Polishing off my MOOC

I’m feeling a bit smug. If we academics know one thing about MOOCs, it is that only a tiny proportion of those who start the course actually make it through to the end. And I’ve polished off my MOOC with four days to go.

Having decided that I wanted to actually take a MOOC before pontificating about them, I set myself three criteria: practicality, ignorance and irrelevance. This one – on England in the Time of Richard III – met all three. It was planned to take up two hours a week, and would run for six weeks, so it was manageable. I don’t know much about pre-modern history (I tend to think of anything before the Reformation as having to do with either Normans, Vikings or Romans). And it was nothing to do with my day job.

I’ve found it a thoroughly enjoyable experience. I learned a lot, much of it unexpected (by me at least), about society, culture and the economy in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries; the changes wrought by the Black Death were far more extensive than I’d supposed. I was interested particularly by the revolution in publishing, fuelled partly by technology, but also by new demands from what was clearly a more literate society than I’d supposed. I didn’t learn as much as I’d expected about the political conflicts that erupted periodically into armed conflict; for me, they;re still vague palace intrigues and dynastic rivalries (or “those naughty Normans at it again”). And the final unit, on the archeological and forensic work in Leicester, was predictably fascinating.

For the purposes of dietary restrictions, the church defined beavers (and ducks) as fish.

For the purposes of dietary restrictions, the medieval church defined beavers (and ducks) as fish.

Do I think MOOCs will revolutionise education in our lifetime? Like a lot of people, I don’t think they are game-changers just yet. Partly this is down to economics. My MOOC was provided by the University of Leicester, working with the Open University and other partners through FutureLearn. It provided a mixture of resources – audio clips, video clips, downloads, an app, a student forum – and, of course, text. These are costly, and participation is free. Then there are equally important questions about equity and access, pedagogic support, quality assurance, and learner assessment.

We need to treat MOOCs less as a uniquely thrilling or appalling game changer, and more as part of a long term process in which teaching and learning are redefined. It includes the foundation of the OU (highly successful) and the founding of e-university collaborations in England and Scotland (both expensive failures). Digitisation has transformed publishing (including academic publishing), broadcasting, the recording of music, and the processing of massive volumes of information; of course it will affect education, in ways that are still evolving rapidly.

We can probably see MOOCs as exciting, worthy but slightly peripheral ventures at present – a sort of contemporary form of extra-mural education. Yet something has changed with their introduction. The ‘game’ may not have changed, but the way we play it has been shifting steadily for some decades, and it will continue to do so.