MOOCs for positive social change?

The recent NIACE Learning at the Digital Frontier  conference included a debate on whether Adult Education should embrace the MOOC culture.

I was delighted to be invited to take part and used the opportunity to advocate the development of a new model of facilitated online learning at scale which would meet the access and support needs of our adult learners. I argued that the changing digital landscape offers new opportunities for adult learning providers. Here is a summary of the points made on the day:

Could we use a MOOC to address the issue of low numeracy skills in the UK?

Currently in the UK there are about 8.1 million adults who lack basic numeracy skills. Probably, if they all tried to enrol onto existing, traditional maths courses right now, we would start to run out of capacity and trained maths tutors quite quickly.

At the same time, we are seeing growing ownership of smart mobile devices. Improvements in the availability and cost of an Internet connection means that many more people are now able to access online material in ways that they could not just a few years ago. This is one of the factors that has made engagement with MOOCs a possibility for large sections of the population.

The promise of free, widespread access to  high quality learning is a very attractive one and the MOOC phenomenon has generated considerable interest amongst those looking to bring about positive social change through education. Could we use MOOCs to help adults to learn basic maths skills? I am fortunate to have had an opportunity to explore this idea whilst working on the Learning Maths Online project, a part of the NIACE managed Maths4Us programme.

What is a MOOC?

Jisc’s David Kernohan has noted that “The term MOOC is increasingly being used generically – covering all forms of online learning at scale.” The term is usually used to describe higher education level courses which offer a mix of video lectures, other online course materials, discussion forums, and often some form of assessment and accreditation. These courses often have high literacy requirements and many have a high drop out rate. Clearly this popular model would not be suitable for the adult learners targeted by the Maths4Us programme.

The Learning Maths Online project

This project involved the creation of three of the key elements of a MOOC, namely:

  • High quality learning materials, including introductory and explanatory videos.
  • Informal assessment
  • Links to further resources

In addition, the host platform has the potential to use certain plugins for group communication, social interaction and aggregation which would enable an OcTEL MOOC style delivery.

A new model of facilitation and support needed to meet the needs of adult learners

We are now in a position to deliver an online, possibly MOOC-style course on adult maths, drawing on the Learning Maths Online course materials as well as other high quality resources such as Maths Everywhere.  However, in order to make it work for our target group of learners, I’d like to propose a different model of facilitation within the MOOC context.

I am proposing a decentralised structure, where we reach our learners through skilled intermediaries. These intermediaries could be tutors in traditional learning providers, or people facilitating maths learning in the workplace or in prisons. They could also be people working in CABs, JCPs, Housing associations, voluntary sector organisations or possibly even relatives and friends wishing to support someone with their maths. Whilst popular MOOCs communicate directly with and offer online support to learners, this model proposes communications and online support targeted at the skilled intermediaries / facilitators.  This ensures that learners’ support and access needs are addressed in a way which does not require high levels of literacy. Those few learners with high literacy levels who wish to access the course directly without facilitation would use the same support mechanisms, though we expect these learners would be in a minority.

Skilled intermediaries / facilitators would have the opportunity to interact with others in a similar role around the country (or maybe the world) so in addition to being a course for learners, this model also has the potential to serve as powerful CPD for maths tutors and facilitators.

Mediated open online course, decentralised networkSkilled intermediaries / group facilitators as nodes in a decentralised network.

A few points to note:

  • The proposed course is for adult learners who would like to improve their maths skills. The learners can engage with the materials through skilled intermediaries or, if they have the necessary digital skills, directly with the course itself.
  • The intermediaries / facilitators accessing the course should have some learners (at least one) to work with during the course.
  • The course itself will be centred around learner needs, so it is expected that a wide range of materials and techniques will be discussed, according to context, and these will not be limited to resources developed for Maths4Us programme. Participants will also be able to contribute, as appropriate, through the discussion forums.
  • Interactions with learners is a key part of the design of this new type of Online Course. (It is much more than just CPD for the skilled intermediaries / facilitators). The interaction with learners is key to achieving our original high level aim of improving numeracy levels in the UK.

The role of the learning provider or other organisation remains key, as does the skill and experience of the facilitators. This is where structured, additional support comes from.

There are efficiencies of scale, but we are preserving the group experience which we know makes for the best learning. I think these ideas fit with some of the original thinking about Connectivist MOOCs.

This new style of facilitated, mediated MOOC has the potential to bring new, high quality learning materials to many more adult learners than we can through existing provision because it is not limited to use in traditional organisations in a face-to-face setting.

Is this proposed model a genuine MOOC?

Maybe, or maybe not. Let’s not get too hung up about the use of term. Let’s make use of the very best that technology has to offer and what resources are already available. Let’s combine it with the needs of our target group of learners and what we know about the way in which people learn. Let’s use the organisations and support structures that already exist, and combine all these elements to reach out to learners in a way that simply weren’t possible a few years ago. Let’s define a new type of MOOC for adult learners.

Let’s make the most of the MOOCs phenomenon and use the energy and enthusiasm out there to bring about positive social change!

[This post is a personal viewpoint. It doesn’t reflect any Jisc, RSC or NIACE plans and is simply a summary of my contribution to the debate at the NIACE conference]

4 thoughts on “MOOCs for positive social change?

  1. Thanks for putting these ideas ‘out there’ Shri. Really interesting piece and a challenge to anyone involved with learning technology to be able to answer questions such as, “who is this for …?” and how can it make a difference.

  2. Technology with a human face! I think there’s real potential in a model like this. “Pure” online learning is only successful for the very confident or very motivated. The people we need to reach are the opposite and it is often the personal contacts that matter. Sometimes its even the place that matters. We once developed an online alternative to an Adult course we were running on Introduction to Accounting so they didn’t need to come to the lessons if they had child care issues etc. We had strong feedback to the effect “This is the one evening a week I get to go out on my own and do something different – I don’t want to do it at home”. Those social aspects of learning are so important to achievement and not easily replicated online. The kind of hybrid model you suggest won’t necessarily create the cost savings funders might desire but I suspect retention and achievement would be immeasurably higher. And if you count “free CPD for teachers” as a stealth objective then it’s very cost effective.

  3. This is a really interesting post. Freat idea, Shri! In the long run, one way for MOOCs to go is for them to become (or simply be used as) ‘facilitated OERs’. But we don’t have a good model for the facilitation yet. The Open University does have such a model, but it comes at a price. Other ‘scalable’ models provide very limited support (if any) to the learner. Diana Laurillard has recently confronted this issue head-on in her article ‘Five Myths aout MOOCs’:
    Once we get beyond the myths, we can get to what a social structure for informal online learning might look like. Putting a human face on the technology, as Alistair elegantly puts it….

  4. I agree with the previous comments – and for me what you have described is NOT a MOOC (and whilst calling it that might be sexy and attract funding it also conveys a model that lacks facilitation). How about FOOC or SOOC (Facilitated or Supported Open Online Course)?

    Seems to me you have two major challenges – how to fund the facilitation (which is why MOOCs don’t provide much ‘expert’ facilitation) and how to persuade your target group to engage with an online course (no matter how well facilitated). Most of the evidence from MOOCs suggests that folk who engage with them (i.e. do more than register) tend to be well educated (have an HE qualification).

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