The changing role of the online teacher

As I mentioned in my last post, I was recently invited by Lisa Lane  to write a blog post for her Programme for Online Teaching blog. For details about the programme see the website: Program for Online Teaching 

I am reblogging my post here, so if you have already seen it, there is no need to read any further!


Some big issues in online teaching

Pedagogy is often defined as the method and practice of teaching, but is that all it is? And what do we understand by teaching? What is a teacher’s role? These are questions that have always engaged educators, but with increasing numbers of learners taking online courses in the form of massive open online courses (MOOCs), teaching online has come into sharp focus again. In my recent reading of research into MOOCs, I have noted reports that there has not been enough focus on the role of the teacher in MOOCs and open online spaces (Liyanagunawardena et al., 2013).

Years ago when I first started to teach online, I came across a report that suggested that e-learning was the Trojan Horse through which there would be a renewed focus on teaching in Higher Education, as opposed to the then prevailing dominant focus on research. It was thought that teaching online would require a different approach, but what should that approach be? Two familiar and helpful frameworks immediately come to mind.

  1. Garrison, Anderson and Archer’s Community of Inquiry Model (2000), which focuses on how to establish a social presence, a teaching presence and a cognitive presence in online teaching and learning.

Establishing a presence is obviously important when you are at a distance from your students. Over the years I have thought a lot about how to do this and have ultimately come to the conclusion that my ‘presence’ is not as important as ‘being present’. In other words, I have to ‘be there’ in the space, for and with my students. I have to know them and they me. Clearly MOOCs, with their large numbers of students, have challenged this belief, although some succeed, e.g. the Modern and Contemporary American Poetry MOOC, where teaching, social and cognitive presence have all been established by a team of teachers and assistants, who between them are consistently present.

  1. Gilly Salmon’s 5 stage model for teaching and learning online (2000) which takes an e-learning moderator through a staged approach from online access, through online socialization and information exchange, towards knowledge construction and personal development in online learning.

I have worked with this model a lot, on many online courses. Gilly Salmon’s books provide lots of practical advice on how to engage students online. What I particularly like about this model is that it provides a structure in which it is possible for learners and teachers to establish a presence and ‘be present’ in an online space, but again, MOOCs have challenged this approach, although Gilly Salmon has run her own MOOC based on her model.

In both these frameworks the teacher’s role is significant to students’ learning in an online environment, but these frameworks were not designed with ‘massive’ numbers of students in mind. The teaching of large numbers of students in online courses, sometimes numbers in the thousands, has forced me to stop and re-evaluate what I understand by pedagogy and teaching. What is the bottom line? What aspects of teaching and pedagogy cannot be compromised?

The impact of MOOCS

The ‘massive’ numbers of students in some MOOCs has raised questions about whether teaching, as we have known it, is possible in these learning environments. In this technological age we have the means to automate the teaching process, so that we can reach ever-increasing numbers of students. We can provide students with videoed lectures, online readings and resources, discussion forums, automated assessments with automated feedback, and ‘Hey Presto’ the students can teach each other and the qualified teacher is redundant. We qualified teachers can go back to our offices and research this new mechanized approach to teaching and leave the students to manage their own learning and even learn from ‘Teacherbots’ i.e. a robot.

Is there a role for automated teachers?
Recently I listened (online) to Sian Bayne’s  very engaging inaugural professorial lecture, which was live streamed from Edinburgh University.  Sian is Professor of Digital Education at the University of Edinburgh, here in the UK. During this lecture, Sian spent some time talking about the work she and her team have been doing with Twitterbots, i.e. automated responses to students’ tweets. The use of a ‘bot’ in this way focuses the mind on the role of the teacher. The focus of Sian’s talk was on the question of what it means to be a good teacher within the context of digital education. Her argument was that we don’t have to choose between the human and non-human, the material and the social, technology or pedagogy. We should keep both and all in our sights. She pointed us to her University’s Online Teaching Manifesto, where one of the statements is that online teaching should not be downgraded into facilitation. Teaching is more than that. (Click on the image to enlarge it).


