To MOOC or not to MOOC: Martin Bean and Mary Beard in discussion on The Today Programme, BBC Radio 4 040314

Sarah Montague: Now then, 250,000 people have signed up to take courses from Britain’s universities online via the website FutureLearn. It was set up a few months ago by the Open University in 20 British universities.
In the States, MOOCs (as they’re known) have been unbelievably popular. At Harvard more people signed up for them in a single year than graduated in its entire 378 year history. But since the first ones a couple of years ago, some of its early pioneers who were inspired by what they saw as MOOCs power to do good in the world, have been horrified by what they describe as its hijacking at home.
Mitch Duneier is a sociology professor at Princeton University. He was one of the first MOOC superstars. I interviewed him for a Radio 4 documentary series that I’d been doing, called “My Teacher is an App” and he told me that he loved teaching to people in a 113 countries, that it had been a highlight of his career, but he is now so worried about the effect of MOOCs on universities and colleges in the States that he’s stopped doing them.
Michell Duneier: It’s very clear to me that the agenda of some is to take these classes and to use them to cut back on funding for state universities. I had quite frankly become embarrassed to be associated with a movement that increasingly was looking like it was going to be putting colleagues and future professors out of business.
Sarah Montague: So what effect will their arrival here in the UK have on universities and colleges here. We’re joined by Martin Bean, who is Vice Chancellor of the Open University and it’s one of the organisations behind the FutureLearn MOOC platform online, and by Mary Beard who is Professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge. Good morning to you both.
Martin Bean: Morning Sarah.
Mary Beard: Hi!
Sarah Montague: Professor Beard, what do you reckon will happen as a result of MOOC’s arrival here? I mean obviously people could have done them online in the United States but there is an argument that if you could be taught by one of the best professors in the country, why go to a second rate university or college?
Mary Beard: Well I think there’s a danger and you know it’s early days yet, there’s a danger that what we’ll do is create a new division between the privileged few who actually get to meet their professors, who listen to their lectures, who argue with them, who have their exams marked by their professors – and on the other hand the unprivileged mass who just see some star professor on the internet, have an internet chat room to go to and have a computer marked assignment at the end. And I think we’re in danger of confusing here really the transmission of knowledge – which I suspect MOOCs are quite good at – and education. Education is about eyeball and interaction and it’s not really about having an assignment on Hamlet marked by multiple choice by computer.
Sarah Montague: Martin Bean, what about that charge that it’ll end up with a system where rich kids get taught by professors and poor kids get taught by computer?
Martin Bean: Yes, I think it’s really important that we don’t define quality based on mode Sarah. I mean I think if we focus on the learner, these courses are free, open to anyone regardless of age, wealth or educational background and they really don’t replace a degree but are a fantastic opportunity to sample one. And from FutureLearn, the early students coming out, 94% of them would recommend taking one to a friend. And you know the ability to open up. This week for example we’ve got Shakespeare and His World from the University of Warwick being offered and Discover Dentistry from the University of Sheffield.
Sarah Montague: Before you come back on that Professor Beard, Martin Bean, I said at the outset there’s 250,000 people I know have enrolled with FutureLearn which is tiny compared with the impact in the States. Is that because you don’t have the likes of Oxford and Cambridge among your 20 universities? And they are the sort of headline grabbers.
Martin Bean: No, absolutely not. We only really started offering our first courses in October, just a little while ago and we’ve already got 450,000 course enrolments, a 190 countries. So as I’ve often said, we might be a little bit late to the dance but we’re going to be very focused on the quality of the learner experience. I don’t think the future of MOOCs will be bigger is always better. I think it’ll be the quality of the experience that you can offer, Sarah.
Sarah Montague: Professor Beard.
Mary Beard: Martin’s been very judicious there really because MOOCs as an adjunct or a taster available free and for anyone, I think that’s wonderful and I think there isn’t anybody really in higher education who doesn’t think that it’s exciting to think about how we can use the internet to share what we offer more widely. The problem is when the MOOC turns out to be all you get and it’s a substitute for the kind of face to face, eyeball to eyeball interaction that the OU for example has, got a very long history in distance learning, has always added into their courses.
Sarah Montague: And that’s been one of the problems in the States hasn’t it Martin Bean, where actually with the best of intentions, everybody looked at this and thought, isn’t it incredible? We can reach people with an education that they’re not getting. But it’s this argument that actually it was hijacked at home, that universities struggling to fund courses were thinking, look we can put on a video course instead and just have our professor as a glorified teaching assistant.
Martin Bean: Yes, and that’s where I think people have got it wrong and I agree with Mary. You know MOOCs can’t be seen as an alternative to great discourse of tutors spending time with students interacting in a Socratic way and I think universities or higher education institutions that think that somehow they can give up great teaching by substituting it with MOOC like courses are sadly wrong Sarah.
Sarah Montague: Professor Beard, have you looked at the MOOCs that are online that the FutureLearn do?
Mary Beard: Yes, yes. I haven’t looked at FutureLearn actually, I’ve looked at – I’ve had some involvement with some in the States and you know I – you can’t possibly say that they are all bad or all good. Just – all education is varied. I think what worries me is the kind of the cult of the star lecturer that they kind of build-up you know that the star lecturer –
Sarah Montague: Do you know it’s the point on the star lecturer Mary Beard we’ll have to leave it at. Martin Bean and Mary Beard, thank you.

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