MOOCs – do online courses have a place in secondary education?

Guest blog by Duncan King, Director of Digital Learning at The Perse School.

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have made a huge splash in the media over the past 12 months. In short, these are (currently) short online university courses for free via three main platforms – Udacity, Coursera and Edx. Both Coursera and Edx are backed by major ‘real’ universities including Harvard and Stanford. From July this year, a UK based platform, Futurelearn, will also begin to offer online courses from a number of leading UK universities. At present it seems that many universities are getting involved because they see MOOCs as a way of attracting students to study full time at their institution, but what does the future hold? Many are skeptical about the potential scale of their impact but others see things differently. Prof Martin Bean, vice-chancellor of the Open University, describes this as the “Napster moment for higher education” and Sir Michael Barber suggests ‘an avalanche is coming’:

Meanwhile, Sebastian Thron, founder of Udacity, has made the extraordinary claim that the growth of online learning will mean that in 50 years time there will be only 10 institutions in the world delivering higher education. For a more sober reflection, I would also recommend that you read @timharford ‘s blog on the topic: what oxbridge can learn from youtube.

To get a better understanding of the developments in this area I attended a conference earlier this week hosted by Merchant Taylor’s School: ‘Making sense of MOOCs’. It was especially interesting to hear Dr Hamish Macleod talk about The University of Edinburgh’s experiences of running MOOCs in January 2013. Here is some of the raw data about the take up and completion of the six courses they offered:


At first glance, the ‘completion’ rates look very low when compared to ‘real’ university courses where such high drop-out rates would not be acceptable. Drop-out rates however don’t seem like the right metric to use for courses where the barriers to taking them or dropping out of them are basically nil. It seems more reasonable that MOOCs are measured on just the absolute number of people who actually finish a course. The fact that over 6,000 people from all over the world completed a course in Equine Nutrition for no certificate or material benefit other than for extending their own learning is remarkable.

For schools, MOOCs raise different opportunities and challenges. In the near term, the real opportunity for schools is to encourage able and interested students to extend their learning by taking existing MOOCs that are relevant to them, especially if they offer a foundation for their own university study. Given that a 12 year old pupil completed the Astrobiology MOOC offered by the University of Edinburgh, many of these courses should be well within reach of the average A-level student.

A key challenge for schools, however, concerns whether MOOCs will creep deeper into secondary education. Are school MOOCs on the horizon? There are a few reasons why this might not seem likely, for example:
1.Students may not be ready for or want self-directed online learning – students need teachers to prompt and motivate them through learning school level qualifications*
2.Practical subjects (e.g. sciences) require practical experiences that an online course can’t replicate
3.Why would schools want to offer such courses? They would be time consuming and potentially expensive to set up so what would be their motivation?

Despite these objections it does not seem unreasonable to suggest that secondary school online courses might be with us in the future. Here is a scenario:

Schools want to offer a broader range of subjects (e.g. additional foreign languages) or an extension class in a particular area but can’t justify the cost of employing more staff for subjects with potentially low take-up. An online A-level or short course in that subject could be offered by a group of schools getting together to set it up and they could employ one teacher to offer direction and assess work. The contact time would likely be less than in a normal class. Taught material could be delivered by video and discussion could be managed using Google Hangouts or Skype with work submitted and marked via Google Docs (this could be written or voice or video feedback). As more such courses became available, students could sign up to the courses which have the best feedback by former students. While these wouldn’t be a full MOOC experience (these would be much less ‘Massive’ and be more teacher directed), it could create a tremendous opportunity for all learners to take meaningful additional qualifications away from the constraints of the timetable.

Independent schools could take a lead in this by employing their resources and specialist subject teachers for the benefit of learners everywhere. Many Independent schools already invest a great deal of time and effort in extending their reach beyond their own students into their local community. MOOCs present an opportunity to take a fresh look at who could benefit from an Independent school’s resources, creating ‘virtual public benefit’ potential on a global scale.

In truth, I cannot imagine online courses will replace the school experience (school offers so much more than just subject learning, and, to be blunt, parents need somewhere for their children to be looked after), but I do think that technology like this could have a significant disruptive impact on secondary education in the coming years and schools need to be alert to the opportunities and challenges ahead.

* For one reason why human beings are so much better than computers for motivating people, read why a ticket inspector is a job that a robot could never steal

Duncan King is Director of Digital Learning at The Perse School. This blog was originally posted on his blog Follow Duncan on Twitter: @kingduncanking

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1 Response to MOOCs – do online courses have a place in secondary education?

  1. Wow! I like your video it’s so interesting. Your article is very helpful for those students who wants to learn through massive online open courses.

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