MOOCs and SPOCs – Everything you need to know….

So what is this article about? Its been written to try and explain the phenomenon of MOOCs and how it is sweeping the higher education world – not just in the UK, but around the world. I hope you find it useful.
So what are MOOCs?
A MOOC stands for Massive Open Online Course. In its very basic form a MOOC provides access to anyone who cares to join up to a particular course provided by a university. The ‘massive’ bit is because literally thousands will join up at one time, while the term ‘online’ speaks for it’s self. These courses tend NOT to be accredited i.e. able to provide a formally recognised university level qualification, although some providers are experimenting with certificates i.e. to confirm the student has studied and completed certain elements of a subject area.

One main attraction of many MOOCs is the fact that much of the course materials studied by students are written by top academics in their field and from top institutions from around the world.

MOOCs – a potted history
As with many new initiatives in education this one has come from the States and spread throughout the world including the UK.

So who started ‘MOOCs’?
The term was first used by an American academic Dave Cormier of the Prince Edward Island University. The course he used the term for was ‘Connectivism and Connective knowledge’. I won’t bore you with the details of what the course content was about (something about technology), but suffice to say 2200 online members of the public from around the world took up the course for free.

From there the concept of MOOCs became more and more of a sea of change that many institutions in higher education felt they had to be involved in. However it could be argued that the next main development of MOOCs was the syndication of courses run by consortiums of universities such as Udacity, Coursera, edX. These organisations offer a variety of courses from institutions not just from the States, but from other countries around the world. More on what’s available in the UK later.
What next for MOOCs
Some of these organisations have now started to move into certification of their courses. What will come later (and to an extent it already has) is how to monetise MOOCs that are for moment, being given away for free.

Therefore it’s unclear how MOOCs are sustainable in the long term. The initial egalitarian notion of free study from some of the top universities from across the world is one thing, but higher education still costs, and some of these courses are run and materials written by top academics in their field. Somehow all this needs to be paid for.

So how might this be done.
Naturally it’s the American providers that are pushing the boundaries of innovation in relation how this could be achieved. Everything from franchising courses to third parties to charging for ancillary services such as CV preparation and job match help are being looked at as ways of funding courses. An obvious way is to charge for the certificates at the end i.e. don’t want one? That’s fine – you’re free to still take advantage of free study etc, but if you want it formally recognised, then its going to cost you.

So why do a MOOC in the first place?
There’s no one reason for studying a MOOC – apart from one undeniable fact – if there is a thirst/interest/need to be educated about something or other, then a MOOC is a great way of doing it, by studying with some of the best minds in what ever field you care to think of. For some it’s the interest in a particular subject area, perhaps one that is not widely available via main stream study. For others there may be the need to cover a particular subject for work or as part of other current study.

Of course for some in parts of the world where the possibility of studying something linked to a top western university is pretty much impossible, the option of the MOOC is a no brainer. And from the other perspective i.e. that of the academic, the idea of literally thousands of students studying and completing a piece of work written by them must be pretty awe inspiring.

But what do employers think of MOOCs?
That’s a difficult one to answer at this stage. The fact is this relatively new phenomenon has yet to appear on the radar of most employers. And when it’s remembered we (in the UK) tend to be behind the USA at the best of times, our employers probably won’t have a clue about them for a while yet (am I being unkind here?).

This makes it difficult for anyone to compare like for like. For an employer it’s difficult to see how they’re going to be able to tell if a MOOC is a great piece of work or a worthless piece of paper. Bench marking is something that needs to happen here. This goes too for other educational institutions. It’s not clear how a MOOC completed at one institution would be viewed elsewhere. Comparison between courses provided by different institutions is not easy. However at the moment it seems many students are happy to use a MOOC as a way of securing a place on a formal qualification at the same institution, using the MOOC as a kind of access module.

The issue of quality is in a sense directly related to the earlier point raised in this piece about recognition of MOOCs by employers. There is an issue of the quality of what is being studied and presented as the result of this work. How is this to be done and by whom?

Apparently (in the UK) the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA is a kind of OFSTED for universities) is looking into how benchmarking can be achieved for MOOCs. This would go some way to alleviating fears for students that all their hard work is not for nothing if wishing to progress education elsewhere or possibly use it for work.
So how are students doing with MOOCs?
Well it has be said that completion rates aren’t great. In fact they are pretty dire. But this is common for distance learning anyway. Completion rates for distance online study is nowhere as successful as for campus based study – not even half. The rates for MOOCs are worse still; negligible in some case e.g. maybe a few dozen out of thousands of starters are not uncommon.

The fact is this style of self regulatory type of education is simply not for anyone. Despite a plethora of different types of study options e.g. SKYPE, books, email, online tutorials etc, self motivation is difficult to do ones self. And besides, many students will be taking these courses purely out of interest in a subject area and to enhance their personal understanding of a particular topic.
So are SPOCs any better?
But first of all what are SPOCs? SPOC stands for Small Private Online Course. Again created in the US, these courses support much smaller numbers of students. Also although online teaching is still very much part of a SPOC, classroom interaction can also be an intrinsic element of this type of learning. In fact the OU has been a fore runner of this type of ‘blended’ learning for years. The mixture of tutorial, video, dvd, Skype type communications, student tutorials, phone etc has been a staple diet of the OU’s offering for quite a while, except they call it Supported Open Learning.

Universities such as Harvard, Berkeley and MOOC consortiums such as edX were the first to start to experiment with SPOCs. So how do they control numbers? Well for a start SPOCs tend NOT to be open for all in the same way that MOOCs are. Registration on a SPOC tends to be by invitation only or some form of assessment or test set by the institution to be completed and submitted by the student. The result will determine entry.

So are SPOCs the more likely of the two study experiences to survive and be adopted in the longer term? Well MOOCs are extremely successful if total student numbers are taken into account. For example some of the consortiums in the States have had more students for one MOOC than they have had for their entire traditional student cohort – ever.

However another method of measuring the success of either a SPOC or a MOOC is that of completion rates. Evidence so far points to SPOCs being far more successful in this respect and also that of satisfaction levels. It’s not difficult to see why.

SPOCs offer more rigorous teaching and assessment of a student’s work than a MOOC, which because of their huge numbers of participants (often from across the world), struggle to retain involvement in the materials and ultimately allow the student to achieve the course’s objectives.

In the UK the leading provider of MOOCs is the Future Learn consortium. Headed by the Open University, the Future Learn consortium is a non for profit provider with a number of higher education institutions involved including Warwick University in the UK, Trinity College Dublin and Monash University of Melbourne Australia.

So what of the future?
So there you have it – a quick run through MOOCs and SPOCs and what they have to offer students from around the world. So what of their future? Well this will depend on good old fashion economics. Despite the exciting potential of this new way of studying (access for all?), completion rates, recognition of completed study and above all making them pay are all issues that will need to be dealt with at some stage. In the meantime MOOCs and SPOCs continue to evolve and grow while at the same time shaking up the established model of higher education learning.
The Open University (Open Education – What are MOOCs)
BBC (SPOC in the news)