Sian and her Edinburgh colleagues’ interest in automated teaching resulted from teaching a MOOC (E-Learning and Digital Cultures – EDCMOOC), which enrolled 51000 students. This experience led them to experiment with Twitterbots. They have written that EDCMOOC was designed from a belief that contact is what drives good online education (Ross et al., 2014, p.62). This is the final statement of their Manifesto, but when it came to their MOOC teaching, they recognized how difficult this would be and the complexity of their role, and questioned what might be the limitations of their responsibility. They concluded that ‘All MOOC teachers, and researchers and commentators of the MOOC phenomenon, must seek a rich understanding of who, and what, they are in this new and challenging context’.

Most of us will not be required to teach student groups numbering in the thousands, but in my experience even the teaching of one child or one adult requires us to have a rich understanding of who and what we are as teachers. Even the teaching of one child or one adult can be a complex process, which requires us to carefully consider our responsibilities. For example, how do you teach a child with selective mutism? I have had this experience in my teaching career. It doesn’t take much imagination to relate this scenario to the adult learner who lurks and observes rather than visibly participate in an online course. In these situations teaching is more than ‘delivery’ of the curriculum. It is more than just a practice or a method. We, as teachers, are responsible for these learners and their progress.

The ethical question

Ultimately the Edinburgh team referred to Nel Noddings’ observation (Ross et al., 2014 p.7) that ‘As human beings we want to care and be cared for’ and that ‘The primary aim of all education must be the nurturance of the ethical ideal.’ (p.6). Consideration of this idea takes teaching beyond a definition of pedagogy as being just about the method and practice of teaching.

As Gert Biesta (2013, p.45) states in his paper ‘Giving Teaching Back to Education: Responding to the Disappearance of the Teacher’

…. for teachers to be able to teach they need to be able to make judgements about what is educationally desirable, and the fact that what is at stake in such judgements is the question of desirability, highlights that such judgements are not merely technical judgements—not merely judgements about the ‘how’ of teaching—but ultimately always normative judgements, that is judgements about the ‘why’ of teaching

So a question for teachers has to be ‘‘Why do we teach?” and by implication ‘What is our role?’

For Ron Barnett (2007) teaching is a lived pedagogical relationship. He recognizes that students are vulnerable and that the will to learn can be fragile. As teachers we know that our students may go through transformational changes as a result of their learning on our courses. Barnett (2007) writes that the teacher’s role is to support the student in hauling himself out of himself to come into a new space that he himself creates (p.36). This is a pedagogy of risk, which I have blogged about in the past.

As the Edinburgh team realized, we have responsibilities that involve caring for our students and we need to develop personal qualities such as respect and integrity in both us and them. This may be more difficult online when our students may be invisible to us and we to them. We need to ensure that everyone, including ourselves, can establish a presence online that leads to authentic learning and overcomes the fragility of the will to learn.

Gert Biesta (2013) has written that teaching is a gift. ‘….it is not within the power of the teacher to give this gift, but depends on the fragile interplay between the teacher and the student. (p.42). This confirms Barnett’s view, with which I agree, that teaching is a lived pedagogical relationship. Teachers should use all available tools to support learners as effectively as possible. Pedagogy is more than the method and practice of teaching and I doubt that teaching can ever be fully automated. As teachers, our professional ethics and duty of care should not be compromised.


Barnett, R. (2007). A will to learn. Being a student in an age of uncertainty. Open University Press

Biesta, G. (2013). Giving teaching back to education: Responding to the disappearance of the teacher. Phenomenology & Practice, 6(2), 35–49. Retrieved from

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education model. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3), 87-105.

Liyanagunawardena, T. R., Adams, A. A., & Williams, S. A. (2013). MOOCs: a systematic study of the published literature 2008-2012. IRRODL, 14 (3), 202-227. Retrieved from:

Noddings, N. (1984). Caring. A feminine approach to ethics and moral education. California: University of California Press.

