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Online Courses, MOOCs and How They May Affect Publishing

A MOOC – Massive Online Open Course (def’n) – an online course aimed at unlimited participation and open access via the web. In addition to traditional course materials such as videos, readings, and problem sets, MOOCs provide interactive user forums that help build a community for students, professors, and teaching assistants.

The traditional model for teaching a course at university is (very) slowly being eroded due to a range of factors, but mainly through enabling technology, altering the way in which students can consume educational material and academics can deliver their lectures.

For as long as most of us can remember, a lecture has been something to simply turn up to (or not), take notes and hope the lecturer can impart some nuggets of wisdom, engaging their audience enough to promote further study or thinking.  Those of us who have been to university and participated in this teaching paradigm can remember that it isn’t that simple – basic, uninspiring lectures, poor note taking, limited use of alternative teaching tools all contribute to an hour which could possibly be spent better doing something else. 

A recent article in The Guardian (Ten Reasons We Should Ditch University Lectures – 15/5/14) put forward a case that maybe we should ditch lectures altogether for a newer, more engaging method of delivering course information. The posited cognitive overload, poor presentation, the lack of effective note-taking, loss of concentration over the course of an hour amongst a range of reasons why the traditional lecture may soon lose its position as the focus of degree level study.

It contained interesting points about the psychology of learning and why lectures normally last for an hour (historical reasons, not because it’s the optimum length for learning), splitting the lecture into two or three parts with breaks to ensure less loss of attention and aid short and long-term recall, loading the lecturer with too much information so the student can’t process it all effectively and also poor presentation.

The solution – record the lecture and deliver it online.  The pre-recorded lecture has several advantages over a physical one, you can watch it when and where you want and however many times you want, saving time travelling to and from the lecture hall.  They point out the inherent problems with sitting down to a physical lecture that happens just the once – if your note-taking or concentration isn’t at its best on the day, you’ve got no chance of going back and doing that lecture again.  A huge missed opportunity.

They also posit that the pre-recording of a lecture can improve a lecturer’s performance as they have to think more closely about what they teach and how.  It also frees up their time to be spent on more research and fine-tuning their performance (whether its online or in the flesh).

The great enabler here is technological advancement – the ability to produce something and have your students view it from anywhere and yet still feel they’re interacting with the lecture somehow. 

So, how prevalent could online lectures become?  Well, we’re already seeing the beginnings of it with the introduction of MOOCs as a platform for online dissemination of academic information in 2011 at Stanford University.  An introductory course in AI was put online and over 150 000 people from around the world signed up to it.  The delivery company that resulted from this initial success, Udacity, now has 1.6 million users.  In the UK, FutureLearn (part of The Open University) now has almost half a million people studying courses from leading universities. 

Obviously, there is a difference between full-time students interacting with and viewing online lectures and the new audience that MOOCs are aimed at (although three quarters of students doing MOOCs already have degrees).  Research suggests that completion rates for MOOCs are actually far lower than expected, although this may be down to them finding their feet as a suitable method for delivering lifelong learning.  They also do not behave as traditional students

So, what of the effect that online learning and MOOCs on traditional models of academic publishing?  As would be expected, the general concensus is split into two – those who feel that more students is an opportunity to sell more textbooks, or those who feel the free availability of online lectures may actually replace the need for purchasing or loaning from a library.

To keep access as open and free as possible, most MOOCs do not require or demand that the user buy textbooks, so a significant increase in course adoptions is unlikely.  However, a small percentage are likely to buy further reading and the combined increase in sales could prove profitable for academic publishers.  Other entrants into this new market though, such as Flat World Knowledge Inc., offer hundreds of textbooks free of charge – will this have an impact on overall textbook sales as the market matures and develops?  Lecturers themselves are also likely to ‘suggest’ students read their own books, which could prove useful when global course numbers are in the tens of thousands.

US publisher, Morgan & Claypool have experimented with specially priced books for free online courses, licensed through the colleges themselves, although these are usually far briefer and more concise than a traditional course textbook.

As technology liberates our access to education and makes it far cheaper to do courses that would otherwise cost significant amounts of money, the market is obviously going to increase and there is little doubt publishers are likely to experience increased sales as a result.  However, as the model develops and demand for cheaper, or free reading materials also grows, will this affect students on traditional, fee-based courses? Will they also begin to demand access to free texts?  The likelihood is, in my opinion, probably not, but publishers will have to be wary that along with the possibility of reaching a far greater global market than they would usually be able to reach comes the threat of new entrants into the market whose business model is based around providing extremely cheap or free books to this growing market.

Its not just the publishers who are potentially at the beginning of a new era, the universities themselves have a lot to think about too.  Technology is disrupting the way in which they deliver courses and potentially some on-campus lectures will fall off the timetable altogether, replaced by online versions.  Will entire courses follow?  At this point, its difficult to tell, but as Simon Nelson, head of FutureLearn said in a recent interview, the technology is not going away.

Online delivery of traditional degree courses and the rolling out of MOOCs to a wider global market does provide an opportuntity for the publishing sector, how big an opportunity is still open to debate. The question is, what is your company doing about this and what impact do you think it will have as we move into the future?  A major opportunity, a threat or realistically, a bit of both?

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