Moocs: know your audience and brush up your skills

HEA study offers tips drawn from first-hand accounts of both participants and course creators. Plus the latest higher education appointments

February 5, 2015

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Put it across: Moocs can help scholars get their message out, study says

Creating massive open online courses, or Moocs, has been vaunted as an effective way for educators to widen participation and academically engage with new audiences.

The popularity of such courses, which are typically free, is rising steadily. However, many in the higher education sector have expressed concern at Moocs’ high dropout rates and increasing evidence that many participants are not sufficiently engaged.

Research published last month by the Higher Education Academy has presented insights into why learners choose to study using Moocs and what key aspects need to be addressed when designing the courses.

Launching the study, Alison Le Cornu, consultant in academic practice at the HEA, said that although Moocs were “increasingly popular…as change and innovation occurs, it is important not to lose sight of the learner”.

The report, Liberating Learning: Experiences of MOOCs, draws on the personal accounts of 10 people who completed one of the Moocs offered by the University of Southampton in 2014 via the social learning platform FutureLearn. In addition, it obtained input from five academics involved in leading, developing and teaching on the courses.

The study was authored by four Southampton researchers – Julie Wintrup, Kelly Wakefield, Debra Morris and Hugh Davis – who found that the individuals taking the courses said they “particularly valued the unconditional and free nature of their learning” and their motives were “primarily for intellectual stimulation and personal development”.

However, the researchers also found that academics looking to become involved in the design of the online courses would require new skills to make them work and training in how to manage online interactions and debates.

Knowledge of the kind of learners using the Moocs was vital, Dr Wakefield told Times Higher Education. At present, many of those engaging in online courses are older, experienced learners.

“Having that knowledge is definitely a skill,” she said. “Having said that, who knows if the demographic of a Mooc learner will change over time?”

According to Dr Wakefield, the transition to designing Moocs may be easier for some academics, with those who are “tech-savvy and have a lot of online resources” best placed for running online courses. Nevertheless, she said, all course leaders need to keep drawing on feedback from experienced online learners to create even better courses.

Dr Wintrup, a principal teaching fellow in the Faculty of Health Sciences at Southampton, said academics looking to get involved in Moocs often have “an interest in the online form of pedagogy” but they need to understand that the courses are “not simply an information approach – it is more than just a lecture”.

She said it also helped for academics to think of Moocs in terms of their “personal research”, as designing such courses could help them to “get their message out [and] engage with specialist groups”.

As to the ongoing debate on whether Moocs will reach a wider audience and ultimately transform the way universities teach, Professor Davis argued that “it’s already happening quietly” as ever more universities begin to develop resources intended for online learning.

He added that at Southampton, “all the developers who have made use of Moocs have changed their attitude to online learning”.


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