I’ve now listened to the second of the excellent programmes by @Sarah_Montague on @BBCRadio4 about the revolution in educational technology, and also the interesting discussion this morning on @BBCr4today between Professor Mary Beard (Cambridge), Professor Martin Bean (VC of the Open University) and Sarah Montague.
This is a revolution that excites me no end, but I also share the concerns identified in the two programmes so far and this morning on Today, particularly in terms of the role of the expert teacher – whether in the university the primary school or the college, or indeed in wholly online learning environments such as the Khan Academy. As we have developed the @UoSFLPortus MOOC I have come across an ever changing range of motivations for their creation. My own institution has perhaps shown an evolving sense of what MOOCs do for it, as much as what MOOCs do for their participants.
As the launch of our MOOC draws near I think that I have settled very firmly on why I’m doing all this work. It’s because it is fun and challenging as an educator (things universities invest in and encourage – point one for why universities aren’t doomed by MOOCs) and because I cannot wait to engage with the people who take part – who share my enthusiasm for the site of Portus, for Roman history and archaeology, and for technology and gadgetry. Of course as the programme this week demonstrates the kinds of interactions I and my colleagues will have with these students will be limited – we hope to run live video discussions and we will be responding to the forums and encouraging participants to become researchers and to submit their results – but it won’t be the same as a classroom, lab or fieldwork interaction. But there again, in recent years my view of the classroom interaction has also changed. Starting to flip the classroom, largely through commenting on student blogs between classes, and some recording of lectures, has freed me up to engage more directly with my students. I hope this then has an impact on them as confident researchers and communicators in their own right. Similarly we have been investing in technologies that provide access to “fieldwork” learning even for those who cannot participate in fieldwork, whether for reasons of disability, logistics (perhaps the fragility of a site), or indeed because they are studying online. For example, we think that you can teach some of the skills currently associated with practical archaeological research via online methods, whether by providing a sense of the place through animations or through an analogical mechanism that is completely different from the “real” environment.
Anyway, back to the documentary. MOOC statistics certainly do suggest that the majority of people who sign up for them have some form of higher education qualification, but I suspect that this is very variable across topics. Just as archaeology has traditionally recruited as a degree subject widely in terms of educational background, and just as archaeology as a profession has its roots in diverse expertise and background, so I would hope that the Portus MOOC will be of interest and accessible to a broader community. Of course community engagement is increasingly at the heart of academic practice in any case so why should the MOOC be any different? Maybe MOOCs are a way to engage groups not normally participating in cultural heritage – I don’t think we know enough yet to say. We are also actively reaching out to A-level and GCSE students (and talking to their teachers), as well as the more traditional audience, and working with groups already focusing on those between. But in typing this I wonder what I mean by traditional audience in any case? As Sarah Montague demonstrated the online learning culture is extremely dynamic and each MOOC offers new challenges and opportunities.
Archaeology colleagues are heavily involved in the Lifelong Learning activity here at Southampton. Lifelong learning statistics suggest that we already recruit very broadly, and not just for archaeology. Some people on Lifelong Learning programmes are already registered on degrees (at UoS and elsewhere) and want to try something different without the concern over credit, and I see this as another fascinating MOOC possibility. But many students taking Lifelong Learning courses have no higher education background at all and then go on to take a degree, perhaps being able to utilise credits if they did choose to accrue them. This is part of an increasingly mixed economy that universities are very well placed to serve. Indeed many of them don’t care about the credits and don’t go on to further study. The point is there is increasing choice.
So what about the impact of the MOOC on other aspects of education. At the University of Southampton as with any university the face to face interactions are at the heart of our learning, but personally I see no reason that the faces might not sometimes be connected via Skype or Adobe Connect or a Google hangout. As Mary Beard emphasised there is something magical about face to face (“eyeball to eyeball”) communication but many of us conduct the day to day business of our research activities online (but face to face), and these research activities in turn drive our education. Still, where physical face to face interactions with students do occur as part of a degree I am very hopeful that the Portus MOOC will become a valued, evolving, additional part of the UoS curriculum. I don’t see it replacing or undermining *any* of the existing teaching we do here or at any other institution. The Portus MOOC provides an introduction to a broad range of archaeological ideas and methods. As a participant you won’t bottom out expertise in any specific one, but you might learn where to go to do so. And of course a degree, or part of a degree, or a MOOC, or a work placement or another qualification might be the route. I do think it would be fabulous if a lecturer elsewhere used the material, just as I habitually show YouTube videos or share links to MOOCs and Open Educational Resources in face to face lectures. The point is that flipping the classroom requires *more* able communicators and also benefits enormously from their research expertise and interests.
