Thoughts from Online Educa 2012 – Mooc-h ado about nothing?

images Well, it’s that time of year again – festive lights, mulled wine can only mean one thing.  Well actually two things and one of them is Online Educa Berlin.  As one of the major conferences in the international  learning calendar, what sets it apart is not just the scale but more specifically the scale of the conference.  Unlike many other shows, this is a huge conference with a small exhibition – in fact at each 1 1/2 hour slot during the day, there are 18 different workshops, presentations, debates and learning labs taking place.  In total, there are 102 sessions, not including video sessions, talking head sessions and the exhibition itself. But amongst the sheer volume of sessions, there is one theme that is the talk of the event – MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses).  A quick wander around the exhibition and you could see MOOCs appearing on roller banners, multimedia presentations and leaflet stands.  It’s not all that surprising given that the audience for the event is predominantly from the education sector (with a huge showing from Universities worldwide), but it’s not a simple love story by any means.  In 2012, the media have covered extensively the push from Harvard and MIT on their EdX MOOCs initiative and it appears others are eager to follow suit (or at least not appear to be left behind).  But in the conference sessions and debates, there has been evidence of quite the backlash against MOOCs.  Much of the criticism is levelled at dubious design and pedagogy, complexity for the student, high drop out rates and even a new acronym definition ‘Massively Over-hyped Online Content-dump’. So MOOCs are just a fad, right?  Wel it’s not all that easy to pick your way through the objections, are they born of analysis or fear?  It is certainly a legitimate criticism of MOOCs that as a result of size, the varied quality of materials and support by virtue of their open nature poses serious challenges on learner experience, quality and ease of use.  However the unprecedented access to free contents from some of the world’s leading academic institutions is incredibly exciting.  The non-chargeable aspect is one that is shaking the sector and raising concerns over funding for universities and even their existence in the long-term. However, we’ve been here before.  The rise of online distance learning sparked something of a backlash from advocates of traditional models of learning not just in academia but in the commercial sector too.  Face to face will never be bettered, online is a poor substitute, a cheap and not often cheerful solution to budgetary pressure.  However, once design and pedagogy improved, the acceptance that perhaps a better learning outcome could be achieved (through the marriage of formal and informal learning) spread throughout learning and education.  In my view, I see MOOCs as a gateway to learning, a way to promote an interest in developing knowledge in a subject, an opportunity to connect with others, a taster that may lead me to bite and enrol in a more formal programme with an institution.  Perhaps the term loss leader is a little too crass, but MOOCs could be the shop window to the opportunities online learning can provide and a way for a wider population to experience an alternative way to access higher education before committing their money to university fees.  The impact of this is ensuring the MOOC doesn’t ignore sound learning design methodology and it could be that those MOOCs are not being well received may be experiencing a lag between drive to get your subject matter expertise online and understanding of what an effective delivery of your expertise looks like online. In addition (and something that was a key driver for Willow developing Pathway back in 2007) is a better more intuitive way to deliver these programmes.  The massive part should allude to participation, not on volumes of content that are increasingly difficult to navigate and sift.  So perhaps the next phase of MOOCs will focus on what works in order to simplify and refine their offerings.