Are UK universities missing a trick on MOOCs and open courses?

The Guardian grabbed five minutes with Steven Schwartz, VC at Macquarie University, to talk about the online course revolution and how the UK and Australia compare on social mobility.

Schwartz’s comments and observations on social mobility make for interesting listening.  He highlights what many of us already probably suspect is happening, ie that the current financial climate is seeing a decline in social mobility in the UK.

However, it was his comments about announcements of new MOOCs and groups of Universities collaborating in the develpment of MOOCs and open courses coming out of the US almost every day, but none coming out of the UK, that made me stop and think.  He’s right, in the UK there are hardly any announcements about MOOCs. There are only two that spring to my mind the Oxford Brookes First steps into learning and teaching MOOC and the recently announced OU MOOC on curriuclum design with OERs, but there may well be others that I haven’t heard of.  Should we be concerned about this?  Are we lagging behind in the UK?

Schwartz goes on to ask ‘where is the digital strategy’ in the UK?  Last year HEFCE published the Online Learning Taskforce’s report Collaborate to Compete: Siezing the opportunity of online learning for UK higher education.  The report stated:

Institutions and organisations need to invest in learning, and leadership and vision at the highest level is required to bring a step-change. Such changes will not occur rapidly enough without effective organisational structures and processes.  Online learning is a strategic issue, not a simple, bolt-on option.

18 months on it would be interesting to evaluate what impact this report has had on UK universities. Is there a clearly articulated strategic vision on digital learning in all UK universities?  JISC and the HEA continue to invest in OERs and  the HEFCE report suggests that £5 million per annum should be invetsed in OER projects.  Are OER projects the right way forward, are they delivering what academics on the ground actually need? How many JISC funded OERs are you using in your courses? Or are you making more use of YouTube videos and content in iTunesU and content developed by individuals using other web 2.0 and social media tools?

Another recommendation the report made was for investment to be made to facilitate the development and building of consortia to achieve scale and brand in online learning.

Quality online learning is not a cheap option. Through collaboration, institutions can achieve significant economies of scale and more rapid development and adoption of technologies, for example in the development of learning resources or in sharing the risk of developing new forms of provision. This approach enables institutions and organisations (that are perhaps already collaborating in other areas) to exploit their joint brands and extend them into new markets, offering innovative, quality provision. Collaboration should embrace and harness the strengths of diverse institutions and organisations, across public-private and sector divides.

This is effectively what the big guns in the US have been doing.  The taskforce suggested that £20 million per year for 5   years should be invested to set up 3-5 consortia and that this should be the responsibility of national government and devolved administrations.  I’ve not heard of any progress on this but I may have missed any announcment.  Does anyone know if there’s anything happening on this front?

Reading this again also brought back to mind the failure of the UK eUniversity (UKeU) which cost £62 million of public money.  There’s a detailed parliamentary report which explores why the UKeU failed, I’ve not had chance to reread the whole report again but I remember one of the issues being the underlying technology platform and also that a supply led approach was a key driver rather than demand.  Educause also published a piece on the real story behind the failure of the UKeU.  Their piece highlights:

The initiative was touted as an innovative response to the perceived opportunities and threats of online higher education—in the form of U.S. institutions such as the University of Phoenix Online and the University of Maryland University College, not to mention the many—at the time—dot-com start-ups such as NYU Online and Cardean University.

Which brings me back to the Schwatz interview.  Is there a new threat from the established US universities and the MOOCs they are offering via Coursera, Udacity and EDx.  The Stanford MOOC on Artifical Intelligence attracted 58,000 particpants from more than 175 countries.  Should we be worried that we’re not hearing announcments of UK MOOCs? Has the UKeU expereince made us too cautious and caused us to miss an opportunity or has there been too much of a focus on OERs?  Will lagging behind on MOOCs affect recruitment for UK online distance learning programmes?

Lots of questions, I’m sure others have similar questions and it would be interesting to see some converastion around these issues with others both in the UK and wider afield.


  1. I went to a coursera presentation last week, and left, shall we say, relatively angry.

    I keep seeing sign up numbers as a key indicator – but i’d be interested in knowing how many people apply for these courses normally? About the same? I’d also like to see attendance and completion rates and National student survey equivalent?

    At the moment I see two companies promoting a product. I don’t really see any evidence bar an atypical gartner curve (this is elearning, where everyone wants to be an early adopter)

    I like the MOOC idea if the problem is how can you design scalable learning for X students, but I don’t think MOOCs do this, and innately this is because although they are “open” – if you have a computer, and are free for the time they want you to attend. But if less people are wanting to go to university ( and fees are going through the roof – the question of how best to offer scalable learning (which I don’t think Universities can do) isn’t by taking a course and putting it on a website. It needs a much broader, collective approach, and the MOOC system seems to innately rely on individuals.

    1. I think the Stanford MOOC on artificial intelligence had 170 students on campus and 58,000 on the MOOC. We don’t know what the level of engagement or completion is amongst these thousands of participants. I’m not sure if they include course feedback or what the satisfaction level is with these mega courses. George Siemens wrote an interesting piece about the educational theory that underpins MOOCs.

      I like the idea of MOOCs and I’ve dipped in and out of a few of them and personally found them very helpful. I guess I’m not so clear about the objectives of the ones that are linked to degree modules. Is it more about marketing and enhancing the repuation of an institution? If that’s the case is it perhaps the same rationale that some Universities have for being on iTunesU. The OU has had over 40 million donwloads from iTunesU, are these millions of downloads of OERs substantially different to MOOCs, maybe not given the ability to now deliver courses via iTunesU. Are the open access courses being delivered via iTunes more effective than these mega MOOCs being offered by Coursera et al?

      Maybe as Will Richardson has suggested we need to start focussing on what can we do that technology can’t.

    2. i’ve posted some stats below for you from mitx. Interested to hear you elaborate on why MOOCs cant be scalable…I didn’t understand ‘…and innately this is because although they are “open” – if you have a computer, and are free for the time they want you to attend.’

  2. I took the mitx 6002 course in electronics. Here are the stats they released:

    Course statistics: 6.002x had 154,763 registrants. Of these, 69,221 people looked at the first problem set, and 26,349 earned at least one point on it. 13,569 people looked at the midterm while it was still open, 10,547 people got at least one point on the midterm, and 9,318 people got a passing score on the midterm. 10,262 people looked at the final exam while it was still open, 8,240 people got at least one point on the final exam, and 5,800 people got a passing score on the final exam. Finally, after completing 14 weeks of study, 7,157 people have earned the first certificate awarded by MITx, proving that they successfully completed 6.002x

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