I was prompted to write this blog post by an article in the Higher Education section of The Australian newspaper on Wednesday 4th July. Andrew Trounson’s article ‘Online courses winning prestige’ (unfortunately not available free for public viewing but if anyone is interested I can scan it) covers the growing phenomenon of online courses offered by or associated with prestigious US universities. These courses, known as MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), are regarded as a game-changer in higher education. Deakin University in Victoria last week announced that it would choose the best online content from around the world to embed within its curriculum as a replacement for lectures, leaving more time for academics to engage in personalised teaching and assessment. This is the first time I am aware of an Australian university formally including MOOCs offered by other institutions in its teaching. The potential threat to student numbers and thus funding for local universities is clear, particularly in subject areas where hands on experience is not central.
Purely out of interest to experience the much-hyped courses I have enrolled in two courses offered by Coursera (https://www.coursera.org/), a private company offering courses from several universities, including Princeton and Stanford. One starts later this month and I’m into the third week of the University of Pennsylvania’s Fundamentals of Pharmacology, a topic in which I have a reasonable background, making the content a refresher of prior knowledge rather than new information. So far I’d have to say that the pedagogy isn’t much of an improvement to my university experience 15 years ago – it’s essentially a set of video lectures covering the material supported by some Powerpoint slides. Having said that, the subject material is well explained and illustrated and I have certainly learnt. There are some pauses for review questions, for which the answers are given a moment later but no other attempt at interactivity in the lectures. The assessment so far has been a few multiple choice questions after each lecture which I have found fairly easy. Other courses I have heard about have followed quite different delivery and assessment models so clearly people’s experiences will vary.
The advantages, not insignificant, over the standard lecture are that you can learn at a convenient time and pause or replay sections. The disadvantage of this course is that the learning is an isolated experience. Although there are discussion forums, contribution to these is not part of the requirement. I have participated in two other MOOCs, one organised by the ePortfolios Community of Practice and the other by the Open Educational Resources Foundation, and a paid online course. All of those required posting to discussions as part of the requirement which created more of a sense of community. All were based on a connected and constructivist pedagogy with the ePortfolio MOOC and online course involving weekly webinars and reflective blog postings which I found encouraged deeper engagement with the material.
Obviously my one experience of the early weeks of a course is not necessarily representative of all free online courses on offer but despite my pedagogical reservations I anticipate that many institutions will go down the path Deakin has chosen. In the veterinary education context, clinical experience will obviously need to remain local and hands on but I wonder how long it will be until students are learning elements of biochemistry from the RVC, physiology from Ohio State and pathology from Melbourne University with the courses hosted by an external provider (institutions have been chosen at random for this example). Change is certainly afoot.