Ross, J., Bayne, S., Macleod, H., & O’Shea, C. (2011). Manifesto for teaching online: The text. Retrieved from

Ross, J., Sinclair, C., Knox, J., Bayne, S., & Macleod, H. (2014). Teacher Experiences and Academic Identity: The Missing Components of MOOC Pedagogy. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 10(1), 57–69.

Salmon, G. (2011). E-moderating: The key to teaching and learning online (3rd ed.). New York: Routledge.


Since writing this blog post Sian Bayne has published a paper about Teacherbots.

Bayne, S. (2015). Teacherbot: interventions in automated teaching. Teaching in Higher Education, 20(4), 455–467. doi:10.1080/13562517.2015.1020783

Pedagogy First Blog

At the beginning of March I was contacted by Lisa Lane and invited to write a blog post for her Programme for Online Teaching Blog. As with everything Lisa does, this was very well thought through and organized. Here was what she wrote in her introduction:

The Pedagogy First! blog is taking over the main page at the Program for Online Teaching.

We are hoping that we will present the views of those at the vanguard of online teaching as a creative and dynamic process. Through a journalistic approach, we hope to inspire those teaching online, make them think, and give them the tools to develop their own online teaching style and materials. Let’s go till June and see what happens!

She set up a Googledoc with a list of suggested topics, attached to specific weeks and invited us to select one or something similar.

At the time I was thinking a lot about the role of the teacher in online open learning environments, so that’s what I wrote about and it was scheduled to be posted at the end of May and has been posted today .

I so admire Lisa for her unwavering dedication to online learning and to promoting this at MiraCosta College in Oceanside, California. Her open Programme for Online Teaching has been running since 2005 and, together with a number of colleagues and volunteers, she must have encouraged many, many teachers to explore the potential of online learning.

I think the next POT Cert class will probably start in September and run for about 12 weeks. In the meantime, what a great idea to keep people engaged, connected and interested, by setting up a multi-author blog. I’m not sure exactly how many blog posts there have been since the beginning of March, but probably about 20. You can find them all on the website

Thank you Lisa for inviting me to be one of the authors.

The Divided Brain: A four day course with Iain McGilchrist

Monday 23rd March pm

This is my final post in a series of posts I have written following a four-day course with Iain McGilchrist.  Details of the course, which will run again next year can be found on the Field & Field website.

Here are links to my previous posts:

Screen Shot 2015-03-29 at 13.36.32Source of image: RSA Animate Video

Final Thoughts

The final session with Iain McGilchrist was an open question and answer session. This last post about this fantastic course, allows me the opportunity to write about three things.

  1. Iain’s writing process. We asked him to share this with us and he kindly did, but in a previous session
  2. The possible implications of his work for education
  3. My own final thoughts

Iain McGilchrist’s writing process.

It took Iain 20 years to research and write his now acclaimed book….

Iain McGilchrist (2010). The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Yale University Press.

… which has been the subject of this four day course. He told us that he finds writing a hugely difficult process. He told us that he is a very slow reader, having to regularly stop and mull over sentences or needing to read aloud. After his research and when he was ready to start writing ‘The Master and His Emissary’, he found he had writer’s block. He just couldn’t seem to get going and couldn’t understand why he was finding it so difficult. He tried various strategies, one being that he wrote all the themes/topics of the book on separate cards, laid them on the floor and tried to work out how to organise and connect them so that the links would be coherent. That approach didn’t work, but it did lead him to write a 1236 page draft outline for the book! Ultimately a good friend read the draft and helped him to shape the book. For an example of the beautiful writing this led to, I can recommend reading two paragraphs from pages 230 and 231 of his book starting at:

The feeling we have of experience happening – that even if we stop doing anything and just sit and stare, time is still passing, our bodies are changing, our senses are picking up sights and sounds, smells and tactile sensations, and so on – is an expression of the fact that life comes to us. …..

and finishing with the sentence…

Similarly there is ‘whatever it is that exists apart from ourselves’, but ‘whatever it is that exists’ only comes to be what it is as it finds out in the encounter with ourselves what it is, and we only find out and make ourselves what we are in our encounter with ‘whatever it is that exists’.

