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MOOCs: vital tools in education of the future – or over-hyped online fad?

04/03 17:14 CET

MOOCs: vital tools in education of the future – or over-hyped online fad?
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"What we found is that the students taught each other, mentored each other...They built the communities"

When Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS) first emerged around a decade ago – the term ‘MOOC’ itself first started to be used in 2008 – they were trumpeted as the future of learning. They would transform education by opening up courses to people all over the world. All that was needed to join this educational revolution was a computer, in some cases just a smartphone, and an Internet connection.

Yet, critics argue that the impact of MOOCS has so far been a fraction of what was expected. Learning World visits China and the UK to examine how learners are engaging with successful MOOCS and investigates why just a small fraction of these courses are providing enough inspiration, information and motivation for students to see them through to the end.

China: Access All Areas

‘Knowledge for free…whenever I want’

For Feng Chao, a Shanghai-based social media manager, Sunday mornings are about more than relaxing and spending time with family. She chooses to use her weekends to fit in some extra learning – and for her this study is far from a chore.

Feng is one of a growing number of people in China who are accessing MOOCS in order to learn about subjects that they are unlikely to be able to study at school, college or university.

Every weekend, she logs onto NetEase Open Course, an online education platform established in 2010 which had 50 millions visits last year alone.

“I am currently watching a movie-making class. There are a lot of interesting courses here”, Feng explains. “Some of them explain how Hollywood makes its special effects in the movies. Those topics interest me a lot but I don’t have the opportunity to study them in good universities or any other way.

Feng is also interested in technical innovations and management methods.

“NetEase Open Course is a good platform for me to get knowledge for free on the Internet, during my free time, whenever I want,” she says.

More than 20,000 lectures, talks and classes from some of the world’s best universities have so far been put online. Users watch them on their way to work, or while exercising, thanks to NOC’s hugely popular mobile app.

The platform makes available to Chinese students a wide array of educational materials, in a country where teaching methods are still relatively conservative compared to many other parts of the developed world.

“With this platform, we can learn and see many new things from the whole world, some different opinions, different points of view,” Feng says. “All this nourishes our brain and this enrichment is as important as exercising our body.”

New skills for work – learning ‘just for leisure’

NOC has its headquarters in the high tech city of Hangzhou, near Shanghai. Over the past five years, it has built partnerships with foreign universities, including Cambridge and Yale or Cambridge -as well as Coursera, a US website that hosts open online courses.

Jiang Zhongbo, Director of NetEase Open Course (NOC), says: “On average, users are between 18 and 35 years old. They are mostly university students or freshly graduated.

“These users have three purposes when they use a NOC. They first want to get knowledge all along their life. They also want to get new skills they can directly use in their work. Then they want to learn just for leisure.”

According to surveys, most NOC users say they have an interest in Western culture.

Language is the key

What makes NetEase courses truly unique is the translation system. Most videos are subtitled in Chinese, thanks to people such as Alan Lai.

Alan is from Shanghai, but studied for two years in the UK. He is now part of the huge volunteer translators’ network set up by NOC.

Over the past five months, he has been translating a Harvard program whenever he has free time.

“The name of the course is called ‘psychology of leadership’ and we have a group of 24 volunteers translating it together,” Lai says.

“We will translate one class a week, and they will put it online. I chose this topic because I can improve my English and psychology is my interest.

“It’s very useful for my career and the professor in this course is very famous at Harvard University in the psychology field.”

In this collaborative system, learners can even suggest some translation corrections, that are shared online with other users.

In just a few years, NOC has built a community in which language or government control are no longer obstacles to learning.

UK: MOOCS and motivation – what makes students complete one course, but abandon others?

‘I have to challenge myself’

Lithuanian single mother Svetlana Kamenskiene moved to the UK five years ago. She works long hours at a care home in Middlesex, near London, but manages to squeeze in time to improve her English alongside her work and caring for her children.

Svetlana is studying online, for free, via a MOOC that is preparing her for the International English Language Test System (IELTS) – the English language exam that is a gateway to entering higher education in the UK.

“I have to challenge myself,” she says, as she sits in her living room at her laptop, logged into the ‘Understanding IELTSMOOC, which was developed by the British Council

“That’s why I decided to go to university and study business and law. But for that, before[hand] I needed to take this course,” Svetlana explains.

“I drop my daughter at school. I come back home, I just have my laptop in the sitting room, I have my cup of coffee and I’m studying,” Svetlana says, explaining how she fits in an hour or two of study before her work shift begins.

Just ‘the beginning’

But, unlike Svetlana, the vast majority of people who sign up to these free, online courses – more than 90 percent – do not complete them.

Some underestimate the amount of work involved, others realise early on that a particular course is not for them.

For some, registering for a MOOC or two, or several, is simply a no-strings experiment. The vast majority of the courses are completely free, so signing up for one is not a financial commitment.

The high drop-off rates have led to criticism that MOOCs have failed to have the transformative impact on the education landscape that had been expected.

But educational expert Charles McIntyre, Co-founder of EdTech Europe, disagrees with the argument that MOOCS have passed their peak and have been unimpressive so far.

MOOCS have only just arrived on the scene, they’ve only been around for a few years. The fact that people try it [a MOOC course] and taste it and then decide subsequently that they don’t want to finish that particular course – I think just reflects the fact that there is an exploration going on.

“And that exploration points to a new world that’s happening in learning, and we’re very much at the ‘ground floor’ [start] of that.”

McIntyre says that, naturally, the relevance of a course’s content content and the useability of the online platform that distributes it are both key to making a particular MOOC successful.

‘A MOOC for English? Are you serious!?’

‘Understanding IELTS’, which is on the FutureLearn platform, has been hugely popular around the world – with 700,000 students signing up for the two courses run over the last year. Around 10 percent of those completed their courses.

The British Council has been stunned by the popularity of the MOOC – and says the biggest reason for the success lies, not in what it [the British Council] did in developing the course, but in what the students have been doing themselves.

Anna Searle, Director of English at the British Council, says: “A lot of people said to us at the beginning: ‘Online learning? A MOOC for English? Are you serious!? I don’t think that can work. How can you teach English through a MOOC?’”

“And what we found is that the students taught each other, mentored each other. [They] used the tools, used the techniques, used the materials – but they built the communities.”

Svetlana chats with her online classmates around the world about what she finds difficult about learning English and what she enjoys. She says being connected with her peers, despite never entering a classroom in the traditional sense, helps keep her motivated to complete her MOOC, which will take another step closer to reaching her goals.

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