Two weeks way in the French West Indies sure is good for the soul
March 8th, 2013

Two weeks way in the French West Indies sure is good for the soul. I highly recommend it. I took all my devices with me, of course, because a day without email is like a day without meaning. Returning to campus without having checked in and replied to various requests for this and that would have been unthinkable. As we all know, anything is possible if you’re connected to the Internet and so staying in touch with the home office is simply a fundamental part of a dean’s life these days. Most people I replied to had no clue I was sitting on a beach chair with a frozen margarita by my elbow. But I was.

While away I spent some time tracking the debate around MOOCs—Massive Open Online Courses—which is getting more dense and animated, now that these courses have been up and running for a while. I can’t really say with any certainty that I know where MOOCs are headed or whether they will significantly alter the experience of postsecondary learning but the topic is fascinating. Every day there is fresh commentary, especially generated in the USA where MOOCs are far more top of mind than here in Canada, at least so far. More to the point, the research on the actual benefits and effectiveness of MOOCs is just beginning. Until there is more evidence of the business and learning model, most universities will simply monitor their potential for now.

MOOCs, as I have written before in this space, have been acquiring student learners in staggering numbers. Stanford‘s MOOCS boast about 100,000 people a course.  That’s the massive part of the descriptor, for sure. A recent Chronicle of Higher Ed article updating readers on the state of MOOCs notes that dozens of universities worldwide are now delivering such courses, including McGill and the UoT. Are they or will they transform our institutions entirely? We probably need another five years of MOOCs delivery to figure that out, and to come up with appealing business models. Right now, the courses are all ‘free,’ except that they are being underwritten by huge providers.

Someone has come up with four categories of participants: lurkers, drop-ins, passive participants and active participants. Those could apply to just about anything on the web, surely. One widely reported factoid raises serious questions about how to measure the success of MOOCs. We are now hearing that only 10% of the hundreds of thousands who sign up for the free courses offered by some of the most prestigious institution in the world are completing them. This sounds like a crushingly low number until you consider that 10% of, say, a million new learners, is actually pretty high. They say that a lot of high school students are signing on to courses offered by MIT or Stanford, but a very small handful of them ever finish. This shouldn’t be surprising, either. It’s way too easy to sign up and so why wouldn’t you? They’re free, and so there’s no investment but time. If I had a dollar for every time I failed to follow up on a web-based lead or commitment I started I’d be able to finance my next Caribbean holiday.

Another recent development is that MOOCs are starting to acquire legit academic credentials, and so they are not simply for anyone in the universe who happens to be interested in a subject for its own sake. They will soon start to count towards degrees. But what about students who are getting degrees by paying a fortune in tuition? If you can get a degree someday from MIT for free then why would you bother paying $30,000 plus a year? Clearly a new business model needs to be thought through. No one has figured it out quite yet. Not even the geniuses at Harvard.

I love the argument that it’s impossible to assess what students are actually learning in MOOCs. Right, like it’s so easy to figure out otherwise.  I’ve been invited to a conference in the fall where the topic will have a lot to do with learning technologies trends and the whole MOOCs initiative. Perhaps by then there will be more research on the real effects of this wired phenomenon. Until then, and until charges start to apply, perhaps I really ought to sign up for a course whose contents I can understand.

Dr. Faye Murrin is Dean pro tempore of the School of Graduate Studies and Associate Professor in the Department of Biology. She completed her B.Sc. (Hons.) at Memorial University, her M.Sc. at Acadia University, and her Ph.D. at Queen's University. Her research interests have always been focused on fungi, in particular the cell biology of insect pathogenic fungi and, more recently, the ecology of mycorrhizal mushrooms in the boreal forest. Dr. Murrin has served in a number of positions on the Council of the Mycological Society of America and was awarded the title of MSA Fellow for her contributions. She was awarded the Women in Science and Engineering Lifetime Membership Award as founding co-director of the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) Summer Program. Dr. Murrin participates in public lectures and workshops, and is a Director on the board of Newfoundland Foray, Inc.

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