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With the arrival of MOOCs, we must ‘rethink’ the role of teachers

The new generation of university scholars will be expected to perform many different roles: lecturer, designer, mentor, institutional marketer and so on – writes Professor Philippa Levy

Massive open online courses – free web-based courses with a global reach and capacity for enrolments in the many thousands – are variously described as the most far-reaching or the most over-hyped development in the higher education landscape today. What is certainly true is that the learning environments created by MOOCs are profoundly different from many that we are used to in higher education.

This has direct consequences for those who are teaching and those who are learning. Yet amid all the debate, one area has been noticeably under-represented: pedagogy. Against a backdrop of student fees in England, government agendas that continue to focus on learning and teaching, and the growing need for universities to diversify income streams – and meet the needs of a varied learning population by offering different options for learning – it is important that the pedagogy of MOOCs – their theory and practice – receives attention.

This is why The Higher Education Academy, the national body for learning and teaching, has been involved with MOOCS since their earliest implementation. The first MOOC to be named as such was the part HEA-funded Oxford Brookes course ‘First steps into learning and teaching in higher education’. It is also why we have commissioned two pieces of research.

The pedagogy of the massive open online course: the United Kingdom view by Siân Bayne and Jen Ross at the Edinburgh University seeks answers to such questions as: what does teaching mean on courses where there may be hundreds of thousands of students enrolled, and what are the expectations both of academics who teach MOOCs and the students being taught? It will be published in February. The HEA will be publishing research into student engagement within a MOOC context by Julie Wintrup and Kelly Wakefield from Southampton University later this year.

The introduction of MOOCs into UK higher education intensifies the spotlight on the fact that there are many different types of learners seeking many different types of learning for many different types of outcomes. There are those seeking more ‘formal’ educational experiences, which generally go hand-in-hand with more traditional forms of accreditation, and those who are learning as part of a leisure experience or looking for more informal continuing professional development. For the teacher, this presents many challenges, including around curriculum design and decisions about approaches to learning and teaching.

Indeed, MOOCs teachers, the Edinburgh report states, may find themselves challenged in many ways. They may be required to perform many different roles: lecturer, designer, mentor, institutional marketer and so on. There may be an assumption that the type of online platform being used mostly determines MOOCs pedagogy. However, this is not the case. Rather, MOOCs pedagogy is emergent and highly diverse; and calls on those doing the teaching to rise to the challenge of being evermore creative, and adaptive.

How best, therefore, to support the needs of teachers on MOOCs? The Edinburgh authors show that further research into discipline-specific learning and teaching approaches might be helpful. Pedagogical approaches to MOOCs are understandably aligned to disciplinary ways of practice. But while there is extensive literature about discipline-specific pedagogy in higher education learning and teaching, there has been little analysis of these approaches as they relate to MOOCs. So this may be a useful focus for the future.

There are many issues around accreditation. There are now MOOCs in the UK, which offer the option to receive formal academic credit. Discussion of formal accreditation on MOOCs prompts debate about how this will affect the open nature of learning that the courses provide and also how it will affect student engagement issues such as dropout rates, which are high on MOOCs – although evidence shows that people engage with online courses for different purposes and in different ways, and it is becoming accepted that non-completion seems less relevant as a measure of MOOCs quality or success than initially was thought.

The Southampton research takes as its starting point the premise that engagement in learning as part of MOOCs will be different from traditional campus-based learning and that there is potential to learn new forms of engagement. The university is participating in the second year of our pilot of the National Survey of Student Engagement – now called the UK Engagement Survey – specifically to use its questions and concepts of engagement in a study that will be conducted among learners after they have participated in MOOCs.

The Edinburgh report makes three policy recommendations: to continue to investigate what may be most useful regarding the accreditation of MOOCs and the implications for teaching; to encourage innovation and transformation in continuing professional development contexts using MOOCs; and to acknowledge MOOCs as representing a significant shift to digital education by implementing policies and practices that support and foster digital literacies. We support these recommendations wholeheartedly.

What is clear is that it will be important to avoid preconceptions both about what MOOCs are and how teaching works in an online environment. The function of the teacher needs to be rethought. Creative thinking and openness to new forms of engagement will be important. Those finding their way in these new learning environments will need support.

Professor Philippa Levy is deputy chief executive of The Higher Education Academy

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