Thursday, February 13, 2014

MOOC Factory – boy was I impressed

Just back from a European MOOC Summit in Lausanne, and I'll write about that later, but first let me tell you about something I saw - the MOOC Factory. 
The MOOC Factory at EPFL (Ecole Polytechnique Federale de lausanne) is a well oiled machine and it’s no accident that this is a centre of MOOC excellence, as they are a practical organisation and I strongly believe that MOOCs have a huge role to play in vocational education. They have several big advantages:
1. Leadership
2. ‘Can do’ mindset
3. ‘Vocational’ mindset
4. Solid approach to production
5. Global ambitions
1. Leadership: (President) Patrick Aebischer
This guy’s a mover and shaker and asked a simple question, not What will happen? but What has happened? with MOOCs. He asked for data – and gave us some. He had commissioned 20 MOOCs, through the EPFL MOOC Factory reaching 400,000 students. He was clear about the fact that the data shows that the age of MOOCers is older and with a much wider range than traditional campus students and that there was a huge demand for practical, vocational courses. This has led him to the correct conclusion that MOOCs have huge potential  as an astounding tool for continuous education”.  This was a recurring theme for the Lausanne summit.
2. ‘Can do’ mindset
There was none of the woolly, old-school, defensive mindsets of traditional academe, where people tend to fire off arrows, draw a chalk circle around the arrow and say ‘Look, I’ve scored a bullseye!’ There's no 18 year old students there. What about driopout?….. They have faith in courses that are massive, open and online, backed up with a strong moral outlook, that says, this is not about the traditional campus student and academics but CPD, vocational learing and the developing world.
3. ‘Vocational’ mindset
It is no accident that a strongly vocational institution has forged ahead here. First, they have the resources and skills to get things done but they also realise that there is a huge thirst, backed up by the demand data for MOOCs, by people in employment for courses that they take of their own volition. This CPD and vocational market is huge, Udacity are there, Coursera are moving there, EdX is also there and so are these guys. They were all in the 'business' track at the summit - which I thinkw as the most interesting.
4. Solid approach to production
They have a slick, rolling programme of production, with a skilled and enthusiastic (important) team and a focus on production values, that is very professional. I got a tour of the production facility and studios and was impressed. Most of their MOOCs are in STEM subjects, including many in computer science and coding. So their core studio production process involves lectures and demonstrations, where the teacher is writing symbolic stuff with semi-transparent hand, on a tablet or cutting to head and shoulders when talking. It was not only a superb set-up but run by people who really know what they are doing in terms of process and production.
5. Global ambitions
They have been impressed by the take up of their courses in Africa and see that as a huge market. In Africa, they see a strong demand for 1) Foundation courses, and 2) Priority themes such as water, energy, nutrition, health and agriculture i.e. vocational courses. I couldn’t agree more. Abstract, academic, liberal arts courses are inappropriate in many places. A rising Africa needs practical, not academic education. Even in the developed world we have come to realise that we have let the vocational sector atrophy, compared to the academic, so why foist a broken model onto others.
Conclusion

My Lausanne trip was interesting for two reasons. First, it confirmed my view that HE may not be the true vocation for MOOCs. In fact HE may be a sideshow compared to the already evident data that shows MOOCs being enthusiastically taken up by people who work in corporates, government and not-for-profit organisations. It’s a global CPD, lifelong learning, vocational market. Second, as I’ve always believed. MOOCs, if they are to retain learners, like any other medium, need professional input, not only on strategy but also platform selection, costing, production and marketing. More on this later.

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