I don’t see the model of “star professor” lasting long either – the feedback I have seen would suggest that sometimes it is the vitality of the postgraduate and undergraduate communities embedded in MOOCs that brings them energy and innovation. Clearly as ever we should strive to balance the extant structure of expertise with an emerging view of open scholarship, and again I hope that the Portus MOOC will be able to experiment with this dynamic. Of course that is where the joy is. And if others choose (or are encouraged/ coerced) to use MOOCs they could never be “glorified teaching assistants” since working with this material to its full extent requires a critical interpretor that universities should be adept at creating. Maybe if someone chooses to use the Portus MOOC in their own teaching it might save some class time to drill down into an issue, which of course might well be savagely to critique what they have watched on screen :-) Mary Beard and Martin Bean both emphasised that the MOOC is not a substitute for universities – it is another mode. I would also suggest that MOOCs do provide an education experience as well as transmission of knowledge – particularly where the MOOC exhibits more of the cMOOC qualities of interaction where the course is co-constructed by the learners. Increasingly FutureLearn MOOCs are accumulating surrounding ecosystems which make use of diverse social media channels, and I can see this only proliferating in future incarnations of the extant MOOCs. Our @UoSFLPortus channel will be one route but the community might create others, as happened with the @UoSFLWebSci where one student created a popular Google+ community which continues between and across successive courses.
At Southampton I see the Portus MOOC (and the other existing FutureLearn MOOCs and going back through thirty years of educational technology innovation here – lets name check Microcosm and TLTP for one) will be part of our commitment to curriculum innovation – to broadening the student learning experience. We hope that our archaeology students and indeed our students on any other course would benefit from an introduction to Portus and to the archaeology we practice there. There are no credits assigned to it that they can gain (I might cheekily add *yet* but that is for another post). But I want to use the assessments as an additional formative component. For example, we will set the same end of MOOC test to the Portus Field School students whether or not they have formally registered on the MOOC. Our students can then benefit from what the UoS provides – an environment for face to face learning embedded in ongoing research. In the case of the Portus Field School this is extended to allow participants from outside, albeit at a cost. Below is a video recorded on site in summer 2013 made by two University of Southampton Social Sciences undergraduates who worked at Portus as part of the Curriculum Innovation Portus Module, alongside archaeology students from Southampton, Rome and Stanford. They will act as some of the ‘student guides’ on the Portus MOOC.
Even better, by encouraging our UoS students to take part, including a number of whom have or will be participating in the Portus Field School, we can bridge a divide between the fee paying and MOOC students, to the reciprocal benefit of each. Who knows what extraordinary expertise in Roman archaeology lies in the potential MOOC student body? By providing access to some of our raw data and research outputs we can foster citizen science as well as input to online discussion. Of course it is not the same as face to face small group teaching, as Sarah Montague’s programme shows, but it carries with it some very real possibilities of debate and some elements that really complement the seminar. Personally I see the potential for a MOOC student to influence classroom debate on a paid course, and vice versa, as an extraordinarily rich possibility. An archaeology MOOC like ours on Portus or the excellent “Archaeology’s Dirty Little Secrets” isn’t in competition with the archaeology degree – it is a complementary form of education.
Universities such as Southampton support serendipitous encounters afforded by physical surroundings and the human need for direct interaction. They create and fund the community within which research flourishes, often via the interdisciplinary, risk-taking encounters that a university can provide. They train communicators and people who can synthesise work and reflect on it intelligently. Universities are engines for change, but like engines it is sometimes hard to get them off the rails, and the consequences can be disastrous. MOOCs to me feel like a great opportunity to support positive change and if they allow free sharing and broadening of education, and in turn demonstrate the need for face to face facilitation by experts (whoever and wherever they may be), then I am positive about their future.