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MOOC – the digital bait for lifelong learners?

I recently read somewhere that if the capacity to grow and distribute food defined the agrarian economy, and the capacity to manufacture and distribute goods defined the industrial economy, then the capacity to create and apply knowledge defines the post-industrial digital economy.


This struck an instant chord with me with regards to the delivery of higher education. The digital economy represents a mechanism to deliver knowledge to literally anybody with a desire to learn. And not just those we’d traditionally call a ‘student’ – 18 to 24 year old school leavers - but professionals, those still in school and even those who never thought they’d undertake any formal learning ever again. Amen.


MOOC or a Massive Open Online Course is a phenomenon that encapsulates and demonstrates this point in the education space perfectly. There are apparently some 550 universities worldwide that host MOOCs on topics as varied as computer programming and Buddhism. They typically only last 10 weeks, initially cost nothing but increasingly have a nominal charge, and the student gets a certificate at the end of the course to keep in their personal development folder.


But what’s so good about them? Why would universities offer their wares for almost nothing? MOOCs are an exceptional form of customer acquisition and retention. For traditional HE institutions – our bricks and mortar universities, it’s the bait with which to capture students before, during and after learning. It’s a step closer to the holy grail of the ‘lifelong learner’.


We only have to look at who is using them. Those students who are still at school undertake MOOCs to test the subjects they may prefer to study at university and use the courses on their application forms, discussing their learning experience in university interviews. It makes them look keen.


For those who may not have been in education for a long time, it’s a stepping stone back into the world of studying – a tester to build confidence before making a bigger leap of faith – which they may not have otherwise taken at all. Our digital world, where we access everything on a smartphone or tablet, is opening up new possibilities and actually creating new learners!


For professionals it’s a way to brush up on areas of their job roles that they may have previously been taught but forgotten with time - a brush-up and revision session to bring them bang up to date. Or it’s an opportunity to learn something different – a new string to their professional bow to move themselves up the corporate ladder. And of course, it goes without saying that MOOCs are attractive to employers.


But for the university, it’s a new lead - a new potential student, or a way to keep existing students happy with vocational courses that supplement or complement their degrees. It’s a crucial step to enhancing the education of students past, present and future.

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