Unpacking the lessons of MOOCs

This is a guest post from Tim Klapdor, re-posted and adapted from his blog Heart | Soul | Machine. Tim has been a past contributor to the TELedvisor webinar series (you can see his presentation on the 3Rs of open practice from 2018).

Tim has recently moved states and institutions and is now the Manager of Online Learning Design and Content for the University of Adelaide. He’s also found he has to re-examine his position on MOOCs, and their imminent decline: in fact, as he says

I find myself in the position of gearing up to actually develop a MOOC (or six). And I’m legitimately excited about it.

Read on to find out why Tim is so excited.

I had never been a fan of MOOCs or what they represented when they first arrived. I watched the executives of elite institutions join in the hype and “discover” what distance and open education providers had already been doing for a century – it was galling.

The criticisms of the MOOC hype have mostly played out. The lack of a business model, the exorbitant costs of production, the unsuitability of the platform to many disciplines, the limited learning design – all led to significant failures, pivots and losses. Yet MOOCs have remained, and that’s because not everything about MOOCs was bad.

The MOOC hype demonstrated that there was, and is, huge demand for education and:

  • the qualification itself (or lack thereof) didn’t turn people away
  • online platforms allowed education to become global and not regional
  • you could deliver great learning experiences online.

With a global audience, institutions could capitalise on the specialisations of their staff and find an audience for narrowly focussed courses. MOOCs were never the bad guys: rather, the problems were the accompanying hype, diversion of investment, historical amnesia, whitewashing and lack of critical engagement.

So why am I making a MOOC?

This “MOOC” is not being planned to be truly massive, nor is it going to be free or open (where “open” means OER or open source). It’s a MOOC because it’s a non-degree award online course that will be available on EdX, and the reason that it’s a MOOC is that the MOOC platform is exactly the right space for this kind of course.

Our team is developing a series of Mathematics MOOCs to provide a qualification that will help students achieve the maths pre-requisites for entry into a range of university courses here at Adelaide but that could apply more universally. It’s aligned closely to an institutional need so there’s a high business value attached to the program, which is often not the case for many MOOCs. This isn’t a marketing exercise: this is a solution to a real problem we face which is to ensure students, local and international, have the right level of mathematics as they come into their study.

Learners can look beyond the credential. I feel that the lessons we could have learned from providing MOOCs have never been unpacked. Higher Ed doesn’t really speak about these kind of things: we never got together and had a proper debrief about what the hell happened.

There has been little discussion about MOOCs and what we can learn from them. Sure, they had low completion rates, but MOOCs also pointed to a demand, and showed that the hallowed credential that universities hold onto isn’t as all-powerful a drawcard as it once was. Hundreds of thousands of people signed up to MOOCs knowing full well that what they were doing wasn’t going to count towards a degree or be a “stackable credential”. These people signed up because they were interested in learning. Whether they did or not is almost an aside: what MOOCs showed was that there was a desire and a willingness to look beyond the credential and the certificate.

Universities can work outside the box. The other lesson for me was that MOOCs provided a platform for experimentation. Those who love to talk about disrupting education and forcing change into a system that hasn’t changed in millennia seem to forget how regulated the education system is. It’s damn hard to implement any change within the system itself. Yes, you can disobey and protest, perhaps experiment in your own class, but testing and trying out new models is incredibly hard. So it’s often overlooked that MOOCs provided that outlet and space to innovate.

For many institutions, places like EdX and FutureLearn provide a reputable, paywalled environment for universities to offer something other than their traditional degree programs. A MOOC doesn’t rely on integrations with existing systems, especially the nightmare that tends to be the student information system. It provides universities with a safe space to do something different and outside the box. It gives universities the kind of space they need to do innovative teaching and learning, because it’s a pretty tough sell (and murky ethically) to justify them doing it with fee-paying students.

Universities have to be able to innovate in their teaching. Making innovations in a proper “live” course is incredibly hard and difficult for most institutions because there are so many rules, accreditation requirements, and quality assurance measures now in place. MOOCs are almost the last bastion for experimentation. And while I may have rejected the outlandish hype of the initial flurry of MOOCs in 2012, the Year of the MOOC, I cannot argue against creating space for innovation. I know first-hand how difficult that is to get access to that space, and how necessary is it for universities to engage with it to carve out their own futures.

And that’s what we’ll be doing – utilising the MOOC space to innovate and explore some different approaches to creating online courses and a unique online experience. This MOOC will give us a lot of freedom compared to the other projects we’re working on. We’ll be able to be more creative because we’re working on some really tricky problems and the platform isn’t as restrictive. It’s also an opportunity to put into practice a load of ideas we’ve been working on and to work in the way our team have been preaching – in an agile and iterative way. We’ve got awesome academic staff to work with, our team has the facilities and the resources to develop some amazing content and interactive elements and we’re lucky enough to have the freedom to get on with it.

Students can work on the problem. One of the other aspects I’m really looking forward to is getting students into the project and being part of the project, not just to test and refine the course, but to actively develop it with them, rather than for them. University of Adelaide’s Students as Partners program is an amazing way to engage with students and make them part of the process.

So I’m making a MOOC. Not to jump on a trend or because we’ve “discovered” something new, but because it’s actually fit for purpose. We need the flexibility, we need the trust in the platform and we have a really interesting purpose that’s driving development. I hope I can talk to that in the future.

Our thanks to Tim for allowing us to post some of the lessons that MOOCs have taught him, and his latest thoughts on MOOCing. For the full post (“I’m making a MOOC“), and to see Tim’s past critiques of MOOC hype, go to his blog Heart | Soul | Machine.


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