 (Iain McGilchrist, 2010, The Master and his Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Yale University Press, p.230-231).

I have selected these two paragraphs to quote, not only for the beauty of the writing, but also because Iain told us that this was the only part of the book that he had no difficulty writing. He got up one morning and it just flowed out of him.

The Divided Brain. Implications for Education

Another question put to Iain was what were his thoughts about the implications of his work for theories of learning and pedagogies in use. He did not want to talk about theory, but instead talked about the need to trust teachers to know. We can’t have a fail/safe system, so we should make it easier to get rid of poor teachers and allow good teachers the freedom to get on with the job.

In terms of the curriculum he thinks that in the past it has been either too broad or too narrow. We should be teaching ways of thinking and being. This is what the curriculum should focus on. Students should experience a demanding curriculum (and students usually do rise to expectations), through which they learn how to think. Subjects which can be experienced and learned outside the education system should be removed from the curriculum. The focus should be on subjects that teach us how to think and ‘be’. Subjects such as philosophy, languages, music and the arts are important.

Having had a long career in teaching, all this makes sense to me.

My final thoughts

I have found the writing up of these notes in a series of blog posts, extremely helpful. The notes are almost exactly as I wrote them during the four day course. Additions have been made where I have had to go and look something up that I have not understood either because my notes were insufficient, or simply because it was new to me. But I have not added much of my own interpretation. I am not ready to do that yet. I am still processing the enormous breadth of information and ideas I was introduced to over the four days. As one of the course participants said, it is rare to have the opportunity to enter into in-depth discussion with such a knowledgeable and wise man as Iain MacGilchrist.

My concern about these notes/blog posts is that they are necessarily my selection. What was it that I did not ‘hear’, how much did I miss, how much was I simply not ready for? I would not like anyone reading these blog posts to think that they are a record of what Iain McGilchrist said. Rather they are what I think he said.

I think it would be fair to say that this is the best course I have been on for many years. For me a measure of a good course is what I come away with. While I was there I enjoyed the beautiful location in the Cotswolds, UK, the excellent accommodation and food, the warm and friendly course participants and the way in which the course leaders were open to allowing us, the participants, to determine what we wanted to discuss and how we wanted to spend our time. But I have come away with so much more, not least a very long reading list!

I have already signed up to go on the course again next year. It will run in the same location between the 19th and 22nd August 2016. See the Field & Field website – and of course it is open to anyone who can get to the UK. We had one participant from Amsterdam and Iain himself had to drive 11 hours from the Isle of Skye to be with us.

A difficult task – explaining why I teach

Why I teach

I agree with Gardner Campbell – trying to explain why I teach feels like an impossible task. Not only is there the underlying assumption that we all know what we mean by ‘teaching’, but my many years of teaching experience seems to make the task harder. There are so many ways in which the question could be answered.

Also, like Gardner Campbell, I can remember clearly the exact point at which I realized I wanted to be a teacher. I was at University in my first year studying physiology. Those were the days of chalk and talk. Hundreds of students in lectures looked at the back of the lecturer as he wrote in chalk on a blackboard and we frantically tried to copy everything down. But for physiology we also had a seminar group and we were tasked with giving an individual presentation (no such thing as group work in those days) on a topic of our choice to the rest of the seminar group. We were not given any advice on how to do a presentation. My topic was ‘pain’, i.e. the physical process of experiencing pain. I not only loved researching and preparing this short presentation, but I loved giving it too, and it was a revelation to me that the rest of the group listened, seemed to find it interesting and know what I was talking about. That was the start.

Since then I have taught across all the age sectors, and also been a teacher trainer in Higher Education. My ideas about how to give presentations, how to teach and more importantly how I learn, have of course significantly changed over the years, as you would expect. As others have noted, teaching is about learning.

