MOOCs: Relevant for development?
[I’ve been terrible at keeping up to regular blogging over the past few months so I’m going to try to blog shorter pieces, straight from the hip, but more frequently – here’s the first in the new format, let’s see how it goes]
One of the latest crazes in learning that everyone is talking about is MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). These are web-based training courses that are usually run according to a specific timetable or schedule, but which are open to participation by anyone and are free to join and can potentially host an unlimited number of participants as their design allows them to be scaled to support large numbers. They are usually asynchronous meaning that although they may follow a specific timetable, participants can carry out their learning activities at any time of day. Common features that allow MOOCs to work are standardized instruction that can be accessed at any time such as pre-recorded presentations, standardized course readings, and use of standard self-completion quizzes and tests to assess progress.
But what makes them different from say standard self-completion courses on CD-ROM (or courses such as online driver’s education courses) is the interactivity between course participants in the form of individual or team based assignments, online discussions and with participants “marking” or giving feedback to each other on their coursework and progress. The peer-to-peer elements means that participants can learn from each other as well as from the official course material and this keeps the need for interaction and support by official tutors to a minimum which allows the courses to be scaled to large numbers.
As with any new technological innovation MOOCs are currently making their way through the hype cycle, with people gushing about how they will revolutionize learning and make traditional college based learning obsolete. This is balanced by a number of skeptics, and perhaps a growing number of realists who see through experience that while promising the benefits have probably also been over-hyped. Here are a few personal observations on MOOCs and their potential in aid/development work from a non-expert, but someone who has participated in a number of them and has contributed to developing at least one of them:
1. MOOCs offer open access to educational content that was previously unavailable to most. A large number of renowned colleges and schools have made content available for free online that could normally only be accessed by enrolled, paying students who could attend the classes in person. You still need a computer and internet, and the course material itself may require a certain level of education and experience in order to benefit from it, but it is a huge step forward in opening up knowledge. This means that they have a great potential for broadening education and outreach to new and global audiences – including on topics relevant to development. On a more selfish note, they are also a great potential learning resource for development workers.
2. Participating in a MOOC is nothing like being on a real college course. Following pre-recorded lectures online does not give the nuance and flavour of sitting in a lecture hall with a great teacher, and being able to interact with the professors and with other students in person. With online learning what you get out of it is also even more dependent on what you put into it than for in person courses. With a course that is free and online it is easy to be distractedly reading your e-mails while listening to the videos, or to not take the time to do the readings or assignments or to drop out altogether. But if you put in the effort you can get a lot out of it, even if it’s not as good as a face to face event.
3. The design of MOOCs for optimal online learning is probably in its early stages. Quality varies widely and many have somewhat uninspiring online videos of talking heads and somewhat simplistic online discussion questions where the quality of discussion is very dependent on who the organizers were able to attract to the course in the first place. The majority of courses are also run as online analogues of existing college courses rather than something adapted more to the audience, medium and external demand. Some of the more promising aspects of the methodology are the work on group projects and peer feedback and other tools to connect participants together – in particular the chance to work on group assignments with people who are much more diverse that you normally find on a typical college course or workplace – an experience which is both challenging and very educational. I expect that over time we will see more experimentation with formats, and as a result, some improvements in teaching methodology to make them more interesting and their content more memorable. I also expect that the content of courses will evolve away from simply repurposing of college material into material more adapted to the interests, aptitudes and schedules of different audiences.
4. Who pays for MOOCs? From a user perspective they are free, but someone still needs to pay for adapting all that content, hosting it online and marketing it. For now, many people are keen to get into this new business and so are making content available without necessarily having a clear idea about the sustainability of the approach. That will not last. If content providers can’t see a clear benefit such improved demand for their in person courses then their incentive to keep working in this area will be limited. So a sustainable funding model will be needed, and one that doesn’t cannibalize existing learning opportunities and that maintains openness. But I can also see a possibility for MOOCs to be used for publicly funded learning either as a public good e.g. entrepreneurship training for the unemployed or for small business owners; or as a combination of advocacy and learning such as a course on human rights that would be both educational but also try to change hearts and minds in the process. I can also see possibilities for commercial sponsorship for courses – which could help fund courses but would also introduce its own challenges in terms of how impartial the content provided will actually be.
In summary – I can see great potential for MOOCs in the world of development (although not quite as much as their backers proclaim), especially given the global nature of our work and our diverse and dispersed networks of partners and stakeholders. The methodology for organizing them and their sustainability still has some way to go, but I think it is worth development organizations to be experimenting with them in at least a couple of ways:
i) Developing pilot courses in the MOOC format for areas where there is a need or demand for large-scale learning on development issues and where the UN has expertise (an example would be the MyMandE initiative for e-learning on evaluation of development work aimed at aid practitioners and national government staff). This could be courses developed specifically for a mass audience, or adaptation of existing training materials to make them open, and also taking steps to maker them more interactive.
ii) Working with MOOC providers to encourage them to offer courses relevant to development practitioners, and internally in organizations to make staff better aware of the opportunities that are out there. This would involve identifying relevant offerings, but also reviewing content and delivery for relevance and quality as MOOC offerings vary widely.
There’s probably also some lessons to be learned through the participatory approaches used in the courses both to enhance our own (closed) learning events but also in terms of how we can get diverse and dispersed groups of people to collaborate online more broadly.