Jun 18, 2014

MOCKING MOOCS



On June 16, 2014, a governmental appointed expert group released an Official Norwegian Report on MOOCs in higher education (NOU 2014: 5. MOOC til Norge. Nye digitale læringsformer i høyere utdanning). The group states that the report is «hairy» - others will probably look at it as a hair in the soup. The report suggests governmental measures that require NOK 130-380 (Euro 16-48) million in yearly investments. This initiates a welcome debate about all the good online education initiatives during the last decades – and how we can improve future online education.

Just before the report was released, I took part in the development of the Kragerø Open Online Education Declaration together with a group of 14 Nordic experts associated with NooA – the Nordic open online Academy. Our discussions revealed that online learning and education covers a much broader range of activities, issues and opportunities than MOOCs. Therefore, the issues and statements that were discussed during the workshop, then refined and prioritised through an online Delphi process, resulted in the following declaration and 23 statements supporting it:

“We strongly believe that the current open education values and practice will improve, innovate and even revolutionize learning and education worldwide. In many cases, it can be more flexible, economical and open than traditional education. Online learning and education can potentially emulate all educational activities in schools and colleges, not only single courses as the MOOCs do. We urge politicians, bureaucrats, managers, researchers, course designers, teachers and students to develop, promote and support quality online learning and education”.

Norway needs sustainable online education. We should avoid the mistakes the Swedish authorities made with Nätuniversitetet. During three years, they injected several hundred million kroner in colleges and universities that developed online courses. This resulted in many excellent online courses – which were discontinued – when the extraordinary funding from Nätuniversitetet ended. Such initiatives are also problematic since they can make it difficult for sound, but unfunded, initiatives to survive because of the temporarily unfair competition.

It can also be useful to learn from the EU-project: Megatrends in E-learning Provision. In the book Online Education – Global e-learning in a Scandinavian perspective, I present the project’s analyses of 26 large, successful online education initiatives. Maybe we can learn even more from the ten large initiatives that not were successful. MOOC-advocates should read the project recommendations – especially the first of the seven related to the failed initiatives: Many governmental online education initiatives have not been sustainable

MOOCs are prized for being free and open for everyone. At the same time, they are criticised for disturbingly high dropout rates, insufficient student support and lacking business models. It reminds me of the arguments that were used in the heyday of public educational broadcasting.

Both educational broadcasting and MOOCs need sustainable financial models to succeed. It is therefore thought-provoking that colleges and universities start to provide free online services when newspapers reverse this strategy. MOOC-providers struggle to find sustainable business models. They test the opportunities to charge for access to teachers, technical support, student support services, exams, certificates and additional content. These services are often lacking or insufficient in MOOCs, but for decades, they have been obvious services included in traditional online education.

As the CEO of Campus NooA, I see that we need online courses for small- and medium sized businesses and organizations, courses with flexible start-up and progression and online education providers that handle a broader range of services that online students, teachers and staff need. I therefore have the following three questions related to the MOOC-advocates:

1. Small- and medium sized business and organizations have countless training and learning needs that are well suited for online courses, but not for MOOCs. One example is the course Spanish for adopting parents, which Campus NooA developed in collaboration with Adopsjonsforum for about 50 adopting parents in Norway. Even for such small groups of people, online courses can be flexible, cost effective and good. So, why don’t we focus more on flexible online courses for smaller and closed groups?

2. Today, people often have busy lives with job- and family responsibilities that require flexible start-up and progression plans. Campus NooA and some other providers specialise in this. So, I wonder if the MOOCs represent a setback regarding this flexibility?

3. Why should universities and colleges provide open online courses to everyone? Shouldn’t they focus on providing a wide range of good online services to their own students? And not only individual MOOC courses, but complete Bachelor, Master and Doctoral programmes?

Finally, it is thought-provoking that online education has not developed as swiftly as I thought when I wrote my 1989 article: in Search of a Virtual School.

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