Outburst of MOOC fever

(Version Française)

In academic settings, Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) are "à la mode" this Summer. Nature has dedicated a special issue on this topical theme online onnJuly 18th (access without restriction). In the same Journal, Sarah Kellogg, has just published a note on "How to make a MOOC", free of access too. In the mean time, on the campus site and headquarter of the French institute for research in computer science and mathematics (Institut national de la  recherche en informatique et automatismes, Inria), was hosted the new "Cinecitta" for French Universities, where a noria of guest professors from France and Germany were coming and going for shooting their courses in high-tech studios.

I am just beginning to surface after having been immersed for two months in my first course on the MOOC which was both a fascinating and exhausting experience. The course I taught will open next Fall. It is a case study I built after having chaired a task force on coordinating Chikungunya research in Indian Ocean in 2005-06. In my whole life of Faculty, I never spent such an amount of time preparing a course. I never invested so much time in details when preparing my slides, including requesting free copyright to publishers for allowing me to post reprints on the platform for training purpose. At the end of the day, we will probably keep no more than 12 hours of video recording. That's fortunate for students! However, my pedagogy was deeply impacted and transformed by this experience. This course was among the ones I was particularly comfortable with. I had experimented it, in face to face small groups, in a couple of times in the recent past, either in French or in English in the Master of Public Health we launched at the EHESP French School of Public Health I was the founding Dean of. With time, I had the opportunity to improve contents, work on team exercises, analyse various questions from students.

When we decided to implement this course on the MOOC, I decided to teach in French, my native language (as you may recognize...), although it will be eventually subtitled in English, and German. Our colleagues and friends from Berlin recorded their courses (in German) at our "Cinecitta", which is located at Rocquencourt, 15 km West of Paris, in the previous headquarters of NATO the US got after the war, and transformed in the 60s to become the Inria campus it is now. Our German colleagues end their last courses at the occasion of the Bastille Day: isn't it a nice symbol of the German-French entente cordiale we achieved in academic public health?

I don't know of course what will be the audience for our courses next Fall. In particular to what extent we will justify the "massive" characteristic we announced. In any case, although tired out, this experience will remain a fabulous adventure for all of us. I have no doubt at this end of July 13, that MOOCs will -n the near future- profundly transform higher education and probably its institutions too.

All complexity and pedagogical interest which are nested within these new courses are not generated only from pace of training. Although pace is clearly different: we do not record continuously for 45 to 60 min for sure. We restrain ourselves to 10 to 20 min maximum. Quizz between to short video sequences are not of the highest innovation neither. It allows for online students to check they have acquired appropriately what the teacher was supposed to deliver. We never know to what degree the highly heterogeneous audience will understand what we teach online. So it is useful for the teacher to use these quizz. However, the main challenge is clearly the social network which may - must - be created during these courses. This specific and dedicated social network can become the major asset of these MOOCs, which cannot compare to classic on campus education, when social community does exist, but not at same order of magnitude.

For example, we are planning to deliver courses dedicated to caregivers (e.g. in Alzheimer disease). Aren't caregivers themselves the best teachers in this case? Caregivers may be initially attracted to the MOOC by guest experts, stars in the field, from lawyers since regulations are continously evolving, to neurologists who may bring updates from most recent research. But, when a caregiver will explain an issue he or she is facing in his day life, if 50,000 to 100,000 peers are online at the same time, shouldn't we be able to find one, or may be tens, hundreds or thousands of others ready to share sympathy, solidarity, and may be proposals for helping solving this problem, triggering thereafter discussions and debates? Faculty may act as coaches, or moderators here. They may bring latest knowledge from science to the topic. We don't know really how we will play the game together. It seems however that we have here a new extraordinary tool, we are far from having seen all its power.

Many questions remain for sure. Scepticism, opposition and reluctance or expression of concerns are very important and useful to listen and address carefully, since enthusiasm may be overplayed with MOOCs. We need time and concertation for thinking together on what kind of higher education we want to build together. Ethical issues demand responses (we talk about some of them in previous posts here, regarding student's data for example). Legal aspects are not yet solved (to whom belong courses?). Governance issues too: how democracy will be organized in MOOCs? How independence of teachers will be protected? Pedagogy must be addressed equally: is peer assessment a valid method for assessing students? are quizz acceptable in all disciplines? Technical issues are pending too, since platforms which are hosting such developments are highly technologically demanding, and so on...

