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Online learning for all
  1. Gill Harris


Revolutionary changes in education are being brought about by technology through MOOCs – massive open online courses – that offer anyone, anywhere, the opportunity to be taught by the best lecturers and the best universities. Gill Harris reports

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MOOCs are free, online courses offering unlimited participation with open access via the web. The interactive learning experience includes material provided through videos, reading and problem sets, as well as online forums. Courses typically last for six weeks.

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The pros and cons of MOOCs were recently explored by Sarah Montague in a programme called ‘The university of the future’, broadcast on March 3 as part of BBC Radio 4's ‘My teacher is an app’ series. In the programme the benefits of MOOCs were considered to include the way in which technology could bring further education to those who could not afford university fees, as well as to those living in remote parts of the world. Ms Montague also explored potential drawbacks, for example, what MOOCs might mean for the future of state universities. Concerns have been expressed that such courses may jeopardise academic careers and even threaten the world's greatest universities.

Harvard university and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which are at the forefront of the MOOC revolution in the USA, have joined forces to form edX – one of the largest providers of MOOCs. During the Radio 4 programme, MIT president, Anant Agarwal, described what happened when they put their first MOOC online: ‘Within the first few hours we had 10,000 students. By the time the course started, we'd got 155,000 students from 163 countries – more than the total number of alumni of MIT in its 150-year history.’ Harvard had a similar experience.

However, the programme also revealed that the typical drop out rate is 90 per cent; and it raised questions about who assesses the completed work. It was explained that ‘artificial intelligence’ software has the ability to mark essays and is being further developed.

There is also the issue of honesty in completing some courses, which currently relies on an honour code, where students must tick the box stating that the work is their own and that they have appropriately acknowledged the work of others.

Situation in the UK

In the UK in 2012, over 20 universities plus non-university organisations with a huge archive of cultural and educational material (including the British Council, the British Library and the British Museum) joined forces with the Open University to form a private company called FutureLearn. Its website ( says that it aims to inspire learning for life, offering a ‘diverse selection of free, quality online courses from some of the world's leading universities and other outstanding cultural institutions’.

It says that it wants to connect learners from all over the globe with high-quality educators and with each other, to make learning ‘an enjoyable, social experience, with the opportunity to discuss what's being studied’.

The website reports that FutureLearn's courses can be accessed using a variety of devices, including smartphones, tablets and desktop computers to allow students to fit learning around their life, rather than the other way round. FutureLearn says that its courses are in beta release – a testing phase – and that the courses it is currently running are pilots. This format should allow it to shape and refine the way it works, using feedback and ideas from the learners: ‘It is important to us to craft a high-quality product, which is tailored specifically to our learners’ needs, so we want to spend the time listening,’ it says. ‘We're looking to our first learners to tell us about their experience of the site and suggest improvements.’

The University of Edinburgh pioneered the provision of MOOCs through Coursera (, offering its first courses in January 2013, including animal behaviour and welfare and equine nutrition alongside astrobiology and philosophy. To date, more than 600,000 people have enrolled for Edinburgh's MOOCs.

Taking a positive stance, these courses provide a taster that may also encourage people to sign up to become fee-paying students.

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