Today, the second European stakeholder summit on MOOCs - EMOOCs 2014 - ended. It lasted two days and a half days and was held at the Ecole Polytechnique Féderale de Lausanne, which is situated on the shores of pretty Lac Léman, Switzerland. Reportedly, it was attended by 450 delegates, also from countries outside Europe. Apart from several keynotes, the conference featured four tracks of papers and panels. Two of the tracks were devoted to reporting on experiences with MOOCs and research on MOOCs, two others to discussing business models and policy decisions for MOOCs. Check out the conference site for the programme and the conference proceedings, or search in your Twitter client with #emoocs2014 to acquire a taste of the conference's convivial atmosphere.
I went there for two reasons. First out of my general interest in MOOCs: I've blogged here about MOOCs before and maintain a scoop.it site on them. I wanted to sample current ideas and opinions, and check progress. The second reason was more practical. In the context of the EU-funded HANDSON project we intend to offer a course in the form of a MOOC to teachers in Europe. The course wants to help them to improve their ICT skills. How do our ideas fit with what is on offer elsewhere, I wanted to find out.
That second question is fairly easy to answer. The variety and diversity of courses that go by the name of MOOCs, or the various variations on this acronym, is enormous. So almost any course that lives online, partially or fully, can go by the name of a MOOC, the HANDSON course being no exception to that. How about the first point?
Undeniably, MOOCs have lighted a fire that will not be extinguished anytime soon. This much became clear. Whatever their motives - not wanting to miss the boat, making a profit, branding themselves, helping out developing nations - universities an companies have become very active, also collaborating intensely. This is the case with the oldest players such as Coursera but also with the newer ones such as MiríadaX, which focuses on the Ibero-American world. It can't be wrong that people invest in education, financially or with mind power, so this development is to be applauded. Or is it indeed?
A 2003 book by Todd Oppenheimer comes to mind: The Flickering Mind, the false promise of technology in the classroom and how learning can be saved. Omitting all nuance and detail, Oppenheimer documents with great care how the computer industry flooded many primary and secondary schools in the the US in the eighties and nineties with computers. Although they may well have done so with the best of intentions, at best positive learning effects could not be detected, at worst they were negative indeed. This could happen also because schools seem to have been blinded by the available money and forgot their prime raison d'être, making sure that children learn. MOOCs are not hardware and universities are not schools. Still, venture capital and industries buy influence through the money they make available.
So amidst all the genuine hopes and contagious enthusiasm, some scepticism wouldn't harm lest we repeat the mistake made in the past to confuse financial affluence with educational desirability. The urge to spend money now that it is available should be tempered by the sense to consult available research results - MOOCs may profit from 30 years of research in distance education and at least 10 years of research on networked learning. Nor should one lightly brush aside genuine concerns about student privacy, intellectual property rights, and intellectual imperialism vis a vis developing countries. In all fairness, these latter topics all were addressed in the conference's policy and business tracks. However, no solutions to these concerns seemed to be forthcoming. Perhaps they will in next year's conference, to be held in Mons, Belgium.
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