19 September 2013 09:20

Yesterday I attended the launch of FutureLearn, the new UK provider of Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs and a challenger to the USA-dominated provision from Coursera and EdX. FutureLearn is owned by the Open University but currently brings together over 20 university partners who will provide courses on their platform. Those partners include the best and brightest of UK universities including Lancaster.

If you haven’t heard of MOOCs where have you been? MOOCs are freestanding courses which are delivered wholly online and are designed to enable many tens of thousands of students to enroll at any one time. Importantly they are entirely free to study, giving students anywhere in the world access to purpose-built, high-quality courses from globally significant universities and leading academics. An important feature of the new FutureLearn initiative is that social interaction plays a large part in the learning process and discussion within structured online forums is actively encouraged.

Many working in higher education believe that MOOCs will significantly disrupt the sector and potentially signal the death knell of many traditional campus-based universities. Students will be able to study from home, for free, at their own pace, and piece together their ‘programme’ of study by picking and choosing courses from the best the world’s universities have to offer. Personally, I think that MOOCs complement campus-based education, as does traditional distance learning, and all will have a place in the provision of tertiary education. It is easy to forget that the majority of learners who presently take MOOCs already have a first degree and are already equipped with the personal discipline and independent study-skills that are required for successful, self-directed learning.

You may be asking yourself why Lancaster, or any other university might want to give courses away for free. It is a good question and, although MOOC providers are trying to make some business models work, such as charging for certification, the bottom line at present is that direct income from MOOCs is practically non-existent – we are not doing it for the money! For Lancaster there are two main reasons to get involved at this point. Firstly, MOOCs fit nicely into our strategy to extend our global reach and maximize the impact of our work. Delivering stimulating courses to hundreds of thousands of learners in all parts of the world will build greater international awareness of our research and teaching strengths. Secondly, what we learn from designing and delivering these massive, online courses will undoubtedly help to develop teaching practice in our campus-based and distance learning courses, ultimately benefitting the Lancaster students experience for all.

From the articles in the media you could be forgiven that thinking that MOOCs are a recent phenomenon, but I would argue that they are merely an evolution, albeit an important one. Many of us will remember the late night BBC broadcasts by the Open University in the 1970s, the original “University of the Air”. In truth MOOCs have been around for a long time, the difference is the 'Massive' - although I agree that this brings its own particular challenges and opportunities to educators. For those taking part, learners and academics alike, MOOCs are going to be a wild ride for the forseeable future – bring it on!

  • Lancaster’s first MOOC will be on Corpus Linguistics and will start on the FutureLearn platform on 27th January 2014

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