Is there a role for MOOCs in secondary education?

By | January 12, 2014

Massive Open Online Courses are pretty mainstream now (hey, even I’ve done one!) and give access on an unprecedented scale to hundreds of University level courses offered by institutions from around the world.

Done well, a MOOC can be a very successful way of learning. Trust me, I’ve tried and failed to learn various things under my own steam, but the structure, reward and social aspects of a well thought-out MOOC dragged me through a 10 week Python course I’d otherwise have let quietly slide to the bottom of my To Do list…

The concept is not without its detractors – the numbers of people actually completing a MOOC are several orders of magnitude lower than those starting them,  there are lots of questions around their cost to universities and the difference between educating someone and simply giving them access to content.

So, is there a role for MOOCs in the education of children and young people of secondary school age? On first impression, the answer would seem to be ‘To an extent, minister’.

Well motivated learners in this age range are already making use of MOOC-style courses (cf. Khan Academy) and taking part in formally organised MOOCs too. They’re learning, as they always have, using whatever resources and expertise they can get their hands on. Informally, MOOCs are contributing to the education of a sub-set of secondary pupils, right now.

I also think a class could probably follow a MOOC collectively and glean good experiences from it. The mediation of the teacher, combined with the horizon-lifting impact of an expert-led, grown-up and high-status course would be very motivational for older pupils. The teacher’s intervention would also ameliorate issues of accessibility and suitability. I can see this approach working well in an extra-curricular context.

But can this method do anything for mainstream education, as part of the day-to-day of the taught curriculum and for those learners who perhaps aren’t self-starters?

One of the weaknesses of MOOCs is that despite their structure, they rely largely on the student’s willingness to take part – to devote considerable time to watching videos, reading materials, taking part in discussions and completing activities. If you’ve ever set homework for a class, you’ll see where I’m going with this. Add to this the not insubstantial safeguarding issue of having school-age students engaged in an open network of adult participants and the barriers start to look quite forbidding.

But I do think that Online Courses have too much potential for those of use working in this sector to give up on.

I think the answer – the mainstream answer – will be something a little different, something slightly more specifically adapted for learners in their teens. Rather than MOOCs, we’ll need SPOCs – Small and Private not Massive and Open – and a blended approach which combines online and face to face. I’ll explore in detail what this might look like in my next post.

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