University of London hosts third one-day MOOC conference

The tyranny of conventional wisdom is the biggest barrier facing MOOCs, says keynote speaker Martin Bean
Martin Bean and Professor Sir Adrian Smith
The Open University's Vice-Chancellor, Martin Bean, pictured with Professor Sir Adrian Smith
Professor Dinesh Singh argued persuasively that it wasn't the medium that was important – it was the power of the idea

Professor Sir Adrian Smith, Vice-Chancellor of the University of London, welcomed over 125 delegates to the University of London’s third one-day event devoted to MOOCs. Pointing to some of the themes that would emerge throughout the day, Sir Adrian raised a number of interesting questions about how MOOCs might play out in the future. Would they, he asked, play a role in supporting growth and learning? And would they lead to new pedagogic opportunities or merely reinforce outdated modes of delivery?

Entitled ‘MOOCs: What we have learned, emerging themes and what next’, the event was jointly hosted by the University of London International Programmes, The Observatory on Borderless Higher Education and the Leadership Foundation.

In his opening keynote, Martin Bean (Vice-Chancellor, UK Open University) argued that MOOCs need time to take root. Quoting the historian Michael Dobbs, he stated that the biggest barrier that MOOCs face was “the tyranny of conventional wisdom” – citing the OU as an organisation that similarly had to overcome initial scepticism. Quoting the management consultant and educator, Peter Drucker, he noted that “the best way to predict the future is to create it.” For Bean, there was no unbridgeable divide between face-to-face and online learning. It was the quality of the teaching, not the mode of delivery, that was important.

“I remain convinced that MOOCs are a very important educational development – I think they are a significant change in how people access education and I continue to believe they’re a force for good.”

Video message from David WillettsIn a recorded video message (pictured right), the Rt Hon David Willetts MP, Minister for Universities and Science, acknowledged that there had been a recognition that MOOCs were not automatically the answer to every problem in Higher Education. The Minister stressed that he continued to believe that MOOCs were a very significant development, highlighting their potential for education analytics, blended learning, and drawing people back into more conventional learning.

“I remain convinced”, the Minister concluded, “that MOOCs are a very important educational development – I think they are a significant change in how people access education and I continue to believe they’re a force for good.”

Discussing what had been learned from a pedagogic perspective, Professor Jenny Hamilton (Director, University of London Undergraduate Laws Programme) stated that MOOCs should be assessed on their merits and that merely stating whether you were for or against them was not helpful to the debate.

Professor Stephen Brown (Professor of Learning Technologies at De Montfort University) questioned whether MOOCs really were Massive, Open and Online. Citing the example of Udacity's move into the area of corporate training, he suggested that they might be morphing into something that was rather more familiar. Similar questions were raised by Jon Harman (Learning Design Consultant), who posited that MOOCs had merely digitised what had been done before. Talking about his own experience of leading a MOOC at the University of Leeds ('Nature and fairness: When worlds collide'), Professor Neil Morris stated that the key to introducing a pedagogically innovative course on a new platform was to help students understand their learning needs – in effect, how to learn online. This skill, Professor Morris noted, was by no means a given.

A session on emerging themes raised yet more interesting questions about MOOCs, in relation to both Open Educational Resources – much more work to be done here according to Professor Fred Mulder (Open Universiteit in The Netherlands) – and enabling access. As Michael Gaebel (European University Association) pointed out, the majority of Coursera students already have a degree.

 Professor Dinesh SinghDeclaring himself an advocate of MOOCs, the University of Delhi's Vice-Chancellor, Professor Dinesh Singh (pictured left), argued persuasively that it wasn't the medium that was important – it was the power of the idea. Citing the example of Gandhi reading Ruskin, Professor Singh stated that the power of MOOCs as a force for good could only be realised when the needs of societies meet powerful ideas.

Rounding up the morning sessions, Tim Gore (Director of Global Networks and Communities) asked whether a different European model – distinct from US models – may yet emerge.

Following facilitated discussion in two parallel sessions, the University of Edinburgh's Professor Jeff Haywood argued that MOOCs could widen participation and offer a "transformational experience" for disadvantaged students. More experimentation was needed - multilingual MOOCs and MOOCs for schools being just two examples he cited.

Highlighting a number of powerful student testimonials, Professor Koller noted that "one of the things that distinguishes these courses from traditional distance learning is the richness of the community that surrounds the materials."

In a live video link from Silicon Valley, the Chief Executive of Coursera, Professor Daphne Koller, said that the education platform started out as a "grand experiment". Highlighting a number of powerful student testimonials, Professor Koller noted that "one of the things that distinguishes these courses from traditional distance learning is the richness of the community that surrounds the materials...students have naturally congregated into thousands of communities around the world." In a brief Q&A that followed her talk, when asked by a delegate what her initial hopes for the medium were, she confessed that "I don't think we expected to have six million students within two years."

In a resolutely upbeat closing statement, Simon Nelson (CEO of FutureLearn) also made reference to the polarisation of debate that had attached itself to MOOCs. "A normalisation of perceptions is needed", he said. "We need to take advantage of the wonderful opportunities they [MOOCs] offer."

  • For further information about the MOOCs offered by the University of London, please visit the Coursera website.
  • Further information about the day - including videos, slides and other resources - will be made available on the Centre for Distance Education website.