MOOCs – do online courses have a place in secondary education?

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have made a huge splash in the media over the past 12 months. In short, these are (currently) short online university courses for free via three main platforms – Udacity, Coursera and Edx. Both Coursera and Edx are backed by major ‘real’ universities including Harvard and Stanford. From July this year, a UK based platform, Futurelearn, will also begin to offer online courses from a number of leading UK universities. At present it seems that many universities are getting involved because they see MOOCs as a way of attracting students to study full time at their institution, but what does the future hold? Many are skeptical about the potential scale of their impact but others see things differently. Prof Martin Bean, vice-chancellor of the Open University, describes this as the “Napster moment for higher education” and Sir Michael Barber suggests ‘an avalanche is coming’:

Meanwhile, Sebastian Thron, founder of Udacity, has made the extraordinary claim that the growth of online learning will mean that in 50 years time there will be only 10 institutions in the world delivering higher education. For a more sober reflection, I would also recommend that you read @timharford ‘s blog on the topic: what oxbridge can learn from youtube.

To get a better understanding of the developments in this area I attended a conference earlier this week hosted by Merchant Taylor’s School: ‘Making sense of MOOCs’. It was especially interesting to hear Dr Hamish Macleod talk about The University of Edinburgh’s experiences of running MOOCs in January 2013. Here is some of the raw data about the take up and completion of the six courses they offered:

MOOC data

At first glance, the ‘completion’ rates look very low when compared to ‘real’ university courses where such high drop-out rates would not be acceptable. Drop-out rates however don’t seem like the right metric to use for courses where the barriers to taking them or dropping out of them are basically nil. It seems more reasonable that MOOCs are  measured on just the absolute number of people who actually finish a course. The fact that over 6,000 people from all over the world completed a course in Equine Nutrition for no certificate or material benefit other than for extending their own learning is remarkable.

For schools, MOOCs raise different opportunities and challenges. In the near term, the real opportunity for schools is to encourage able and interested students to extend their learning by taking existing MOOCs that are relevant to them, especially if they offer a foundation for their own university study. Given that a 12 year old pupil completed the Astrobiology MOOC offered by the University of Edinburgh, many of these courses should be well within reach of the average A-level student.

A key challenge for schools, however, concerns whether MOOCs will creep deeper into secondary education. Are school MOOCs on the horizon? There are a few reasons why this might not seem likely, for example:

  1. Students may not be ready for or want self-directed online learning – students need teachers to prompt and motivate them through learning school level qualifications*
  2. Practical subjects (e.g. sciences) require practical experiences that an online course can’t replicate
  3. Why would schools want to offer such courses? They would be time consuming and potentially expensive to set up so what would be their motivation?

Despite these objections it does not seem unreasonable to suggest that secondary school online courses might be with us in the future. Here is a scenario:

Schools want to offer a broader range of subjects (e.g. additional foreign languages) or an extension class in a particular area but can’t justify the cost of employing more staff for subjects with potentially low take-up. An online A-level or short course in that subject could be offered by a group of schools getting together to set it up and they could employ one teacher to offer direction and assess work. The contact time would likely be less than in a normal class. Taught material could be delivered by video and discussion could be managed using Google Hangouts or Skype with work submitted and marked via Google Docs (this could be written or voice or video feedback). As more such courses became available, students could sign up to the courses which have the best feedback by former students. While these wouldn’t be a full MOOC experience (these would be much less ‘Massive’ and be more teacher directed), it could create a tremendous opportunity for all learners to take meaningful additional qualifications away from the constraints of the timetable.

In truth, I cannot imagine online courses will replace the school experience (school offers so much more than just subject learning, and, to be blunt, parents need somewhere for their children to be looked after), but I do think that technology like this could have a significant disruptive impact on secondary education in the coming years and schools need to be alert to the opportunities and challenges ahead.

* For one reason why human beings are so much better than computers for motivating people, read why a ticket inspector is a job that a robot could never steal:

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to MOOCs – do online courses have a place in secondary education?

  1. James Watson says:

    Thanks for these useful thoughts, Duncan – I was wondering (on the back of hearing about MOOCs at the Classical Association conference earlier this month) about the possible use of existing courses as serving a role in Oxbridge preparation – would they give the ablest students some material to think about and then discuss in personal statements and interviews?

  2. dskgeography says:

    Definitely and also a good way to find out if university study in that subject is anything like what they might be expecting.

  3. Andrew says:

    I agree with your overall sentiment that this is a case of “improve” rather than “replace”. Certainly contact with other (similar) children is pretty high on the list of what schools offer, perhaps more so than schools always appreciate.

    Although using technology to offer a greater breadth of topics is one aspect of improvement I also have a perception that secondary education as a whole caters very poorly for the differing speeds and interests of pupils. In music each pupil proceeds through instrument grade exams at their own speed based on ability and practice. Allowing something similar in science or maths is very attractive and becomes closer to reality as the technology improves. Of course the outliers in ability or motivation can skips lessons and go to a library but there are plenty in between who might go much deeper or quicker.

    • dskgeography says:

      Thank you very much for your comment. You make a very good point about how technology could allow students to work at their own speed and to focus on their interests more. The parallel with learning in music is an interesting one – while it would be uneconomic for schools to run one-to-one staffed tutorials for all students in core subjects, I’m confident that the use of technology (esp. video) could help to deconstruct the rigid structure of lesson learning as it is currently arranged in schools.

  4. Pingback: #educationfest | Head's blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s