Massive Opportunity Of Course: transforming global learning with MOOCs

This article first appeared on the International Mircosummits website.

MOOCs? Bit of a fad, aren’t they? We’ll probably be talking about something else this time next year. Or will we? The continual appearance of new MOOCs and growth of platforms such as Cousera and Udacity suggests that they might be around for some time to come. But what does this mean for Higher Education, and what could be the potential impact of the MOOC on global learning?
As the cost of higher education in the western world continues to rise, even parents with deep pockets are beginning to question its affordability and value. And with Ivy-League universities such as Harvard charging upwards of $70,000 a year, who can blame them? In the UK there have been calls to reduce fees for students who attend a local university in order to make the cost of obtaining a university degree more bearable. But if an aim of a university degree is to help you become a ‘global citizen’, then the spiralling cost of Higher Education risks denying many students the opportunity of a global, inter-cultural learning experience. Faced with the prospect of crippling debt, there is a risk that the overseas students who would contribute to the development os a university’s global community will instead choose to study in their country of origin.
Enter the MOOC. Although their honeymoon period is only just drawing to a close, MOOCs have already demonstrated their potential to facilitate learning on an international scale, drawing together hundreds of thousands of learners across the globe. If global citizenship is an aim of a university degree, then surely having an ambition to bring teachers and students together globally is a good place to start? Although awarding credit for participation in MOOCs is still an issue, some institutions such as the UK’s Edge Hill University are already developing mechanisms to offer credits for studies completed through a MOOC.

Those educators who have embraced the concept understand that for their students, the opportunity to participate in a global community of learners is too good to pass up. The connected nature of learning in a MOOC provides enormous opportunities to expose students to global attitudes and diverse opinions that are not solely derived from a western perspective. Research has indicated that some of the main non-monetary benefits of global learning include a reduction in xenophobia and cultural stereotyping, creation of international good-will through collaborative team projects, and the development and nurturing of intercultural and social capital.
But what about the learning? Well, if you haven’t seen it already this video features the opinions of leading ecuationalists and thinkers about the changing nature of learning in a networked society:


New skills


Higher Education’s monopoly on credibility could also be in the early stages of decline. Michael Ellsberg points out that while for many years employability has depended upon the credibility of obtaining qualifications (preferably from a fancy university), the business world is increasingly measuring credibility by a changing yardstick. Companies now take very seriously a candidate’s ability to build professional networks, write informed and informative blog posts, and develop legitimate, healthy followings on Twitter and other social media platforms. These skills are precisely those that participation in a MOOC support as they drive learners to be independent, inquisitive and informed.

The Open Educational Resources that feature in many MOOCs have come under scrutiny in recent months, with questions being raised about the general level of quality and sustainability of OERs. This is a valid point – who will monitor and update these OERs in the same way that textbooks are updated? But to criticise OERs for their quality is to miss the point: ten years ago it was difficult to find anything like the quality of resources that can now be accessed online. Admittedly the quality can vary, but shouldn’t we then as educators not be focusing on helping our students develop digital literacies so that they have the skills to critique and evaluate the quality of these resources for themselves? To continue thinking in a 20th century mindset where ‘someone else’ is responsible for evaluating and updating educational resources is dangerous. If we are truly to prepare students to succeed in the 21st century they will require the ability to take control of their own education and teach themselves the skills and knowledge required for their new world or work.

Much has been written about the failure of technology to have a significant impact on transforming learning. But ask the international students who are accessing top quality resources via a MOOC whether technology is failing and they may well provide a different viewpoint. There continues to be much debate about the impact MOOCs will have on the current model of Higher Education. But what has already been demonstrated is the desire of many educators to give away their knowledge for free, sharing it with anyone who is interested for the altruistic benefit of educating humanity. It may be that the concept of the MOOC is a passing fad, and we may well be talking about something else this time next year. But for the time being MOOCs have the potential to bring about a paradigm shift in the delivery of Higher Education at a global level. And for a lot less than $70,000 a year.

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