MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and Blended Learning

Many people associate Blended Learning with MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and online learning. This reductionist approach misses the main point of the epithet “blended”: a mixture of brick-and-mortar (physically present classrooms in a building) and online (virtual classroom) educational platforms. Blended Learning does not want to substitute real professors for voices on the screen. Blended Learning is not about transferring our entire educational system to the Cloud, but instead to make optimal use of all the technology available in the 21st century to enhance learning and the effectiveness of teaching. An explanatory video about the concept can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L5EdjW1rTH4. The co-author of the book Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools (http://eu.wiley.com/WileyCDA/WileyTitle/productCd-1118955153.html) emphasizes that Blended Learning is student-centred learning and not technology-centred teaching. Blended Learning aims to engage students at different levels with the material by distributing assignments in a way that serves everyone’s specific learning needs. These varied teaching methods give students the opportunity to make use of 21st-century technology to understand the material in an interactive and thorough way. By using the technology, they actually learn how to apply their theoretical knowledge to a concrete project.

The pilot study I received from our university (mentioned in my previous post) also confused the idea of Blended Learning with using MOOCs in education. The authors suggested that the more MOOCs the better, and we should all jump on the bandwagon while we can. They gave examples from the Sciences and Social Sciences, but none from Humanities. The exclusion of Humanities was not the biggest, albeit a very serious problem, with the document. The most important issue was the lack of reflection on the learning benefits of MOOCs. Only at the end of the 90-page document did they cite several studies which concluded that MOOCs do not increase study success (another key word nowadays in academia), because only a tiny percentage of all students enrolled for MOOCs pass their exams (or bother to take the exams).

MOOCs should not replace face-to-face education. MOOCs are intended more for life-long or distance learners than for regular students. MOOCs contribute to the democratization of higher education, as students from all over the world can go online and listen to lectures recorded at top universities for free. MOOCs could also be used sometimes to complement the physical lecture hall, but never as a substitute for credits earned by face-to-face interaction with teachers. Coursera (https://www.coursera.org/) is a great example for a free online MOOC platform with 1,797 courses available. Another such site is Edx (https://www.edx.org/). (More information on Coursera and the way Yale has integrated MOOCs into their curriculum: MOOCs at Yale). Basel University at https://www.futurelearn.com/partners/basel (scroll down on the page to find the free online lectures) also released a few MOOCs on their website.

MOOCs are not cost-efficient. If the university believes that deploying more MOOCs will reduce the costs of real teachers, they are wrong. After making a MOOC, my colleague Professor Phillip Schweighauser at Basel University concluded that MOOCs are very time- consuming and costly endeavours. Phillip explained in an email that in order to produce the MOOCs, the university had to:

– make a business agreement with an external company (in their case https://www.futurelearn.com/) that hosts the MOOC(s) for a substantial fee. Unless universities have the necessary expertise and infrastructure already in place (e.g. MIT, ETH Lausanne), a MOOC cannot be hosted on a regular university server.

– hire a camera/sound/cutting team of four people to produce from 18 to 30 professionally made videos of short duration (2-15 minutes) and additional materials: texts, images, multiple-choice quizzes.

– employ someone to monitor and respond to the lively online discussions (in the MOOCs that he tried out, each video received around 200-480 comments from course participants).

– commit a lot of time: for his MOOC alone, a full four weeks of script-writing, production, and post-production were scheduled.

– spend around EUR 35,000/MOOC.

MOOCs are also suspected of contributing to the further ‘adjunctification’ of universities (hiring more contingent faculty members without job security or hope of a permanent tenure-track position).

If the university decides to invest a large amount of money to improve the quality of teaching, instead of focusing on the production of MOOCs, it should spend the money to train its faculty to acquire digital skills and help them to integrate Blended Learning into their classes. MOOCs could be used effectively to advertise a certain programme or as an additional offer in the curriculum, but they should not replace traditional face-to-face lectures because they do not improve learning or study success, nor are they ultimately cost- effective. MOOCs should be neither banned nor feared, but they should be implemented properly to serve the best interests of students and teachers at the university.

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