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May 4, 2013

MOOCS – “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch”

The concept of MOOCS – of opening up higher education and making it available to all, is excellent in theory and, maybe, many people do benefit from it, . . . but . . . it is unlikely to change the wider educational landscape appreciably. It has, or may find, a minor niche market.
The students who are most likely to benefit from it have to be extremely well motivated and esoteric by nature; probably post-graduates in academia.
Successful educational institutions depend on a body of tutors who are experts in their particular field who have been trained to (i) impart their learning to students, (ii) to motivate (inspire) their students, (iii) teach them the skills needed to learn and, (iv) to prepare them for examination success. A continuing success rate develops a reputation for excellence but they also heavily depend on an adequate and continuing income stream.
The MOOCS concept does not appear to recognise these factors.
My granddaughter is a third-year medical student at a UK university . . . she wants to be a medical doctor: But, before she can practice medicine in the UK she must first be registered by the British Medical Council and they demand the qualifications MB BCh gained at suitably accredited Medical School attached to a suitably accredited university. Becoming a qualified medical doctor involves highly intelligent and well motivated student, a lengthy time period, and money.
The same pattern is a basic requirement of most of the professional institutions in the UK, viz Law, Architecture, Civil Engineering, Dentistry, Veterinary Science, etc.
Where do these fit into the MOOCS concept?
My own experience is in teaching the pupils in a UK High School (11 to 16). The role of the Tutor is crucial to the whole learning experience and the tutor’s professionalism should never be under-rated; neither can the tutor/pupil relationship be blurred or replaced with a tutor/content relationship. In this modern world, examination success and the ethos and reputation of the school as an institution are also contributory factors not to be lightly dismissed.


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  1. Stephen, I think it’s important to separate the pedagogical questions from the issue of who should pay. For example, in many parts of Europe, universities are funded by the state. The fact that in the Uk they have started asking students to pay has not, in itself led to any educaional advances.

    • Hi John
      I think that you are missing the point about finance . . . who pays is not the issue. There are significant costs involved one way or another and unless there is some satisfactory way of funding then MOOCs will waste away. Funding is the big issue being discussed in UK universities right now.

      However, that was only one of the issues that I raised . . . the main concern is padagogical and the suggestion that professional tutors are sometimes non essential to the learning process. The only excepted group of students would be well motivated, esoteric post-grads involved in personal research.

      • Sorry – I may have misconstrued your opinions about funding because of the “free lunch” reference.

        1-to-1 peer-to-peer teaching seems to be a big part of what moocs are about. I think it may depend on what one’s learning objectives are whether the teacher needs to be a professional. For example (Niall ;-), personally I’d rather learn to swim from a doggy-paddler than an Olympic medallist. Although that’s obviously something one can’t tackle online. A better example would be…. who would you like to support and motivate you in the task of memorising the Latin names of body parts? A fellow medical student who’s struggling with the same task or someone who did it 30 years ago?

      • Hi John

        I was talking to my son yesterday about this topic . . . he inhabits the ethereal world of academia and likes the notion of peer to peer learning at his level of interest and motivation but he is quite clear that it has no permanent place in the real world of teaching . . . it’s a useful add-on for some and no more. Personally I would prefer a qualified swimming teacher to either a “doggy-paddler” or an “Olympic medalist”.

    • On a theoretical level you’re right, but on a practical level you cannot separate money from pedagogy. When I wanted to change career, I started a new degree with the Open University. During me time studying, they started shifting to online delivery. They justified it as improvements for the students’ benefit, but the reality was it was all about the cost savings and the student experience suffered — plenty of “quid” not much “pro quo”.

      • Hi Niall You’re so right – the two issues can’t be separated and, in the final analysis it’s money that talks (or, pays the bills). Way back in my teaching days the County Advisor told us about the new courses we were to adopt. There was no carrot only the stick and it was a big one – no funding if you don’t change so we changed to the detriment of the pupils’ education.

  2. I agree completely. It’s like telling swimming teachers to stay by the pool and just throw the kids in and watch. Except that the swimming teacher wouldn’t be able to dismiss the failures as people who didn’t want it enough….

  3. Hi Niall A good analogy

  4. Stephen, I don’t know what to make of this…both you and your son seem to be saying that good education depends on 1-to-1 professional tutoring sessions with pedagogically trained tutors.

    It might be a good idea but I don’t think there has ever been an educational system where that was a major element.

  5. Hi John, I’m sorry that my message wasn’t clear but, I suppose, that highlights just one of the problems that the MOOCs concept faces. Our interaction is mediated by written language and this makes understanding more difficult than a face to face encounter.

    Individual learning and, indeed good education, is possible in a variety of situations however, the very best would be the one you have described but this is Utopian and we live in the real world where tutor to pupil in a 1 to 1 situation is clearly unsustainable; moreover, the pupil lives in a social milleu where peer to peer interaction gives him/her a sense of location.

    If the tutor has served the learning needs of the pupil well, then he/she would be enthused to enquire further and this may involve peer to peer interaction and/or pupil to content interaction.

    Furthermore, the pupil would, hopefully learn to reflect and ponder on the learning which may include a pupil to content interaction using other text books or the internet.

  6. I don’t think that our interaction in these comments shows a problem in the concept of moocs, quite the contrary… It is true that I am having trouble making sense of your position when you say on the one hand:

    “Successful educational institutions depend on a body of tutors who are experts in their particular field”

    and on the other hand

    “we live in the real world where tutor to pupil in a 1 to 1 situation is clearly unsustainable”

    but that is a useful learning experience for me, trying to tune in to a perspective and world-view that seems to be radically different from my own. As a blog poster, you benefit from the process too because, indirectly, you are getting feedback on your ideas as well as the way you express them.

    Some people even find that the process of explaining their position to others helps them to change and refine their own thinking. I think that is the main advantage of participation in this sort of peer to peer dialogue.

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