The MOOC: power to the few, or to the many?

It’s about time I started a blog about academic stuff… and with a sabbatical coming up in Australia next semester, and a book to write (and tell people about), now’s the time…

This move was probably waiting to find the right issue to start with, but the provocation was making the following post to the ALT-Members mailing list (Association of Learning Technologists), today, on the subject of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses):

I think that although the structures used to deliver education are changing – and the MOOC is just an extension of things that were already happening with distance learning, so this change has been underway for some time – I believe that we still need good teachers, in the sense of people with drive, vision, subject matter expertise and an affinity for, and knowledge of, their students. This is what really makes any course, isn’t it? How many of us think back to the best courses we have undertaken and go, hmmmm, really liked that VLE, or really enjoyed that assignment? No, most of the time it will have been because of the teacher.

In the very good recent article by the team at Edinburgh who are involved in one of the new MOOCs, they pointed out that the role of the teacher shifted into a more distant role, but was still very present, just as people buy books on cooking and may feel, even in a small way, that they are being ‘taught’ by Jamie Oliver (or whomever). Now, such charismatic effects are not invested in institutions. They are invested in individuals. The first key point then is that I believe the success of a MOOC remains invested in individuals, or at least, good close teams (of genuine colleagues, rather than some kind of hierarchical structure).

It is clear that an institution with money, and good management will be able – like a successful football club – to marshal a very good team of individuals and get them working together within some kind of common infrastructure. They don’t even need to be located in the same country any more. That may lead to some institutions becoming the Manchester United/Barcelona/etc. of education. To some extent, this has always been the case, but MOOCs will exacerbate it at first.

Students in a face-to-face class

How much do we need face-to-face teaching? Can the MOOC bring down the notion of a campus?

However, I believe that within them, the power remains with the teacher. If a teacher is what makes a MOOC really work – invests that infrastructure with the spark which will keep students interested and motivate them to complete the course and – perhaps at some point – be willing to pay for it; then institutions will need to work hard to keep the teacher with them and, in due course, reap the benefits of the MOOC. Because, just like the new model of online publication is seeing a shift in power away from the middle-man (publishers) and toward a more direct connection between author and reader, producer and consumer (and indeed a fuzzying, even eradication, of the boundaries between the two) – so it is in education. I believe that what is being weakened by the MOOC is the middle-man, the institution, the impersonal system that is regulating access to education and deciding who can come in and how much they will pay – and how the academics under their charge will be managed. And paid. Because the second that we develop the possibility of the student paying the teaching team directly for their work and (as noted in the Clay Shirky post) we can decouple the idea of ‘learning’ from the idea of ‘getting a degree’; then we have a business model that may not require institutions at all. (Market-savvy teachers in MOOCs should surely already be thinking of ‘spin-offs’ – all you need is everyone in a 50,000-strong MOOC to be willing to spend £10 on your accompanying e-book and, well, I’d be quite happy with that as a return. Particularly if I’d self-published the book.)

As a teacher, I do not feel threatened by the MOOC, and when I’ve got time, I’m going to look into setting one up of my own. I have something to say, I think; as with many academics, there aren’t an infinite number of people publishing in my specialist field; I am confident that I have an original slant on things, could bring in other leading colleagues from round the world as guests or partners in various ways; know about distance learning (though I’d obviously have more to learn – at the start, and as the course evolves); etc. Put it this way, I could give it a good go. And I don’t – wouldn’t – need an institution to do it – except, most likely, to advertise it, and that could be done by a different agency. Yes, these are idealistic views, but they are still possible futures.

That is the really exciting thing in the end. Publishers are trying to find ways to hang on, and yes, some publishing institutions are very strong at the moment, but in the end the author _can_ reach the reader directly and we are starting to see the consequences of this. Same with music. And the same with education.