What an experience?

So, MOOCs. You’d have to be digitally illiterate not to have heard about these. Just when I thought there was no more to be said The Open University, my employer, have launched FutureLearn, and the media hype has started all over again.
I confess to a slight case of agnosticism on MOOCs. I’m not opposed to them, though I do wonder about the real motivation of those promoting them. That could just be the cynic in me, but perhaps it is also about what I think education should be about.
The FutureLearn website, much like Corsera and the other MOOC providers make much of their commitment to opening up the world of education to those currently denied access. It is hard to disagree with that aim, and if that is genuinely what MOOCs are all about then they are a force for good, and I not only share the excitement of the FutureLearn team (see picture below), but their aspirations.

I am certainly an advocate of opening up education, and I believe that online learning is an important way of doing so. But, and there is always a but isn’t there, they worry me. It may be the sheer scale of them. I signed up to one with Dukes University and the initial numbers were awe inspiring, even for somebody from the Open University.
I’ve always enjoyed the look on people’s faces when I tell them the size of our largest module. Our Level One social sciences course has upwards of 6,000 students a year. But that number pales into insignificance compared to the 1,600,000 who were on the Dukes University MOOC with me. However, the trick is not how many students you sign up, but how many are still there at the end. MOOCs are rather more vague than the Open University on this score. One reason being that many students on MOOCs are similar to me. I had effectively stopped doing the course after week 3, not because the course was no good, but because I had managed to get behind and didn’t have the time to catch up.
How good is a MOOC? That’s a difficult question to answer. They are, of course, varied, and the completion rates will be affected by numerous factors including all the obvious one’s well known to us at the Open University. But one thing that MOOCs have in common, to date, is that they do not include any formal assessment. Though that is starting to change as the business model of MOOCs is also changing in an attempt to monetise them.
The lack of assessment is, on the one hand, clearly an incentive to take a MOOC. On the other hand, assessments motivate students to complete courses. Indeed, most students are overly obsessed with assessment. Just ask their lecturers.
My objection to the MOOC model, and perhaps objection is too strong a word, is the lack of tutors supporting student learning. Of course, well motivated students don’t need tutors to support their learning, they just get on with it. But, sadly, those students are few and far between. Most students have difficulties with understanding, with motivation, with support and with administration. In other words, most students need a tutor if they are not only to pass the course but also get the best they are able from it.
That tutor support can be delivered either face-to-face or online, but I do think it is a weakness of the MOOC model that it is dependent upon peer support to help students who may be struggling. It is the reason why I think students will continue to pay to attend university, and why MOOCs will prove to be a passing fad.