MOOCs mark technology shift

MOOCS or Massive Open access On line Courses, to spell the initials out in full, are a recent phenomenon. In one sense they are higher education’s answer to the social media age. For a sector that took over 500 years to recognise that cheap printing had made the lecture a redundant form of knowledge transfer the adaptation of UK higher education to the digital age in just 20 years is nothing short of a miracle.

In the mid-1990s Oxford Brookes University held an alternative learning term based around the theme of new technology. One of the events was version of the ‘hypothetical’ popular at the time where a panel of experts was quizzed by an experienced host, in this case the University’s Chancellor Helena Kennedy QC, about how the future use of technology in higher education might unfold. At that time librarians were still wedded to fixed hours and building more shelves and nobody bothered about power points, plagiarism or even the number of PCs available. The fax machine was high tech and the OHP the height of sophistication, even if few lecturers knew how to use it properly.

What is known as ‘clicks and mortar’ universities were the only option, except for those mature students who decided to travel down the Open University route. Now on-line study for free, is big business. However, like other new technology someone will eventually need to find a means of making money out of the technology if it is to survive. What starts as a means of drawing potential students towards degree courses inevitably develops a life of its own. However, the demand for high quality degree courses, probably taught in English, and with the cache that comes with association with a university known throughout the world, will undoubtedly provide a head start for some institutions.

For me, one of the key questions is when and how this technology revolution in mass knowledge transfer will spread to more basic learning? There must be a defined number of issues with learning even a highly complex language such as English, and if we can use technology to help unlock those blockages perhaps we can really start to think about abolishing illiteracy. Even now, the child who is off school with a cold could join the lessons by web cam if they wanted to, with no worries over spreading germs around the classroom.

Technology also allows for new methods of learning based upon approaches not grounded in the limitations of the printed page. One method has been called the Turing approach after Alan Turing’s pioneer work on computing. I don’t know much about it, but am interested to find out more.

What is clear is that the knowledge revolution is beginning to pick up speed and much of UK higher education is determined not to be left behind in the same manner is it was when it took the decision to create the JANET network. For schools, perhaps it is time for Mr Gove to go back to BETT and announce a Minister for Educational Technology. Closing down BECTA may not have been a mistake, but failing to recognise the importance of what it stood for certainly would be.


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