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Moocs are the clever way to keep up to date

The Guardian
Leading UK universities offer short Mooc courses to help mature students stay abreast of the latest developments


The world of distance learning has changed beyond recognition since the first correspondence courses dropped onto doormats more than 40 years ago. Classes of thousands from around the world can now join interactive lectures for free. This is the world of moocs – massive open online courses – which have blazed a trail in the US. This autumn, 21 UK universities – including Bristol, Leeds and Southampton – are preparing to launch their own moocs in partnership with the Open University.

While moocs mostly don't set entry requirements, they are pitched between "taster" and postgraduate level – short chunks of learning that will enable students to dip their toe into a subject – science or arts – or keep up to speed with changing career needs.

Early analysis of mooc students shows most of them to be mature learners who already hold one or two degrees; this is the experience of the University of Edinburgh, which announced the first UK moocs in July last year and saw 308,000 students from 167 different countries sign up to a handful of subjects, from an introduction to philosophy to the more advanced artificial intelligence planning. While completion rates on nearly all moocs are low – somewhere below 10% – this doesn't matter, says Jeff Haywood, professor of education and technology. Some 12% of students completed Edinburgh's first batch of moocs. Many sign up to "window shop" or dip in and out, which is no bad thing, he says. Edinburgh's students came mostly from the US and UK and those who responded to the survey said the courses met or exceeded expectations.

Those in the know are hotly anticipating FutureLearn's forthcoming courses – because they draw on impressive UK pedigree – many Russell Group universities, the British Library, the British Council and the Open University, with years of experience in distance learning.

This new batch of UK moocs will be typically about eight weeks or less and subjects offered will play to universities' individual strengths. Southampton for instance is considering oceanography, web science and mechanical engineering.

Key to a good mooc is the right mix of intuitive, efficient technology combined with well-designed content and effective peer insights.

"This is the beginning of something – moocs are innovative and evolving," says Alan Greenberg, director of education at video learning platform MediaCore, "Good moocs will be successful; the less good will fail miserably."

Game theory applied to PR

Katy Swainston, 26, completed a six-week mooc in gamification (the application of digital game design techniques to non-game problems) offered by the University of Pennsylvania in partnership with Coursera. She works in PR in London and has an MA in museum studies.

I was really interested in further learning outside my job. This course jumped out at me – it seemed pitched at the right level. About 63,000 signed up. I've spent about four to five hours a week on it – it's a mix of video lectures, live chats with the tutor who was inspirational. I was slightly concerned before the peer assessment (students mark each other's written work) but we were given such good guidelines and it was helpful to get different perspectives. (Online) discussions were useful for ironing out specific questions and communicating with others.

It's been really well-received at work – we have such a culture of knowledge sharing. This mooc was well thought out and engaging and learning was reinforced all the way along so the knowledge stays with you. And it didn't finish with a big exam so there wasn't that sort of pressure but we were learning quite complicated things toward the end. And it was free.

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