation, which seems a likely next step.

The room, naturally, was full of people who believe in MOOCs – but the level of enthusiasm and belief that this really does mark a significant departure point in HE was impressive. This suggests that Reading has done well to get in among the early adopters of this in the UK, because the impression was that the pace of change and accumulation of market-place prestige is likely to be rapid, and that early providers are being promoted by FutureLearn as an elite – there are plenty of institutions outside this initial group who are getting interested in providing MOOCs, so our early engagement brings both opportunity and some pressure to deliver.

Here are some of the observations that seemed to me key messages from the day’s discussions and presentations:

  • MOOCs seem to be accepted as useful as a good shop window for recruitment – that’s a major quid pro quo at this stage.
  • Completion of courses is not the main or only goal – tasters etc count as success, rather than the percentage of people finishing a course.
  • Entering the MOOC market properly requires serious engagement and up-front investment: it’s a prominent platform on which to fail.
  • It has developed a momentum that is finally realizing long-anticipated radical change in the sector, as technologies converge into something workable – it does seem to justify the hype.
  • Education analytics that come out of MOOCs have the power to be transformative.
  • The future, regarding accreditation and paid-for enhancements, is fairly close but not yet clearly defined.
  • At the same time, there is a distinction between informal, for-free, MOOC learning and fee-paying, formal, accredited learning, which the OU sees as important to maintain.
  • The pace of change is such that institutions are having to make commitments, with no extra resource and with no clear picture of where this might be heading. But it is better at this stage to be part of the process than to be left behind.
  • The undergraduate campus experience is not seriously threatened by this (yet), but for enrichment, and esp. part-time, postgraduate, and specialist vocational material, the MOOC has the potential to be seriously disruptive.
  • Student panelists seemed enthusiastic – they showed no resistance at all to the idea of MOOCs being used within their own courses as a supplement (though nor did they acknowledge that without separate funding MOOC creation and administration are likely to be competing for resources of e.g staff time with campus teaching).
  • There was also no student resistance to universities giving away course content for free that other students are paying £9k for – students see the wider University experience as what they are paying for.

Finally, I asked Sir Timothy and others what success in a MOOC would look like and how it could be measured. There was no very clear answer as we are at such an early stage – which is interesting in itself – but it was suggested that for the entry cost to the MOOC marketplace it would be hard to buy an equivalent amount of positive press coverage, interaction with potential applicants, and teaching innovation.

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