Moocs hotly debated at Battle of Ideas

Massive open online courses: new horizon or redundancy tool? Experts fight it out

October 24, 2013

Source: Devonyu/iStock

The future of massive open online courses – whether as a new academic horizon or a chance to “get rid of the duff scholars” – was debated at this year’s Battle of Ideas Festival, held on 19 and 20 October.

Chairing “Laptop University? The Future of HE”, an event at London’s Barbican Centre in association with Times Higher Education, Toby Marshall, curriculum manager at Havering College of Further and Higher Education, asked whether Moocs were “a threat, an opportunity, a tool”, or even “a mirror into the soul of frustrated academics”.

Matt Walton, head of product at FutureLearn – the first UK Mooc platform, owned by The Open University – suggested its courses were “good for learning new skills alongside a full-time job”. Despite predictions, podcasts had actually led to people listening to more radio, he said: in the same way, Moocs might “rekindle the love for learning”.

But Diana Laurillard, professor of learning with digital technologies at the Institute of Education, noted that although Moocs marked a welcome return of the “talking head”, “students need nurturing and guidance as well as lectures”. Moocs might be the “21st-century answer to the public libraries of the 20th century”, but neither in themselves amounted to an education.

She also commented that the small proportion of people who had completed Moocs tended to be “professionals who already had several degrees”. Was there something odd about a situation where “campus students are paying £9,000 a year to subsidise the education of highly paid professionals”?

Dennis Hayes, professor of education at the University of Derby, was unimpressed by claims that “iPhones are making universities redundant”. He even cited a pro vice-chancellor who believed we could “now get rid of the duff scholars and listen to…Harvard”.

Yet this rested on a fallacy, he said: “Access to information is not only confused with knowledge and understanding but also seen as a substitute for them.”

Real education, by contrast, always required “an intense engagement with intellectual authorities”.

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