MOOCs and their impact on e-learning

Nic Ponsford

Nicole is the digital leader of @WomenEd, leader of @WomenEd_Tech and founder of @gendercharter. Previously, she was an award-winning AST in Media and New Technologies. Nicole is passionate about gender equality being the ‘new normal’.

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MOOCs continue to spread throughout the world. But how will they affect e-learning in the UK? TechnoTeacher Nicole Ponsford takes a look.

MOOC = Massive Open Online Course. You may have now heard of them as the BBC has published an article about the UK’s Future Learning, illustrating their global demand. I have just completed my first of these courses, and believe MOOCs will change of the tone of learning for us all.


In the past, if you wanted to learn something you would “…Ask someone, buy a book, figure it out for yourself, or you could call a school”. However, today, all the content we need to learn is (arguably) online. You can access this yourself - not in a school, and not in a book - on your phone. A MOOC is the next stage of distanced learning. No, not Open University 1970s late night BBC shows displaying mainly brown and more brown-style distanced learning, but distanced learning that really narrows the gap between universities and the public, without having to be on a campus.

Does it differ from normal e-learning? Yes; you access it online and read information on a site (that is nothing new), but it is highly structured, challenging, personalised and interactive. Also, and here is the big incentive, people; it is free to participate (You may need to pay for an accreditation, but you can engage for free).

Let me introduce this properly. I had no idea what a MOOC was, so here are the links where I found out more. A MOOC description can be found here on this Wiki and in the following YouTube video. As the short film shows, e-learning is e-volving.

(I’ll wait here for you.)


It was not my idea. MOOCs were not on my radar.

My American co-author, Dr Julie M. Wood, invited me to join her in participating in EdX’s ‘Leaders of Learning’ course. The USA are more used to MOOCs to us, and globally they are gaining more and more fans with over 200,000 students signing up to some. The world renowned universities Harvard and MIT set up the giant EdX. Sadly (sort of), she was a keynote speaker in China; midway through the course, and was unable to view the YouTube content, and was therefore not able to complete the course. She did however dip into it, and met up with fellow participants in her neck of the woods (something I would really consider for my next one). Although initially I was miles behind with the weekly schedule, I did managed to complete it in time and pass. I even got a certificate. Self-five.

So, dear reader, what did it ‘look’ like? My EdX MOOC was six weeks long and it suggested you needed 4-6 hours a week available. It was to happen over a scheduled time period (not all are). As it was a HarvardX course, I immediately thought ‘I am not clever enough for this’. However, August is normally a quiet time for me and Jules was enthusiastic, so I thought it was worth a go.

The EDX site suggests that you do the ‘Demo’ to get a feel of it. I liked the use of talking-head videos (I still see this as the future once people get over themselves on a screen) and the range of online materials, well sourced and only a click away. Videos included the course Leader Professor Richard Elmore (known for believing that modern schools don’t work), and from what Jules told me he was pretty radical - so I thought it would be fun.

There were also mixed ‘Voices from the Field’ who also added their opinions and advice; these included a Head Teacher from a challenging school, a world expert in school architecture, a Wikipedia editor and inspirational school leaders (not in traditional school institutions). There were checks along the way to assess your understanding - rather than assessing ‘correct’ answers. I had to submit a final project creating my own vision of a school. It was a structured and complete unit of work, which both challenged and stretched my understanding of the future of learning. It illustrated what good CPD, good online learning and good courses should be. And what is out there for us online today.

GETTING STARTED: Which is the MOOC for you?

Hmmmm… Which indeed? There are a multitude of MOOCs out there for you - and you can participate with them all. A good place to start is The MOOC List. Here you can search all the available MOOCs from HarvardX to us in the UK, or choose a theme/subject.


Getting back to my original point, the fact that the course leader spoke ‘directly’ to me on my laptop - as a university Professor would address a seminar group or lecture theatre - was comforting. I could learn from my sofa or in my kitchen. I could learn when it suited me and how I wanted to. I felt like a person in an Apple advert.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the social activity of learning. Being online is the most addictive social activity we have had for a long time. I have seen that the Chinese have set up ‘mobile lanes’ so you can walk and tap (on your phone, not dance) in peace. Mobile tech is here to stay, so what does the future of edtech look like? What is real e-learning?

I believe that learning in schools now must follow MOOCs examples. Learning should be a social activity for our students, rather than restricted to university age onwards; WiFi means we do not have to be constricted to the classroom. We do not have to learn from the person in the room, when we have the biggest staffroom available online in social media. The fact that EdX online discussion groups (an ‘Unhangout’, Twitter and Facebook feeds) are active 24/7 meant that I could chat with participants in Brazil, the USA and France simultaneously. This meant that discussions continued and took my learning (and networks) one step further.

I was able to engage with people all over the world about a topic I am passionate about. Does it get better than that? For free?!

Also, on a different note, I was being led by the world’s experts in this subject - not just someone with expertise. Which begs the question - shouldn’t all learning be like this? Shouldn’t we be enabling our students to do the same, rather than someone who can be timetabled into that class or can read another’s unit of work? If the experts are out there and teaching, how can we facilitate this?

In my recent blog reflections, I considered how learning compares with schooling as a result of my MOOC:

For me it really challenges where education is at the moment. After doing this course, I believe the possibilities and opportunities of online courses is huge. Yes, for students, but also for adults - for those with a love of learning or those who are changing careers (as we now do 3 to 5 times in our lifetime).

  • I do think it challenges the idea of ‘schools’ - the industrial designed cell blocks that met ratio of student numbers rather than learning styles.
  • It challenges how we value our children and their learning - sitting on cheap seats for 6 hours a day, rather than allowing them to learn as we do (at home or on the go).
  • It challenges who the experts are in learning and how schools move forward in this digital age.
  • It challenges all of us as educators and it challenges that fact that politicians and business folk are leading educational reform instead of the educators.

What do you think? I am now an EdX ‘Leader of Learning’ and so thrilled I did it. I would urge you to at least see what is out there and give it a go. Learning is a-changing and e-learning will take you places you never thought possible.

What are your thoughts on MOOCs? Let us know in the comments.

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