Moocs: from mania to mundanity

Lauren Williams's picture
Friday, October 4, 2013

The supernova effects of massive open online courses include a warping of time. Academics running Moocs report working 100-hour weeks. FutureLearn invites applause for its burn rate: 10 months from zero to a full clutch of courses. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills insisted on a one-month turnaround for The Maturing of the Mooc, our complete literature and policy review. Taking a (very) short pause, I start to suspect that the power of the Mooc is an optical illusion caused by extreme acceleration.

FutureLearn’s recent launch demonstrated this. The pedagogy seemed to be that old favourite, linear instructivism: watch an expert presentation, do some reading and an assessment, then go on to the next class. Some of its Moocs are frankly bizarre: Discover Dentistry from the University of Sheffield is described as “a course for everyone”. We’ll see.

Many courses reheat existing material, with the barest of fresh trimmings. The Open University Moocs are laced with Attenborough, like the bleary corners of an old BBC2 schedule. The caution among the university partners is palpable: hardly any top names were put forward as presenters. The University of Edinburgh is joining FutureLearn, but hedging its bets by staying on Coursera, too.

Great expectations have been hung on Moocs. David Willetts, the universities and science minister, said that FutureLearn would preserve the UK’s place in the “global race of higher education”, while Barack Obama has hailed Moocs as a “tide of innovation…that drives down costs while preserving quality”. This is the victory of hype over reality. Moocs are not strong enough to bear the weight. The very term (and format) is fragmenting: Spocs (small private online courses) are the newest sub-variant – a restricted-entry course using Harvard University’s EdX platform to deliver paid-for university content for credit.

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