Friday, August 23, 2013

Running a MOOC - running a muck?

Running a MOOC - running a muck?

I was flipping through a few television channels this morning and happened upon a presentation being given by President Obama to a big crowd. He was talking about college education and how much better it will be when it is when experienced on-line.  I later found out he was talking at the University of Buffalo and talking about his new plan to reduce the costs of colleges in the United States.  I was intrigued since I thought that education in the US, as in Canada, is a States (Provincial) issue, and not really under his domain.  But I will certainly acknowledge that I am not an expert in the US regulatory and legislative pathways.

Afterwards I had the chance to read more about the presentation.  It seems there are a number of components to his new plan.  One is a ranking system which “measures” items like “tuition, graduation rates, debt and earnings of graduates, and the percentage of lower-income students who attend” which to me sounds like the same thing that Maclean’s magazine has done every year in Canada for the 20 (?) years and in the US by American magazines including US News & World Report, and Forbes.  

But the part of the discussion that really caught my attention was the discussion on on-line education.  The President was talking about MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) as the wave of the future.  

Maybe, but I suspect he is on the wrong track.  I agree that the future of more on-line courses is too compelling for near all university courses with the exception of courses where a laboratory or similar experience is required. 

MOOCs, as I understand it, are basically “free” online courses which are composed of a lot of content including text, video, graphics, and voice but little direction or support.  Count me as suspicious.  

Courses that are “free” usually cost a fortune in grants to build and promote, so while they may be “free” to the student, they still cost a bomb to create.  Granting agencies will likely get really bored in a hurry at funding MOOC start-ups with little opportunity to recoup or develop maintenance funding.    And “massive” courses usually means they are pitched to the lowest common denominator, and are provided without any guidance or support.  I suspect that MOOCs will have huge enrollment and minimal follow through.  Interesting, but while time will tell, I suspect that MOOCs will have all the longevity of Myspace.

I don’t run a MOOC (or is that a muck?), and to be technically correct I don’t run a SOOC (small open online course, if there is such a thing) either. To stretch the jargon a bit, I would call our course a STOC (Small Tuitioned Online Course) because in my opinion the educational arena of Quality Management is not a subject that lends itself well to being either Massive or Open.  

Over the last 11-12 years of our course we have learned some valuable insights in adult education for Quality.

1: People don’t learn Quality through reading about Quality.
2: People learn Quality through discussion and debate with like-minded peers.
3: Education in Quality is benefited by the active participation and guidance of experienced knowledgeable faculty. 
4: People who take on courses on their own  without a support structure or some sort of expectation rarely continue courses to their completion.  

Our course combines all the discipline of a real-time in-class university course supplemented with the benefits that on-line can offer.  

On the conventional side we accept applications, but screen for appropriateness.  People have to have at least 5 years of laboratory experience before being taken into the course.  We charge a tuition which includes provision of all books designated as required reading.  Each week has a beginning day on which we start new subject discussions, and an end-day in which all assignments have to be completed and submitted.  And all aspects of participation including contact and contribution to discussion and assignments and quizzes and examinations are evaluated.  

But superimposed on this we provide the benefits of on-line education.  People can participate when they want to, irrespective of time zone, or rush hour or family or job expectations.  Participants don’t have to be in one geographic place, don’t have to worry about parking or coffee restrictions or sharing the classroom with people with colds or influenza or chickenpox.  When you travel, if you have access to the internet you can stay in contact with the course, even in countries with limited internet access.  And perhaps the most important benefit is the opportunity to connect and network with like-interested folks around the world.

We are very comfortable with our small group but would not be unhappy if it increased by a few more.  We tend to have a cut-off in mind to ensure that the number of participants does not override their opportunities to participate fully. 
So we will never be a massive MOOC.  We will leave that to folks interested in learning first year physics or English literature.  But our graduates with certificates will be the best medical laboratory Quality Managers trained anywhere in the world.  

If you want more information on our UBC Certificate Course in Laboratory Quality Management, please contact us through

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