We are conducting currently an international consultation to allow us to propose a concerted roadmap about the future contents of the MOOC entirely dedicated to public health with strong European roots: courses to be available, pedagogy to be used, experiments to be expected? Today more than 100 experts are committed worldwide to design this roadmap with us (on distance basis!). They have associated their students and alumni too. They come from more than 25 countries including Côte d'Ivoire, Djibouti, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, the USA, Taiwan, Australia, Israël, Turkey, Kazhakstan and many European countries, among them France and Germany of course!

Global higher education is moving fast today. It is hard to say where we are going to, or how we are going to, but we go anyway! What is sure, is that this "MOOC mania" we are observing places training activities at the center of universities concerns. It is rather new, since for decades universities were much more - may be only - committed (and ranked) on their research production. Today, investing in the future means investing in higher education, both training and pedagogy: it is good news, isn't it?


  • Régis Deloche 23/08/2013

    Gary Becker is the 1992 winner of the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences. Richard Posner is Senior Lecturer in Law and judge. The Becker-Posner Blog was started in 2004 to explore current issues of economics, law, and policy in a dialogic format.

    Readers of this (Nobel Prize-winning economist + legal scholar and federal judge) blog will find two interesting articles about MOOCs:

    MOOCs—Implications for Higher Education—Posner

    Here are two excerpts from this paper:

    “It may help to see this by thinking of MOOCs in demand and supply terms. There are three types of demanders for such a product. One consists of retirees and others seeking mental stimulation. Another and larger type (in part because it is more international) consists of persons, mainly young but also some middle aged, seeking to acquire skills that will contribute to their careers. And the third, which at the moment is potential rather than actual, is degree seekers. It is merely potential because the MOOCs don’t offer college, graduate, or professional degrees. They can’t, without a more rigorous method of evaluating performance. Apart from the limitations of student grading, there is the problem of plagiarism in the Age of Google when an exam is taken at home. (There is no problem of plagiarism when an online course is not offered for credit.) Even if these problems could be overcome, there would be the problem of basing evaluation of a student’s performance entirely on lecture courses—no small courses, no personal interaction with faculty, no seminar papers or senior theses.
    There would also be a problem arising from the heterogeneity of an international student body admitted to the online college without selectivity and therefore with great variance in levels of preparation. The mediocre performance of a student from a backward country might signal far more intellectual promise than the superior performance of an upper middle class student from an advanced country. On the supply side of the MOOC market, there is the problem of developing a viable business model. As long as the market for MOOCs is limited to the first two groups of demanders—persons seeking intellectual enrichment and persons seeking marketable skills—the costs of providing the product are very low. They primarily consist of modest bonuses for the lecturers—modest because most lecturers would consider a huge expansion in their audience to be a substantial bonus in itself, as well as auguring a likely very large market for their textbooks, though the overall market for textbooks will decrease as MOOCs catch on. On the benefits side, even without sale of advertising space or the charging of an enrollment fee, MOOCs provide cheap advertising for the colleges and universities that provide the lecturers. The question of supply and hence of the optimal business model becomes acute only if providers of MOOCs decide to award degrees and thus tap into the vast market for college, graduate, and professional education. Now enrollment would have to be limited (it would be limited automatically once an admission fee to the program was charged) and now higher costs would be incurred…”

    “A movement toward online higher education could have an enormous impact on American higher education, comparable to the impact the Internet has had on bookstores and publishers. There would undoubtedly be a very rapid and considerable consolidation of colleges and universities.”

    Online Courses and the Future of Higher Education-Becker

    “Online courses have many advantages: they can enroll large numbers of students from many countries and of various ages, individuals can take them at their convenience from their homes and when they have free time, online students can easily communicate with each other even when they are located in different countries, and enrollees can get quick feedback from their answers to quizzes and other questions posed by instructors. The equally obvious downside of online courses is that they do not involve direct personal contact with online instructors and classmates. No one yet really knows how important such direct contact is to the learning process. It likely varies from student to student, and depends also on the materials covered, and how the instructor conveys what he or she knows. I do not expect online course programs to compete effectively in the next decade against the education offered by top universities, although that may be because I do not appreciate fully how comfortable young people are with online communication. Still, I do expect online instruction to become very good substitutes for the thousands of courses offered by lesser schools.”

    "In summary, I expect online education to be a rapidly growing part of the higher education landscape, especially in developing countries that want to expand quickly higher education opportunities.”

Antoine Flahault's blog (in English)

Antoine Flahault's blog (in English)

Antoine Flahault's blog. He is Faculty member, in public health, from Descartes School of Medicine, Sorbonne Paris Cité

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