In the past couple of month I had taken a look at Massive Open Online Courses, better known under its abbreviation MOOC. These courses received some attention recently and from time to time you hear that they will be the future of lecturing at Universities. In this post I would like to talk about some of my own impressions on this topic and show where the problems and chances of these systems can be found.
The platform I had chosen to take a look into the world of MOOC was FutureLearn, hosting mostly content from UK universities. On this I visited a language course and have taken some look into courses, which are nearer to my usual research topics. They were all nicely made, and obviously a lot of effort went into their creation. Short videos, some describing texts and from time to time some quizzes and compulsory discussions build the basis of most courses. The content of most of the courses I have seen was mainly for the general audience, and with this they I had the impressions that thy are mainly used as advertisement for the real courses at the universities. The language course was about writing essays and included the standard recommendations to write them. The commentaries were used for people to write paragraphs and in the end a peer review was used to check each others written essay over the weeks. The effort for most causes was designed to be around 10 to 15 hours, which were stretched over 4 to 6 weeks. All in all my impression was quite positive, as most used media seemed quite professionally made and the content could be of use for those, who care for it. Problematic was for me the motivation to do these courses properly, but this is generally the problem of far distance learning courses. Even when well made, the user need quite a bit of self-discipline to get through the content every week. However, it can be quite a bit of fun doing so.
Were they my first encounter of online courses? No, definitely not. A couple of years ago I discovered the online lectures of Jörn Loviscach, a computer scientist who started quite early with publishing his lectures on the web. I really liked his attitude and way to present his work in the classrooms, which are recorded at a University of Applied Science in Bielefeld. The (german) lectures are introducing computer science and basic math and are technically well made. He shows a real lecture and combines it at the university with quite a lot of background of online material for his students. Nevertheless, he has become also a critic of the movement to more MOOC as the advantages are not as great as some decision makers think. The argumentation is quite complicate, but well explained and illustrated in the following video:
So what is my point on this? Well first of all far distance learning can work. We have institutions in many countries, like the Open University in the UK or the TeleKolleg and FernUniversität Hagen in Germany, who do courses for decades and are very successful with that. The idea that MOOC might be able to replace standard lectures or even these institutions is in my view far from realistic. MOOCs are a nice addition to the classic lecturing and can build a foundation for far distance courses. Nevertheless, it highly depends on the content, which should be transported. When I remember my math courses in the first terms of my studies, it would have been horrible to get through them on my own, without the face to face discussions and the social interaction with other fellow students. Also in the established far distance learning centres, time where the presence of students is required is often compulsory.
In an ideal case, videos can be as good as PowerPoint lectures. That being said, I have to add that I am quite critical of them. My experience is that PowerPoint lectures are for students a good time to sleep. They might be nice to show some applications in colourful pictures during a dry theoretical course, but replacing the content of such a course, might not be the best idea. Every student learns differently, and for me personally, writing things down played an important element in understanding things during my study time. PowerPoint lectures invite students to just sit and listen, which in most cases lead to hardly any understanding of the contents. Writing the lectures on the chalk boards might be for some too traditional, but I still think that these are the best forms of lectures. Of cause they need additions by tutorials or supportive material, which may be videos as seen during the MOOCs. Nevertheless, having a traditional lecture as the connecting and integrating element, is in my view a very good idea.
So I do not think that MOOCs will generally replace the lectures at universities in the foreseeable future. They might be cheap and yes there are a lot of other advantages. But they are far away, even when very well done, to offer the huge advantages that good lectures have.