The proliferation of massive open online courses (Moocs) is spreading "lousy pedagogy" and doing damage to the image of online learning, the chief information officer of the first UK university to sign up to one of the best-known Mooc platforms has said.
Jeff Haywood, who is also vice-principal for knowledge management at the University of Edinburgh, told a conference that although Moocs had provoked debate about online education, he still harboured concerns.
"I think that...some of the Moocs...are actually lousy pedagogy. They're just not well designed for learners in any setting - face to face or online," he told a debate at the Future of Technology in Education 2012 conference, held in London earlier this month.
"As a consequence, there is a risk that (Moocs) will get a bad name," he continued. He said the fact that 100,000 or 150,000 learners were signing up to the early platforms was "irrelevant", as in the future, courses "are not going to see those types of numbers: attrition, dropout, all of that has got to be worked out".
In July, Edinburgh became the first UK institution to join Coursera, a platform that offers free online courses from more than 30 universities worldwide and which currently has more than 1.3 million registered students. But Professor Haywood questioned whether the certificates and credits earned by students completing Moocs would "actually turn out to be valuable and usable", and urged delegates not to get carried away by "hype and borderline crazy statements".
"There is a risk that (Moocs) deflect educational institutional effort into something which is an interesting space but is actually a minority area," he said.
Meanwhile, David Webster, senior lecturer in religion, philosophy and ethics at the University of Gloucestershire, questioned whether by offering Moocs, universities were increasingly seeing themselves as "an exam room and a till", undermining the value of their teaching.
"There are good reasons to be anxious about universities...selling their name in exchange for something, and (suggesting) that the learning is somehow separate, different or less valuable," he said.
"If what we've got is not worth anything - is worth giving away free - doesn't that feed into the general suspicion of experts that everyone's voice is equal, especially on the internet?"
Philip Butler, senior e-learning specialist at the University of London, was also sceptical, concluding that Moocs were mainly being used as "marketing tools".
"I don't think Moocs, outside the marketing approach, offer a terribly good learning experience," he said, adding that their purpose was "bringing (learners) in, getting them hooked into doing your courses, paying for accreditation and so on".
This, he said, could mean that established universities with strong existing academic reputations would continue to dominate online.
"If you are not a strong, marketable brand, then you are going to have the same problems in the Mooc arena as you would have in the educational marketplace," he said.