I wasn’t sure how to approach this task, or even whether to approach it at all. I ended up quickly ‘brainstorming’ the ideas that matter to me, just jotting down words as I reflected over my past experience. I then had to think about how to present these. I wanted to avoid a list (difficult as I am naturally a list person!) which would suggest some sort of hierarchy, but equally I didn’t want a map.

I have been thinking about Mondrian since I went to see an exhibition of his work at the Tate in Liverpool last month.

The exhibition was wonderful and whilst I was already familiar with Mondrian’s work, I had not thought before about the possible significance of the horizontal and vertical lines in his later work for my thinking about teaching and learning. For Mondrian these horizontal and vertical lines related to the elements of masculine and feminine in the world around him. He was looking for balance, equilibrium and harmony, but not symmetry. He was also concerned with space and in particular ‘empty’ space and the duality of opposing elements. For me all these ideas relate to breadth and depth in teaching and learning and the work of the right and left brain (see Iain McGilchrists work on the divided brain). They also make me think about open spaces and multiple paths for learning.

So Mondrian’s painting – Composition with Yellow, Blue and Red 1937-42 – seemed like an appropriate fit for some of my thoughts about why I teach.

This question has been posed in Unit 1 of the Connected Courses. Active Co-Learning in Higher Ed open course. There have been lots of interesting responses to the question. See the Googledoc created by Helen Keegan.

Automating teaching and assessment

George Veletsianos gave an interesting and thought provoking talk to the University of Edinburgh yesterday. This was live streamed and hopefully a recording will soon be posted here.  A good set of rough notes has been posted by Peter Evans on Twitter

Peter Evans@eksploratore

My live and rough notes on #edindice seminar from@veletsianos on #moocs, automation & artificial intelligence at…

As he points out, there were three main topics covered by George’s talk:

  • MOOCs as sociocultural phenomenon;
  • automation of teaching and
  • pedagogical agents and the automation of teaching.

George’s involvement with MOOCs started in 2011 when he gave a presentation to the Change11 MOOC, which I blogged about at the time .

I found myself wondering during his talk to the University of Edinburgh, whether we would be discussing automating teaching, if he had started his MOOC involvement in 2008, as this presentation seemed to come from a background of xMOOC interest and involvement. Those first cMOOCs, with their totally different approach to pedagogy, were not mentioned.

I feel uncomfortable with the idea of automating teaching and having robotic pedagogical agents to interact with learners. The thinking is that this would be more efficient, particularly when teachers are working with large numbers as in MOOCs, and would ‘free up’ teachers’ time so that they can focus on more important aspects of their work. I can see that automating some of the administration processes associated with teaching would be welcome, but I am having difficulty seeing what could be more important, as a teacher, than interacting with students.

George pointed out that many of us already use a number of automating services, such as Google Scholar alerts, RSS feeds, IFTTT and so on, so why not extend this to automating teaching, or teaching assistants, through the use of pedagogical agents such as avatars.

What was interesting is that the audience for this talk seemed very taken with the idea of pedagogical agents, what gender they should be, what appearance they should have, what culture they should represent etc. For me the more interesting question is what do we stand to lose and/or gain by going down this route of replacing teachers with machines.

For some of my colleagues, Karen Guldberg and her team of researchers at Birmingham University, robots have become central to their research on autism and their work with children on the autism spectrum. These children respond in previously unimaginable ways to robots. For some there will be gains from interacting with robots.

But I was reminded, during George’s talk, of Sherry Turkle’s concerns about what we stand to lose by relying on robots for interaction.

And coincidentally I was very recently pointed, by Matthias Melcher, to this fascinating article – Biology’s Shameful Refusal to Disown the Machine-Organism – which whilst not about automating teaching through the use of avatars/robots, does consider the relationship between machines and living things from a different perspective and concludes:

The processes of life are narratives. The functional ideas manifested in the organism belong to the intrinsic inwardness of its life, and are not imposed from without by the mind of an engineer. (Stephen L. Talbott, 2014).

