Mass movements in higher education

Alan Ryan on the parallels between Moocs and the early days of The Open University

November 13, 2014

Sitting and brooding on the intellectual consequences of a Republican victory in the mid-term elections in the US – more climate change denial, more lunacy about women’s biology, less money for science, attempts to destroy the Affordable Care Act piecemeal, since wholesale repeal is impossible, and so unhappily on – I wondered, as one might under the circumstances, why it is so hard to instil an understanding of basic science, social science and logic into the adult population.

Of course, one might blame the usual suspects, including the polluters who have a financial interest in making the facts about climate change look more contestable than they are, social scientists who would rather trade theoretical models on game theory with each other than risk their reputations by trying to explain themselves – admittedly to an easily distracted public who would rather be watching football, not the easiest audience to enlighten.

All of which reminded me of the rise and fall of the hopes that were invested in Moocs. The massive, open, online course was to bring higher education to the multitudes, or at least those multitudes who could find some electricity, a wireless connection, and a device on which to hear and watch superstar lecturers offering high-grade instruction for free – or costing you a small sum if you wanted a certificate at the end of the course. It was a less happy situation for those who faced the prospect of technological unemployment – it was to render professors in community colleges redundant – and gladden the hearts of administrators and accountants who could pile the students even higher and sell their programmes even cheaper.

You had to be sure that every sentence was unambiguous and ensure that nobody could get lost in the middle of a paragraph

But it’s all gone quiet. Or fairly quiet. Someone who is determined that it shouldn’t go too quiet is Jeff Selingo, a former editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education, and a highly regarded lecturer on everything higher educational. He is a paid-up member of the “American higher education is broken” school of thought, and an enthusiast for “disruptive” innovation wherever it might be found. Last year, he published College (Un)bound to persuade students not to sign up inattentively to institutions that might never see them through to graduation – with an average graduation rate of barely 55 per cent over six years, American higher education is barely more effective than Italy’s. MOOC U is his new – brief – guide to getting the most out of the proliferation of courses available for nothing or next to nothing. He recently provided an interesting summary in The New York Times.

In a way, the history of Moocs in the three years since they burst on to the scene in 2011 mirrors some, but not all, of the history of The Open University. Some of the differences simply reflect the differences between the technology of the early 1960s and that of the twenty-teens; instead of downloading lectures on to mobile phones, tablets or PCs, if you wanted the visuals, as anyone taking a science course surely did, you had to watch – in black and white – when the BBC wasn’t broadcasting its regular programmes. The heart of the instruction was in fact written text; the model was old-fashioned correspondence courses, long used by self-improving persons gaining professional qualifications, supplemented by seminars – tutorial groups – and the residential summer schools where marriages came unstuck and, no doubt, were sometimes saved.

Mention of mature students’ marital problems suggests one of the similarities between the audiences for Moocs and the early OU. The hope was that Moocs might provide an economical way of bringing higher education to villagers in sub-Saharan Africa or inland China. The target student was imagined as someone young, bright, needing higher education to get on, a self-improving late adolescent. It turns out that most of the audience for Moocs consists of people who already have degrees, often at master’s level, and who already have a job. The early OU similarly appealed to people who needed to top up their qualifications to make progress in careers on which they had already embarked. The shopgirl and the prison inmate existed, but they were very untypical.

The differences still remain. The OU was set up to give degrees to people who could not get a degree by attending a bricks and mortar college or university. A dropout rate of about 95 per cent, which is characteristic of Moocs, was obviously unthinkable both to students wanting qualifications and governments putting in the money that kept The Open University in operation. Selingo suggests that we should regard Moocs as a success if we see them in the right light, not as substituting for orthodox higher education, but simply providing resources to use as we like. Although he doesn’t say so, the model is a library; you aren’t obliged to read the whole book if you only need enough of chapter 13 to provide some structure for a seminar presentation – or a TED talk on Moocs. That’s very unlike The Open University picture, but it does seem to be how students – “consumers”, “borrowers”? – who are most satisfied with Moocs have behaved.

One last similarity between Moocs and the OU is the experience of the people who provide the courses. I do not expect to construct a Mooc, although I took part in some premature attempts to provide online lectures, and quite enjoyed it. But the real pleasure was writing course units for The Open University. You had to be sure that every sentence was unambiguous, the argument rigorous, and ensure that nobody could get lost in the middle of a paragraph. It was exceedingly hard work, but extremely instructive. And that is exactly what professors who have been creating Moocs have said; you don’t, as it turns out, become a superstar, but you do become a better teacher.

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Reader's comments (1)

Typically astute thoughts from Alan but does he know that the 7-8 year completion rates of OU undergraduates are pretty much the same as the MOOC completion rate published by FutureLearn - that is, well below 20%, often nearer to 15%?

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