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Will MOOCs help to democratise higher education?

The democratisation of higher education requires widening access to studies that lead to useful qualifications, and giving people more opportunities to select study programmes themselves and easily design their own courses from the rich pool of material freely available, Sir John Daniel told the “Worldviews 2013” conference last week. The question is whether massive open online course, or MOOCs, will help or hinder that process.

Sir John – former head of the Commonwealth of Learning and of the UK Open University, former assistant director general of education for UNESCO and current senior advisor to the Beijing DeTao Masters Academy – was delivering a keynote address at the conference held from 20-21 June at the University of Toronto.

There were two ways of interpreting the phrase ‘democratisation of higher education’, he argued: one about widening access and the other about students determining the content of their studies.

The most common meaning was widening access to higher education, and this could be unpacked further into two elements.

One was simply bringing a greater proportion of the population into higher education. The OECD suggests that 35% to 40% of 18- to 24-year-olds should receive higher education as a necessary springboard for development, said Sir John, although “the notion of ‘age cohort’ has lost its meaning as learning becomes a lifelong imperative”.

“China, in particular, has increased the scale of its higher education system dramatically with this target in mind.” In some countries, graduate unemployment was a problem, but with the possible exception of China, government policy was not to reduce access to higher education but to reform it to prepare people better for the labour market and for self-employment.

“The other element of widening access, which resonates more directly with the term ‘democracy’, is to allow people to decide for themselves what, where and when they will study, instead of having higher education institutions select students using their own criteria,” Sir John said.

“The second meaning of democratisation would have been considered laughable a generation ago, but media have changed all that,” said Sir John in a written version of his keynote.

“Students choose the content of their programmes, not just by picking a selection of courses with pre-determined content from a rich institutional prospectus, but instead by building courses themselves, drawing on the rich knowledge resources now available. Learning material on any subject is available to everyone today through the internet.”

A lesson from history

One lesson from history, Sir John argued, was that there is no magic educational medium and there probably never will be. “No single technology is revolutionary but a combination can be. By the 1960s, the blending of technologies had begun to create a rich communications environment.”

It was hard to overstate the impact of the UK Open University, which had contributed to the democratisation of higher education in terms of access. There are no admission requirements, and today the Open University has 250,000 enrolled students.

Yet despite its size, it offers quality education and last year came top of the UK’s nationwide assessment of student satisfaction. “My first conclusion from the history of the Open University is that you can deliver high quality education to large numbers using technology.

“My second is that using media in education is an evolutionary process. The Open University has not changed its mission of openness to people, places, methods and ideas. However, between 1970 and 2010 the way that it expresses and implements those values has changed.”

In the 1970s, said Sir John, the Open University revolutionised correspondence education and used broadcast TV and radio to fulfil its mission. “Today it is the largest presence on iTunesU, with 60 million downloads of its material in the last five years, one sixth of them in China.”

Democratising course design

The other interpretation of democratisation, “letting students determine the content of their studies through bespoke programmes and do-it-yourself course design”, had also seen great developments in the tools students have available – especially open educational resources, or OER.

Sir John said that the idea of academic content freely available for use and adaptation arose in the late 1990s, when MIT started putting lecture notes on the World Wide Web. In 2002, a UNESCO forum coined the term 'open educational resources', defined as educational materials that may be freely accessed, reused, modified and shared.

Then a year ago, at a UNESCO world congress on OER, recommendations were developed and approved as the Paris Declaration. “Its key recommendation – the punch line if you like – is to encourage the open licensing of educational materials produced with public funds.

“There are signs that some governments are already taking the Paris Declaration and the economic benefits of OER seriously. For example, my home province of British Columbia will now offer free, online open textbooks for the 40 most popular post-secondary courses.”

Where might MOOCs take us?

The question about MOOCs, which had generated extraordinary media attention, was whether they contributed to the democratisation of higher education.

Sir John revealed that the term MOOC originated in Canada, to describe an open online course at the University of Manitoba designed by George Siemens and Stephen Downes. “Connectivism and Connective Knowledge” was presented to 25 fee-paying on-campus students and 2,300 other students from the public who took it free of charge.

“In this spirit ‘all the course content was available through RSS feeds, and learners could participate with their choice of tools: threaded discussions in Moodle, blog posts, Second Life and synchronous online meetings’.

“You can see that these courses were a logical development of the open educational resources movement that had been gathering momentum for 10 years by then.”

These early ‘connecting’ MOOCs, or cMOOCs, are different from the current xMOOCs – after edX, the MIT, Harvard and Berkeley consortium offering them.

“One writer said that xMOOCs are ‘at the intersection of Wall Street and Silicon Valley’ and they have little relation to the pioneering cMOOC courses,” said Sir John.

“Some of the creators of cMOOCs forecast last year that with time the xMOOCs movement would return to some of their methods and philosophy and indeed, later last year MIT began, timidly, to connect its students in this way.”

The University of Edinburgh, one of the first universities outside North America to partner with the Coursera company that helps institutions to MOOC, “found that the Coursera format was ‘conservative' in terms of online pedagogical practice”.

MOOCs, Sir John continued, are now evolving rapidly, and he offered some generalisations.

  • Elite universities, which have always had scarcity at the core of their business models, are suddenly embracing openness.
  • MOOCs have “horrendous” dropout rates and very low pass rates. These aspects may improve over time as the novelty wears off.
  • Most universities offering MOOCs do not award credit for them.

Sir John also asked: To what degree are MOOCs really open? He said that MOOC pioneer George Siemens, in an upcoming speech, would echo this question. While MOOCs have open enrolment, many MOOCs offered through commercial partners do not have open licences.

“It would be a pity if MOOCs were to act as a brake on the open education movement, as Siemens fears,” said Sir John.

For elite universities to become serious about helping large numbers of MOOCs students to get credit would required a “tremendous paradign shift”, said Sir John. This would be an issue of mentality, not of media, technology or practicalities, because the open universities have shown thousands of students can successfully be offered degree-credit programmes.

“Only by bringing online learning into the institutional mainstream will it contribute to the
democratisation of higher education. Let us hope that MOOCs help rather than hinder
that process.”

* Sir John Daniel’s address was titled “MOOCS, media, and the democratisation of higher education”.

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