In the past year, we have published a series of reports on learning and teaching in MOOCs. Dr Alison Le Cornu, HEA Consultant in Academic Practice, who commissioned the research, explains here some of the background to it and what it tells us about learning and teaching in general.
Why did the HEA commission this research?
MOOCs appeared on the HE landscape almost overnight and quickly attracted controversy. Never before had HE had to think about teaching such large numbers of learners at the same time. The fact that this occurred in an online environment only served to heighten the questions. What was the experience of learning like when individuals were one of tens of thousands? What was the role of the ‘teacher’? How should the online environment be designed? What quality of learning actually takes place? These are questions that the HEA needed and wanted to engage with, partly to understand better what the issues were, partly to gain insights into what at first sight appeared to be new approaches to teaching and learning, and partly to provide the HE sector with well-researched and top quality responses to them.
What does the research tell us about learning and teaching on MOOCs?
Our first report focused on early UK MOOCs and two colleagues from the University of Edinburgh explored the ways in which these had been designed and run. A key finding was that although MOOC teaching functions are often disaggregated and delegated to automated processes and community-based social learning, the place and visibility of the teacher remain of central importance. Learners looked for a valued teacher involvement, even when there was considerable opportunity for learning from peers.
Another finding was that the teaching approach – the ‘pedagogy’, if you will – depended in large part more on factors such as teacher preferences and beliefs, disciplinary influences, patterns of learner engagement and expectation, and the institutional teaching culture.
That research paved the way for two subsequent projects, both of which were conducted by colleagues at the University of Southampton. The HEA runs the annual UK Engagement Survey (UKES) which looks at how learners ‘engage’ with a variety of aspects of their course. It is based on a growing acceptance that ‘engagement’ and learning are closely related, and there are certain questions in the UKES which articulate this well. We decided to use those questions as the basis for the next MOOC investigation, broadly asking about the nature and quality of learning that was taking place through surveying people who had completed a MOOC.
I think for some the findings were surprising. Regardless of educational background, there was strong evidence of substantial numbers of learners demonstrating what we call ‘higher order learning’: mental activities such as memorising, evaluating, synthesising, analysing and applying information. They didn’t just read and listen. They went much further. Many were able to connect new ideas to previous learning and to social issues and problems and to integrate ideas and concepts in new and original ways. Equally surprisingly, interaction and collaboration with others was not highly valued. Studying a MOOC didn’t necessarily lead learners to go on and explore their own or open-ended lines of enquiry, nor did they actively participate in creating knowledge.
The third and final report went one stage further and conducted real live interviews with a small sample of MOOC learners. We wanted to know why they chose to study a MOOC and what their personal experience of learning in this way had been. We discovered that the opportunity to experiment with new topics knowing there were no financial costs or commitments to being assessed was a big attraction, as was the flexibility of accessing high quality content at a time, pace and place of their choice. These learners did feel part of something – a MOOC community perhaps – and many spoke of being very inspired by conversations with people studying the same subjects from very different geographical and political environments. Most worked steading through the MOOC in a linear fashion, not dipping in and out, not least because this enabled them to participate in the developing community of learners. Few, however, were concerned with how their learning might be assessed or in some way verified. It just didn’t seem to matter to them.
And what do you think the research might tell us about learning and teaching in general?
First, I think it puts online and technology-enhanced learning very firmly on the HE map with a clear message to the sector that it isn’t going to go away, and that it offers an equally valid and effective way of learning to either face-to-face or blended.
Second, this message is accompanied by another which focuses on teaching approaches and techniques. The armoury of resources available to teachers and lecturers is now very extensive and we are gradually moving towards a point when teachers can and should select a teaching method that best fits what they want to achieve. This may include using a MOOC as part of their module, or potentially studying a MOOC for themselves and gain inspiration from the teaching and learning design used.
Third – nothing new here! – not all learners are the same. Some need and depend on social interaction, some flourish without it. Some love the online environment, some avoid it. Some are self-directed and autonomous, some do best with well-structured support. MOOCs, therefore, will suit some well and others less so.
What do you think the challenges are for those teaching MOOCs?
The principal challenges I think lie in time and skills in learning design. Putting an online course together is time consuming. It increasingly requires a team of people collaborating together, with subject specialists, learning designers, learning support colleagues and technicians and technologists, all contributing their expertise. That involves very new skills for teachers who traditionally have been left alone to do their own thing within the confines of the four walls of the classroom.
How can the HEA help with those challenges?
One of the real benefits of online learning, and which MOOCs and the development of MOOC-specific platforms have highlighted, is a visible consideration of how people learn. Many lecturers who dip their toe into the online environment report how their understanding of teaching and learning has been enhanced, as has their face-to-face practice. There may be a place for the HEA to start analysing the wide variety of pedagogical approaches and facilitate ways in which these can be applied to other contexts. We also have little concrete evidence (although there is undoubtedly extensive experience throughout the sector) about how learning design teams work. Who does what? Which role is the most time consuming? To what extent can subject specialists be ‘trained’ in online techniques and then be expected to do this work themselves, and to what extent should they automatically work with a learning designer and technologist? Is it possible or sensible to establish these structures, or is every individual so different that it would be like nailing jelly to a wall?
It seems to me though that by encouraging lecturers to learn about how they teach and how learners learn through the medium of designing an online course can only benefit face-to-face, online and blended approaches to learning and teaching. Maybe the HEA has a role to play in facilitating that.
- The pedagogy of the Massive Open Online course: the UK view by Sian Bayne and Jen Ross from the University of Edinburgh (HEA 2014)
- Engaged learning in MOOCs: a study using the UK Engagement Survey by Julie Wintrup, Kelly Wakefield, and Hugh Davis from the University of Southampton (HEA 2015)
- Liberating learning: experiences of MOOCs by Julie Wintrup, Kelly Wakefield, Debra Morris and Hugh Davis from the University of Southampton (HEA 2015)