Finally, George Veletsianos’ talk was timely as I am currently discussing with Roy Williams, not how teaching and assessment should be automated, but rather whether and if so how, it can be put in the hands of learners.

This topic will be the focus of a presentation we will give to the University of Applied Sciences, ZML – Innovative Learning Scenarios, FH JOANNEUM in Graz, Austria on September 17th 2014.


The science of teaching

Eric Mazur was the opening speaker at the ALT-C 2012  conference in Manchester UK this week. The keynote presentations were streamed online and I attended this presentation virtually – well worth the hour spent.

The slides of this talk are available here

A recording of the keynote has not yet been posted, but should ultimately appear here

Eric Mazur is a Harvard University physicist who is as interested in researching how his students learn physics, particularly through peer instruction, as he is in researching specific physics concepts.

An interesting aspect of his keynote to the ALT-C conference was his focus on pedagogy rather than technology and his very convincing argument against traditional lecturing to large groups, despite the fact that he delivered the keynote through a lecture to a large group. He says in an interview with Seb Schmoller, before the conference, that lectures are ineffective for teaching anything that is conceptually very difficult, but are good for motivating people. I found his lecture very motivating and my attention didn’t waver during the hour, but I wasn’t asked to learn any difficult physics concepts.

His keynote focused on his recent research

  • the gender gap between male and female achievement in physics,
  • the ineffectiveness of demonstrations in physics teaching and
  • the role of confusion in learning.

He urged us to continuously research our teaching and measure outcomes, using the scientific method. How he does this himself was very well illustrated through his talk.

Here are some of the key points for me.

The problem with traditional lectures….

… is that they hold the mind captive, whereas in fact the mind needs to wander to address problems. A ‘real problem’ is knowing where you want to get to, but not knowing how to get there. Science applies a known procedure to an unknown answer, whereas in our teaching we very often mark/measure students’ understanding by marking their answers rather than their procedures. A lot of assessment is simply regurgitation, rather than a measure of understanding.

The brain stores models not facts. To learn we need cognitive dissonance (Piaget).

Lectures don’t allow us time to make connections and reflect, or to register cognitive dissonance.

We need to build ‘speed bumps’ into lectures, to slow them down and allow time for sense-making.

Research on students’ neurological activity shows that they are more ‘asleep’ when they are in a traditional lecture than when they actually are asleep.

Eric Mazur's ALT-C keynote presentation Slide 6

The scientific approach to teaching: Research as a basis for course design Slide 6

(click on the image to enlarge it)

Teacher explanations and demonstrations do not, by themselves, improve student understanding. Students’ misconceptions are very resistant to change. This can be seen in these two videos which I remembered when listening to the keynote

A Private Universe

Khan Academy and the Effectiveness of Science Videos

Interaction and collaboration for more effective lectures

In his research into the gender gap between men and women’s achievements in learning physics concepts from lectures, Eric Mazur found that women’s test score can be hugely improved through interactive and collaborative lectures. Men’s scores also improved.

He also found that asking students to simply observe scientific demonstrations is not helpful. Critical to improving their understanding is asking them to predict a possible outcome and to discuss their ideas with their peers.

Also critical to effective interaction is skilled questioning by the teacher.

All this takes time – so taking this approach, there is no longer time to use lectures for the dissemination of facts. Students should therefore be asked to prepare for lectures through pre-reading and discussion. The lecture or classroom should be used for sense-making.  In the classroom teachers need to facilitate the assimilation of information through interaction and questioning. Information transfer (through ‘telling’) should happen in a learning space out of the classroom before or after the lecture.

Technology should be used to free up the lecturer and the student to have more time to focus on interaction, collaboration and sense-making. If it is not doing this, then it is not being used effectively to serve pedagogy.

The role of confusion in learning

Eric Mazur finished his keynote by making some interesting points about confusion. His research has shown that ….

