‘Moocs could revolutionise learning in Scotland’

15th April 2016 at 00:00
Massive open online courses are a hot political topic ahead of elections

“More Moocs for schools” became a cry on the election campaign trail last week – which might have resonated more if people actually knew what a Mooc was.

Moocs may sound like a dreary indie band or lesser-known Doctor Who villains – neither of which have obvious potential for driving up educational attainment – but they’re actually online university courses which some believe could lead to a revolution in learning.

That was the line pushed by Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie last week when he claimed that massive open online courses – to use their full name – could allow every pupil to find a course that inspires them, regardless of how restricted their school is by geography, staffing or budget cuts.

Moocs are typically free and allow anyone around the world to sign up and learn whenever they find the time. Mr Rennie noted that they had allowed Saudi women to overcome social restrictions and educate themselves. Some of the world’s top universities, including Harvard, Stanford, Cambridge and Oxford, have been involved with producing Moocs.

“The beauty of Moocs for school pupils is that they can explore topics they are studying in a new and exciting way,” said Mr Rennie, who wants all universities to tailor their content to what older pupils in secondary schools demand.

Headteachers at two rural secondaries told TESS that they were already exploring the use of Moocs at their schools.

Ollie Bray, headteacher at Kingussie High School, already runs Moocs for teachers – on digital classroom skills and games-based learning – which will have been taken by 7,000 people by the time they end (bit.ly/DigiSkill and bit.ly/GamesSchools).

He has investigated whether a coding course at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology would be suitable for pupils. He thinks that Moocs could be particularly helpful in acquiring skills for work and studies for Advanced Highers that a school might not be able to run itself.

High dropout rates

Mr Bray warned, however, that teachers thinking of getting involved with such courses should be wary of overestimating young people’s ability to navigate online learning unaided. Moocs have very high dropout rates and only a “very motivated young person” would complete one without help.

“Young people are good at doing something like going on YouTube and finding out how to change a spark plug – what you might call short-term impulse learning – but deeper-learning strategies are more tricky,” he said.

While senior pupils could mostly be left alone to work through a Mooc, a teacher would still need to oversee progress and ensure that they were on the right track, he added.

Last year, TESS reported that the University of Edinburgh had explored the idea of Moocs being run by a “teacherbot”, without the need for human oversight (bit.ly/TeacherBot). The teacherbot fired off automated responses to participants who were taking part in a Mooc for education professionals.

It may be a while before Moocs become fully automated, however. One student wrote that conversing with the teacherbot on Twitter was “something like talking to a very intelligent friend with Alzheimer’s”, with each of their posts proving “very interesting but…only roughly connected to the last”.

Enriching the curriculum

Craig Biddick, headteacher of Tobermory High School on the Isle of Mull, said that Moocs could be particularly useful in S6, where “we are pushing the idea of building independent learning skills and enabling students to look at more diverse subjects or study that supports their aspirations”.

As a small island school, Mr Biddick added, there was a real need to look for a number of external education providers “who could diversify and enrich our curriculum”.

He believes that Moocs could help students study for Highers or Advanced Highers in those subjects where there are recruitment problems or staff absences.

The Scottish Qualifications Authority has also shown an interest in Moocs, and invited Professor Jeff Haywood, the vice-principal for digital education at the University of Edinburgh, to address an event last June.

His analysis of six Moocs showed that they tended to attract younger learners: 57 per cent of students were 34 or under. However, only 3 per cent were under 18.


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