2014 – the year of the SPOCs

Futuristic Tech Background
SPOCs - It's the Future Jim, but not as you know it!

Following on from my previous article in February, around Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), this article looks further into what has happened in this area over the past few months. MOOCs have been mentioned on BBC’s Newsnight to conferences. The number of providers and courses have increased. This article examines what role, MOOCs can play as a technology that could bring about a wider change in the higher education sector.

A new UK based MOOC provider, FutureLearn launched on the 18th September 2013 at the British Library in London, with guests including the Universities Minister David Willetts. FutureLearn joins some of the biggest US providers such as Coursera, EdX and Udacity. It is a private company from the Open University, the UK’s biggest distance learning provider. There are currently 20 higher education providers signed up to provide MOOCs on this platform, with new courses due to go live later this month. Subject matters range from the Causes of War to Programming and everything in between! MOOCs have millions of subscribers (4,920,213 for Coursera, 1,000,000 for EdX, etc…). Yet, the completion rate of these courses is very low (approximately less than 10% for many courses), leading many to question their value. The positive aspects of these programmes (delivered online, and mostly free of charge), seem to be outweighed by the lack of a structured approach, resulting in a lack of engagement from subscribers.

The three biggest providers mentioned earlier are American. Will the MOOC phenomenon transfer to UK Universities? Many factors, including the rise in tuition fees and private sector providers of higher education, as well as younger staff in universities keen to use new technologies may contribute to the culture change in many institutions.

The biggest potential of the MOOC phenomenon is to change the nature of face to face learning and teaching. Virtual learning environments were so far virtual spaces where only the students registered on a course could access the materials. MOOCs give free access to courses to wider audiences. It is the “Massive” and “Open” that is different from a traditional virtual learning environment. Before the advent of MOOCs, you could achieve the same MOOC effect in a virtual learning environment using the guest access feature, allowing anyone to view the content or using a platform such as Blackboard’s Coursesites.  Berkeley University of California’s Resource Centre for Online Education has some handy tips for creating a MOOC for any Educational Institution that would decide to get involved in the MOOC business.

Some MOOC providers are awarding credits for completion of their courses, some are charging for assessments, whilst others, such as EdX, are awarding certificates of achievement. These demonstrate the different business models. MOOCs are the subject of a recent report by the government’s Department of Business, Innovation and Skills. MOOCs seem to be showing the way to a new style of online learning.

All of the excitement, press coverage and government literature around MOOCs might be short lived, as Harvard University recently started to develop Small Private Online Courses (SPOCs) to address what is both the success and failure of the MOOC principle at the moment, the number of people taking these courses. If 2012 was the year of the MOOC, then 2014 maybe the year of SPOCs.

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