During a speech at the Festival of Education held at Wellington College on 23 and 24 June, the universities and science minister David Willetts mentioned two "expressions for the future" he had learned.
Of the two, MOOC (massive open online course) is the one that has been floating around the blogosphere of late. Martin Weller, professor of educational technology at The Open University, had already noted the increasing popularity of these courses - conceived of as free, online and open to anyone at any time, without any prerequisites for joining and no concerns with active engagement - on his blog The Ed Techie.
"It seems that barely a week has gone by without some major new announcement about a new MOOC," he writes. "As an advocate of open education I should be pleased about this, and to a large extent I am. But I also have some niggling reservations."
Professor Weller feels that the development of the MOOC has led to "institutionalisation": the first wave of creators did it for personal reasons, but now universities are unveiling their own versions. He adds that a more formal structure for developing the next generation of MOOCs is likely.
"This is inevitable, I suspect, that at some point an idea becomes mainstreamed if it is to scale up," he writes. "It also has a number of benefits," he adds, including making the open-course approach more legitimate, lowering the cost to entry by providing a "template" for their creation, and providing learners with a "more robust and systematic approach".
However, we are now seeing a less experimental approach to the creation of MOOCs, says Professor Weller. The beauty of forming a MOOC, he says, was that it "allowed you to explore new pedagogy...and subject matter". He believes the latest models are too conventional.
Professor Weller also worries that, while they are free, they are not open in the sense of being "reusable and openly accessible".
He is also concerned that if MOOCs were to develop a commercial aspect, it would not be long before "they are engaged in Facebook-type data selling, for instance".
Paul Greatrix, registrar at the University of Nottingham, also voices his concerns on his Registrarism blog. "A huge issue for MOOCs is the absence of accredited certification," he writes. "One solution might therefore be to forget credentialling altogether and make the link directly between student and employers, charging the former for promoting them and the latter for access.
"Alternatively, or additionally, they could offer additional premium paid-for content and services which bring them closer to current fee-charging online higher education, such as tutoring, online assessment support, library resources etc. And if the worst comes to the worst, the MOOC providers could always sell advertising space."
Amanda Krauss, former assistant professor of Classics at Vanderbilt University, is even more reticent. Writing on her Worst Professor Ever blog, she says: "[These criticisms] reflect the limitations of MOOCs everywhere. And the main one is this: there's basically no direct, individual instruction from, evaluation by, or interaction with anyone who knows what they're doing. Period."
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