Sunday, 8 February 2015

Why careers advisers need to know about MOOCs

Last month I spent a fascinating day at the University of Manchester hearing about MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and their growing significance in STEM teaching.

Again and again presenters explained how their short 4-7 week online courses had been enthusiastically consumed by a hugely diverse and international audience.

Although a relatively new popular phenomenon, MOOCs have their roots in online learning developments over the last decade. It's only in recent years with the emergence of sophisticated and dedicated delivery platforms such as Coursera, edX and the UK's home grown FutureLearn that MOOCs and the technology surrounding them have attracted serious attention from the media, from venture capitalists and most importantly from many millions of students.

The scale of interest and adoption is huge. There are over 400 universities offering more than 2,500 courses. And 16 million students worldwide have benefited.

Typically a course on FutureLearn attracts thousands of registrants. Critics point to lower proportions completing the different stages of the course. Normally courses cost nothing and small numbers seem willing to pay out for optional certification. Courses don't lead to academic credit but this may change in future. Today's MOOC students may predominantly be well educated already, so don't particularly value accreditation and credit. As audiences broaden this may well change.

FutureLearn CEO, Simon Nelson told delegates that some 900,000 learners had signed up for over 2 million courses between them on his organisation's platform.

FutureLearn is a private company wholly owned by The Open University, with partners including top universities from the UK, Europe, Africa, Asia and the Middle East. The platform prides itself in having a strong social dimension encouraging collaborative peer to peer learning by mimicking some of the functionality of popular social networks.

MOOCs vary in many ways but often combine short and snappy video lectures, with readings, links, quizzes and assignments. Some courses are more flexible and tailored to meet individual learning needs, and Coursera's CEO, Rick Levin spoke of an increasing number of courses being made available in "on demand" format in the future.

So why should careers teachers, advisers and counsellors be taking notice of MOOCs? Quite simply they offer an incredible insight for anyone considering which career or education path they might follow. 15,000 people signed up for the University of Manchester's Introduction to Physical Chemistry MOOC last year and around 40% of those were in secondary education. Savvy STEM Subject teachers are recommending MOOCs to their learners as a way to taste different university delivery styles, see faculty in action and gain inspiration from innovative and engaging course material.

Universities are increasingly aware that MOOCs offer a marketing opportunity promoting their global brand, but also addressing the widening participation agenda at home. MOOCs can help them target potential international students, and secondary school students as potential consumers of their paid for courses. It's also true that not all high school pupils have access to the best maths and science teaching in their institution. But the accessibility of MOOCs means anyone from age 13-93 can experience great teaching and learning.

Dr Stephen Powell from CETIS, the Centre for Educational Technology, Interoperability and Standards, based at the University of Bolton suggested there are further benefits for universities. MOOCs have contributed to

driving up quality of online learning generally
encouraging a culture of experimentation in HE teaching and learning
introducing millions of learners to subjects and disciplines
challenging institutions to think harder about their learning technology
challenging institutions to think about their teaching models

Learner motivations for participating in MOOCs are many and varied, but one cannot ignore their relevance to anyone seeking career development, contemplating career change, or evaluating different higher education institutions and disciplines. Having successfully undertaken a short MOOC with a top international university on a contemporary topic is something any university applicant or job seeker would quite rightly want to include in applications, CVs or resumes. Recruiters and admissions tutors will increasingly be looking for such evidence and interviewers will no doubt want to ask candidates about their MOOC experiences.

If you are a careers educator or counselor and you've not taken a MOOC yourself you are missing out. Check out MOOC aggregator website Class Central to find out which courses are available from a wide range of different providers.

Image credit: Universitat Oberta de Catalunya - Licensed under creative commons attribution 3 unported license