Welcome to the Age of Digital Education

In Education by Tom Cannon

MOOC’s – Massive Open Online Courses have grown in popularity in recent years. The digital form of teaching utilises technology, discussion boards and peer learning to provide short and usually free university courses. Advocates suggest that MOOCs can make higher education more accessible and can act as a gateway to increase participation. Additionally, they can help in the improvement of full time courses, encourage alumni development and aid university marketing. Red Brick Research examines this new age of digital learning and looks at how MOOCs can be used for experimentation within higher education.

E-LearningThe concept of MOOCs first appeared in the USA with universities such as Harvard providing online courses open to everyone through US providers Coursera, EdX and Udacity. These platforms allow individuals from around the world to choose short courses according to their interests. Harvard has also utilised MOOCs for Alumni development launching HarvardX a project that will provide exclusive Alumni courses to encourage continued university engagement. In the UK leading universities teamed up in 2012 with The Open University to launch Futurelearn. The UK offering has grown and now offers a diverse range of courses from leading UK and Commonwealth educational institutions.

Why should you care?

Many of the courses vary in terms of their function and objective. For example UEA offers what could be called ‘gateway’ courses for full time education such as Preparing for Uni and Study Skills for International Students. While other courses such as Sustainability, Society and You (Nottingham) and Inside Cancer (Bath) are more introductions to a topic and represent an opportunity for universities to showcase their skills and offering.

This concept has been developed further into appetiser courses as can be seen with Loughborough’s MOOC in Innovation and Enterprise. The MOOC explores the process of the ‘innovation pathway’ and will, in addition to the mini course, be taught in full at undergraduate level. Consequently, the MOOC will allow Loughborough to gauge feedback on the main elements of the course and potentially enable an improvement in the undergraduate level experience. This is a significant development as it marks the beginning of a new form of experimentation within the higher education sector. Institutions will be able to improve courses for future undergraduates by conducting preliminary research into the content and structure of a course. The feedback will in turn not only improve student engagement but may also enable a competitive advantage over rival institutions.

The marketing and development benefits for universities are clear. But MOOCs are also increasingly gaining a wider commercial application in industry. In May the London based start-up Qualt launched the first mobile-only MOOC platform for professional development. The courses will help improve an individual’s professional development in various fields such as accountancy and enable specific skill development. Qualt has also developed a joint UK/India venture to help ‘upskill 500 million Indian citizens by 2022’.

Experimentation is Key

MOOCMOOCs offer a new platform for education and can be a multifunctional tool for universities and businesses. Although playing catch up to the USA, the UK now has a clear presence in the sphere of digital learning. Futurelearn and Qualt are extending and refining the British MOOC offering and both now provide a wide range of courses for educational and professional development on modern digital platforms.

The wider application of MOOCs is likely to continue and their use as an effective tool for education, marketing and business will encourage yet further expansion.  MOOCs could become a breeding ground for creativity and experimentation. UK institutions will be able to experiment, take risks and learn in a way that might not be politically possible in full fee-paying undergraduate courses. Certainly there may be failures but there will also be successes and MOOCs are a relatively safe low cost space in which to learn lessons. Students increasingly want more from their university and those institutions that embrace the MOOC are likely to benefit from innovations in online, offline and mixed mode learning.