Education, the MOOC and a Communication Revolution – by Jon C. Lovett

February 10, 2015

Author Articles, Education

Education, the MOOC and a Communication Revolution - jon C Lovett

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) have allowed millions of people to gain access to free education. Professor Jon C. Lovett, one of the pioneers of MOOCs in the UK, explains how he did it, and why it is important.

The traditional book is not yet dead, but the future is now.  In 1968 J.C.R. Licklider and Robert W. Taylor wrote “In a few years, men will be able to communicate more effectively through a machine than face to face.”  The entire way we exchange information has changed, and with it the nature of education.

When I was as student in the 1970s we went to a lecture theatre and listened whilst a teacher talked and wrote on a blackboard.  This was still the way to do it when I taught in Universities in Africa during the 1980s to classes of several hundred, who busily wrote notes as I lectured.  By the time I was teaching in the UK we had overhead projectors and photocopied hand-outs, saving the time and effort of writing in chalk, the students could listen to you and look at bullet points instead of writing.  Then came PowerPoint, followed by the virtual learning environment.  Now, when I come into the lecture theatre, the first five minutes are spent logging on to the VLE and setting the lecture capture video.  Then I spend 50 minutes talking to a sea of laptop lids.

The art of giving a good lecture is of course not dead.  I attended a brilliant talk recently by John Gummer, Chairman of the UK’s independent Committee on Climate Change.  He came round to the front of the lectern and gave an hour’s crafted, entertaining talk without notes.  He explained that he had received a classical education and learnt the art of rhetoric, so had no need of PowerPoint or visual aids.  But such skills are rare: the modern public speaker has more use of technical abilities in making network connections and restoring crashed systems.

The advent of massive open online courses (MOOCs) on platforms such as Coursera in the US and FutureLearn in the UK has moved the goal posts again.  Coursera advertises the availability of nearly a 1000 free courses from 118 partner universities and organisations that have been attended by about 12 million people.  FutureLearn is more recent, and launched its first courses in September 2013.  A year later it had exceeded 1 million course signups from half a million learners.  I wrote and presented the first MOOC prepared by the University of Leeds, which was only the second one to be launched on the new FutureLearn platform.  I thought it would be straightforward, as the material was drawn from a course I’d taught for twenty years, but condensing an hour’s lecture into four minutes of video for today’s sound bite generation is not so easy.


Trailer for the MOOC ‘When Worlds Collide’ exploring fairness and the exploitation of natural resources.


Although it was hard work, I wanted to do the MOOC for many reasons.  The first is of course that I am passionate about my subject, and was described as ‘gloriously geeky’ by a national newspaper reporting on the launch of FutureLearn.  The idea of bringing institutional economics to thousands of people, rather than the thirty or so who attend my third year module, was very appealing.  The second reason is the principle of universal access to education.  My MOOC used examples from places where I had conducted research, such as Nepal and Mexico, to make it relevant to participants from developing countries.  Many people in the developed world have also not been able to go to university, so the aim was to make research-led teaching understandable and available.

I felt a real sense of achievement when one of the participants, a housewife from Hounslow, wrote in to say that she was reading the paper by Bishnu Pariyar and myself on irrigation systems in Nepal whilst doing the ironing.  Many of the UK participants were from the generation of my parents, neither of whom were able to go to University, but who had paid taxes all their lives to build the world renown British tertiary education system.  With the advent of MOOCs, they were finally able to take advantage of the teaching they had paid for.

Moreover, an online platform enabled us to present the material as videos with subtitles, podcasts and downloadable transcripts, thereby making it more accessible to those with disabilities.  Edward Elgar kindly gave permission for a chapter from my book ‘A Handbook of Environmental Management’ to be included as an open access download, and we were also able to include the beautiful film ‘Gira la Tierra’ by the nature and conservation photographer Manfred Meiners.  Learning on the move has also been made possible.  The Futurelearn platform is ‘smart phone friendly’, and I was even able to continue running my course from a meeting in Senegal using the hotel’s wifi.


Making of the MOOC


Technical and behavioural change in education also needs a revolution in publishing.  I prepared an ebook to go with my MOOC, with embedded videos.  However, the full content was too large digitally to be feasibly included.  I also wanted to prepare a ‘crowd sourced’ book, and include the MOOC participant discussions, but this wasn’t possible because of intellectual property rights.  The quality of the participant responses was very high, and the concept of a living text book, written by the readers was very appealing. People gave their own opinions, debated with others, gave examples from their own experience and posted links to relevant websites, so an excellent addition to an academic book.


Medieval help desk


But the traditional book is still with us, despite the computer revolution.  Like a good lecture, there is still a human need for more than digital communication.


Professor Jon C. Lovett holds the Chair in Global Challenges at the University of Leeds. His research focuses on the institutional economics of natural resource management and takes an interdisciplinary approach bringing together both the natural and social sciences. He works in many different countries with recent projects in Nepal, Lebanon, Tanzania and Mexico.

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