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The rise of the MOOC

The online environment has liberated the world of learning and taken distance learning in particular into a new dimension. One of the most recent developments is a MOOC, short for ‘massive open online course’.

The first MOOCs began appearing in 2012 in the US and the beauty of them is that they can be accessed by anyone online for free. As well as consisting of reading, video, problem exercises and projects, learners can access a professor and interactive users’ forums where they can hook up with fellow students.

MOOCs divide opinion in the education world and are currently focus of a great deal of debate. A report from the Department for Business Innovation and Skills entitled, The Maturing of the MOOC, claims that some leading US universities are “widely engaging enthusiastically” by providing content, funds and staff to MOOCs but there remains a “dissident” voice from some elite institutions. The report adds that smaller or less prestigious institutions have yet to engage so strongly but this could be due to a lack of capacity and opportunity as much as an appetite to do so.

Gaining traction

In the UK, MOOCs are still new but gaining traction. While still Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove cited them in a speech at the BETT conference as among the developments that are transforming education. Nigel Paine, an international speaker and adviser to companies and organisations on learning and development, reckons an important thing to bear in mind is that it is still early days for MOOCs.

“There is a huge amount of maturing to be done in the market,” he says. “We will see companies not buying MOOCS, but the software that powers MOOCs in order to run their own massive online programs.” According to Paine, author of a recent book, The Learning Challenge published by Kogan Page, while MOOCs are here to stay their shape, status and formats will change radically over the next two- to three years. “No-one can be against MOOCS, but how well they are understood is a completely different matter."

Are MOOCs valued by employers?

For those considering a MOOC, one of the big questions surrounding them is how much perceived value they have to employers. Paine suggests that completing a MOOC clearly shows initiative and resourcefulness but although he can’t imagine an employer not recognising this, whether it counts in any meaningful way towards securing a job or promotion is more debatable.

“At this stage I very much doubt that many employers would take this into account in that kind of way,” he says.

Jeff Haywood, vice principal knowledge management and chief information officer at the University of Edinburgh, which introduced the first UK MOOCS in 2012, agrees that an individual is more likely to receive points for initiative rather than the MOOC being seen as a relevant qualification.

“I feel overall they cannot hinder an application but may not swing it,” he says. “They are part of a wider education and experience, like doing volunteering work or international study, but as most MOOCs are introductory level their subject value must be limited.”

Haywood adds for non-graduates this may prove to be different though. “If a person has never done a degree and can demonstrate ability at university level, this may have real value,” he says. “What we do know is that around 20-25 per cent of our MOOC learners tell us they are taking the course for career enhancement reasons.”

Software and technology MOOCs

MOOCs are available in subject matters across the board but there are sectors where they seem to carry more weight than others, such as software and technology. The first MOOC was Sebastian Thrun’s Introduction to Artificial Intelligence Stanford online course, which 160,000 student enrolled onto, in more than 190 countries.

The sector where MOOCs most obviously have traction is the software industry.

“Indeed MIT has admitted students who have proved to be exceptionally able as evidenced by the completion of MOOCs,” says Paine, who adds: “But as they grow in number, and broaden, the subject areas will be increasing in acceptance.”

Considering a MOOC?

Like any course, a MOOC demands effort and while some have set timeframes, others are self-paced so be mindful that they will demand a disciplined approach to learning, and also that completion rates on all MOOCs are low.

There are no shortage of engineering and technology MOOCs available. If anything, the challenge is sifting through what might be the best option for you and, while they are free, it is important to research the market thoroughly.

Thrun’s more recent project is Udacity.com which aims to bridge the gap between “real-world skills, relevant education, and employment” and its courses are developed and taught by experts at leading technology companies, including from Silicon Valley. Courses currently featured include Developing Android Apps by Google and Data Analysis with R by Facebook.

One of the biggest platforms for MOOCs is Coursera.org which partners with top universities and organisations worldwide. Clicking through to its list of courses, you’ll find a range of engineering and technology disciplines. Meanwhile, Class-central.com numbers 107 engineering related courses and 332 in the field of computer science while a range of engineering MOOCs can be located at www.mooc-list.com/categories/engineering.

MOOCs for corporate training and professional development

Haywood points out that Edinburgh has corporates interested in commissioning MOOCs as well as using existing ones for corporate training and continuous professional development.

This suggests that employers believe MOOCs are a valuable learning medium and Paine reckons that in future companies will encourage their staff to search for open courseware as well as MOOCs in order to meet some of their own personal development needs.

Which will then allow the organisation to focus its learning and development on core strategic areas that are needed for the business,” he explains. “It is also likely that the model of learning will be included as part of an undergraduate programme and therefore MOOCs will not necessarily be completely outside the universities that deliver them.”

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