MOOCs again? That old chestnut

I have been tasked to respond to Carole Cadwalladr’s article, Do online courses spell the end for the traditional university? (2012)

I have also been asked to pretend it’s 2012 as I read it. Here is my response…

I remember the hype around the MOOCs, and frankly then I didn’t believe it. Then I thought claims were overblown. To be honest, in 2012, I didn’t even approve of ebooks, preferring to read the real thing. Cynical young me thought that the ebook was a way to cut corners and save money, whilst providing a worse service to students. And I hated the MOOC acronym.

Anyone who knows me may be surprised to read this. I am now a passionate advocate for digital education. I am happy to read from a screen and all of my notes are written up in OneNote. I hardly ever use a real pen and highlighters. My colleagues tease me because OneNote seems to be my answer to everything…. but seriously OneNote is amazing… a recipe book, journal, planner and wiki all in one.

A screengrab of my OneNote from my last OU module… a thing of digital beauty

Back to the point about MOOCs…

So in 2012 I didn’t believe that a free online course could replace a university degree. I always assume that loud articles trumpeting revolutions are in fact hyperbole. This goes for self-driving cars, android assistants and Second Life (which I am sneaking in a mention of, as all of my OU study material seems to mention it).

Back then, I knew little about digital education and learning technology.

Should I even admit that I didn’t learn about the job title learning technologist until 2015?

Yes, I am a learning designer now and an advocate for ed tech.

Point is, if I was cynical, I imagine many others were too. Yes, newspapers like to make headline and announce The Next Big Thing, this doesn’t mean that they are reflecting the word on the street. I don’t think they even believe it themselves. They have to write about something.

The question posed by the OU on my course, is “back in 2012 would you have agreed that the MOOC would lead to the end of the universities”? NO. My short answer.

Back then I would have been very dubious that something provided for free would have been good quality. Don’t we all think that? If it’s free, what’s wrong with it? I assumed that the course would have been clunky, bad to navigate, and that the contents would be flat and boring.

Ask me the same question now, in 2020.

Could the MOOC lead to the end of the universties?

My answer is still no. I am coming it at from a different angle, and have different reasons now. Since the article was written I have participated in two MOOCs- one excellent and one mediocre. The mediocre MOOC funnily enough was indeed badly designed, flat and boring. The excellent MOOC was well put together, engaging, though provoking, active, practical and interesting.

Even so, I don’t think it’s a realistic model to compete with a university education. I may expand on my reasons in another post, but I am finding it hard to concentrate on this backward-looking question when I keep on returning to a question that everyone in edtech is asking at the moment…

As face to face universities are having to pivot online, will the way in which education is delivered post Covid-19 change forever? Will those in their ivory towers deam edtech worthy? Perhaps, more importantly, will we ever convince students? Will the powers that be ever realise that an online course is not necessarily a whole bunch of video lectures? Or that the online pivot need not mean a switch to hours of live Zoom lectures.

These are different blog posts. And ones I will have to write, even if they turn out to be amusing time capsule s to look back on in years to come.

6 thoughts on “MOOCs again? That old chestnut

  1. Your comments on ‘free’ provoke the following thoughts.
    When I think of ‘free’ and a collective effort to make and provide things for free, I think of the free software movement (and/or open source). This is remarkable for being able to produce significant quantity, quality, and value.
    Despite this, my 2012 (and current) self are cynical of the free MOOC. For my current self it is difficult to separate the idea of a MOOC from the current big players of the field. Are Coursera the equivalent of the 1980s free software movement? No. They are backed by VC money and ultimately have profit making intentions.
    This isn’t free, this is the classic model of build up a user base, harvest data, leverage information to profit from the user base.
    Users may benefit, they may be educated, but this is not charitable free education. Debatable whether MOOCs are still their business model, and if not, this speaks loudly (and poorly) of the level of success that MOOCs have reached.
    Back on topic, do they spell the end of University? No. Because many Universities actually have laudable nonprofit objectives and will be here to pick up the pieces when cynical VC-backed for-profit education collapses in on its own hubris.


    1. I started to write a long and rambling reply, and deleted it as this quite simple, I think.
      Leaving aside the MOOC and asking, “Will we be able to deliver high quality education free of charge?”
      The answer is, of course, no. People need to eat.
      Will they be free at the point of delivery (and properly funded)? Probably still no.
      Not whilst the govt deem HE a luxury that should be paid for and profited from.
      **Makes notes to investigate how popular digital education is in counties where HE is free at the point of delivery.**


      1. I broadly agree that this is the case. But I disagree that this must be the case. Taking free software as an example, there was sufficient motivation for people to work for free and give away/share. There is even motivation for companies to pay people to work on free software.

        An interesting question would be, ‘Where is the motivation for a self-sustaining community of educators to produce and deliver free education?’

        There is an OER community which covers the production. Where is the desire to cover the free delivery?

        I can’t answer that for most countries. I probably can’t even fully answer that for the UK. But I suspect those in the UK who aspired to provide free education went into schools and universities, structures that are already built to deliver free education (until the government swoops in and changes the rules).

        Next potential question, ‘What would it take for educators who want to deliver for free to rise up and reset the system back to one of free delivery?’


      2. Hey, I can reply in app! People keep likening educatiob to building software but I don’t think they are fair comparisons.

        If you’re talking about developing and supporting a course, only a select number of ppl can do this… i.e. mostly those who developed the course. Who will update the course (as will be necessary)? Who will run it? And we both know that the running costs are higher than development costs.

        As regards the OER community… have you ever gone and looked at what is out there? an arduous task in itself, plus you will end up changing it (whatever “it” is) to update it or keep it relevant.

        Why do you think educational material can be likened to computer code?


Leave a Reply to vickydevaney Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s