Exploring The Benefits Of Massive Open Online Courses Within Higher Education

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)As part of my continued professional development, I recently attended the Higher Education Academy (HEA) STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) Conference for 2013. One of the hot topics for discussion was the growth of Massive Open Online Courses, known popularly as MOOCs.

The idea behind MOOCs is that they facilitate learning with very large groups of students (sometimes in the thousands). They are studied over the Internet. Generally, MOOCs are made available for free, hence comprising a type of Open Educational Resource (OER), but they can lead on to paid courses. Teaching materials are typically structured as video or audio, with access to discussion areas such as forums for peer support. Often, the teaching materials are the same ones which paid students at the institution concerned would be using to study. Live recordings of lectures are common.

Since MOOCs are taken by such large groups of people, they are not usually formally supported and assessed by the academics delivering the course to paying students. That would not be feasible. Instead, alternatively support types are incorporated, such as peer interaction and discussion. Alternative assessment methods, such as multiple choice tests, are used to demonstrate whether the student has successfully completed the course. Additionally, many MOOCs do carry valid academic credit, which can be put towards some qualifications and some course entrance requirements.


Involving Students With MOOCs

There seem to be two schools of thought on how academic institutions like Birmingham City University should react to the availability of MOOCS.

The first school of thought is that they should be looked on as competition. Hence, they should not be recommended, since they may pose a threat towards students attending traditional university education.

The second school of thought is that the availability of MOOCs should be embraced by universities. This includes through the university directly creating MOOCs and delivering this widespread form of education. This can also be by encouraging students to take advantage of the learning opportunities that MOOCs provide.


Embracing MOOCs

I certainly support the view that MOOCs should be embraced and that individual students and lecturers should make more use of these existing and valuable resources.

There are many very high quality MOOCs out there. Although they may provide the same material as existing course offerings, they likely present this education in a different manner.

I’ve long since encouraged students looking for a textbook to support their studies to look through a number of possible texts and to select the one that works best for them. Everyone reacts to different styles of presentation. Textbooks can fill a suitable gap alongside lectures and tutorial classes where students feel that they need additional support.

The availability of MOOCs takes this one step further. Since most MOOCs are presented in either video or audio formats, these can support students who learn better in these styles. As well as offering alternative wording, these different forms of presentation also offer students new examples and case studies. This is particularly valuable for technical fields such as Computer Science.

Students can also be encouraged to use MOOCs to get further insight into course related areas, without the need to take all the associated assessed elements that are already covered in their own course. Here, it is the additional training that is most important, rather than the duplicate qualification.


MOOCs And Employability

Where I feel that MOOCs really come into their own is with providing students with extra credit beyond their courses.

Much of my current research is about helping students to become employable. I often relate this to the “so what?” question which is often asked by employers. Whilst being necessary, merely having a degree does not allow a student to differentiate themselves from other applicants for a career position. They need to demonstrate more.

Students who are taking MOOC based courses can develop further skills beyond those which are directly taught to them. On a Computer Science course, this might involve becoming proficient with programming languages that have not been directly taught to them. However, students can branch out beyond the Computing discipline entirely. Additional MOOC credits, demonstrating business acumen, management potential or foreign language skills, can all look impressive to employers.

MOOC study can be timed to take place during university vacation periods, so as to not overwhelm students when they are studying. Taking these courses can also allow students to get ahead of their next year of study by preparing for those modules that they are due to take over the next academic year. They can be also be used as an induction before students begin their course, allowing them to familiarise themselves with core university concepts.


Use MOOCs As Additional Resources

Whilst I value the growth of MOOCS and their increased availability to students, I don’t feel that these can replace current taught university courses. There are many benefits to traditional university study. Much of this is based around face-to-face interaction. Having direct contact with professional lecturers, as well as peer support from other students on the course is vitally important for long-term success. Traditional degrees are also recognised by employers in a way that MOOCS are not.

I do feel that the academic community should embrace MOOCs and all the additional opportunities that they provide for both current and future students. I recommend that students explore the possibility of getting further training through these courses so that they can set themselves up for a rewarding and long-term career.

About Thomas Lancaster

I work as a Lecturer in Computing at Birmingham City University, where I'm responsible for several courses including BSc Computer Science. I also teach a variety of modules for students and deliver regular workshops for professionals. My main research interests are based around the field of Computing Education, with particular interests in social media use, assessment, student plagiarism, contract cheating, employability and student work placements. Feel free to contract me relating to media and speaking opportunities based around those fields. To find out more about me, please visit ThomasLancaster.co.uk.