  • Confusion doesn’t necessarily correlate with understanding
  • Confused students are twice as likely to be correct as students who do not think they are confused
  • Confusion is not necessarily the result of poor teaching
  • Confusion is an essential part of the learning process

My perspective on all this…

…… is that a focus on pedagogy and how students learn applies to all teaching, online or offline, to large groups or small groups, in physics or another discipline. If we are teachers we need to find ways to make our students think, become aware of and confront their misconceptions, to learn how to learn and realise that learning is about understanding, more than about the ‘grade’. According to Eric Mazur

‘You can forget facts, but you cannot forget understanding’.

One question that I have always had about the teaching of science through discussion, based on my own experience is:

How do you prevent students from compounding their misconceptions through interaction and discussion with equally confused peers?’

I think the answer to this question might lie in Eric Mazur’s work on learning catalytics, which as yet I don’t know anything about.

For an alternative perspective on the keynote, see this blog post – Black Hole

The Business Model for MOOCs

Last week I was at the HEA/SEDA day conference in Birmingham, UK

HEA/SEDA Conference on OER and Staff Development: Open Horizons: Sharing the future

I was there with my colleagues George Roberts, Marion Waite and Liz Lovegrove  because we had a slot in which we shared the work we have done on the FSLT12 MOOC. George has posted his slides to Slideshare.

What is Necessary and what is Contingent in Design for Massive Open Online Courses?


You will see that there are a lot of slides (48), but in fact we only got to slide 27 because there was so much interest in the MOOC and so many questions – and of course, so little time for discussion.

However, there was one very interesting, topical and pertinent question, which was,

What was the business model for the FSLT12 MOOC?

And it seems that this question is currently being considered by others on and off the net – see for example the article in The Chronicle of Higher Education

Inside the Coursera Contract: How an Upstart Company Might Profit From Free Courses

It seems that many institutions think about business models in terms of how much money they can make from MOOCs and certainly Oxford Brookes is thinking of accrediting the MOOC and charging for assessment next year.

But I wonder whether it would be better to think of the benefits and strategic advantages of offering MOOCs in non-direct monetary terms.

I was very interested at the conference in the session presented by Melissa Highton on OERs and Staff Development at University of Oxford. In her presentation she talked about the development of OERs – iTunesU – at the University, what this had involved, how lecturers had been encouraged to share their work and the benefits to Oxford University.

Through their iTunesU open lectures (videos and podcasts) Oxford University now has strong links with their alumni and prospective students. iTunesU thus helps the University to meet many of its institutional goals. The iTunesU site effectively markets and broadcasts the high quality teaching practice at the University and provides access to the expertise of Oxford University lecturers and the latest research.  The University has a quick turn around time for creating and uploading videos of lectures and podcast. For example they were able to upload a response to the Higgs boson discovery within 24 hours.

ITunesU also puts Oxford lecturers and researchers in the limelight. A video of a good lecture can get up to 100,000 hits a week and a lecturer can become widely known for his/her work in a matter of years or less, rather than it taking anything up to a lifetime as in the past. This has also had the effect of raising the status of teaching/lecturing in comparison to research.

The situation at Oxford University (and Cambridge) is different to some other institutions – because at Oxford the lecturers own their teaching materials and work, unlike at other Universities where anything produced by a lecturer as part of their work belongs to the institution. So through iTunesU and providing OERs in the name of the academic staff, the University is able to openly market the expertise of its staff. The reward for staff who do this is a high quality resource in their name which is open to the whole world. Both the institution and the lecturers benefit.

Clearly Oxford University must have the money to be able to produce these high quality OERs so quickly, but these resources are open access, clearly licensed through Creative Commons and free.

Whilst iTunesU is not a MOOC, the non-monetary benefits, or non-direct monetary benefits (since attracting increasing numbers of students from across the world will ultimately bring monetary benefits), are probably those that can be gained from running a MOOC.

Perhaps Universities who wish to run MOOCs need to take a fresh look at what they mean by ‘business model’.