By Jim Shimabukuro
The University of Hong Kong,1 following the popular flip trend, is taking tentative first steps toward incorporating MOOCs into their on-campus courses. (See my earlier article on blended MOOCs.) Like its counterparts in the U.S., HKU’s MOOCs are closed for their on-campus students but simultaneously open for outsiders. In other words, they remain tethered to traditional courses for F2F students and free for distant students.
Noteworthy is HKU’s discovery that MOOC forums, unlike online forums attached to onground classes, “are extremely lively.” One of the professors attributes this disparity to the comfort of anonymity and is looking into extending the anonymity option to on-campus students.
Another explanation may be that F2F meetings simply render online forums moot. Off-campus MOOC students, lacking this option, turn to the forums for their sole means of interaction.
Yet another explanation is that the open end of MOOCs is disruptive, attracting a completely different population of students. For example, HKU MOOCs — dubbed HKUx to reflect its association with edX — attracted 10,000 to 12,000 “students from 173 countries,” and “more than 10 per cent were over 50 years old, and the median age was 29.” This population, although varying widely in characteristics, shares a common problem that sets them apart: They’re unable, for whatever reason, to attend F2F classes. For want of a better term, they are nontraditional students.
The implication is that HKUx and similar MOOCs are both closed and open at the same time, serving two distinct populations with very different purposes.
In the coming months and years, it’ll be interesting to see if HKUx professors will realize that, from the perspective of on-campus students, their MOOCs are essentially blended courses. It is only from the perspective of distant students that they appear to be MOOCs.
The fact that two very different populations can coexist in MOOCs opens up a lot of possibilities. First and foremost is that the success of MOOC practices for nontraditionals could gradually loosen the tether to F2F classes for traditionals, transforming blended courses into true MOOCs or, at the least, completely online courses. The primary obstacle to this scenario is the fear that interactions inevitably suffer in online forums. The success of HKU’s MOOC forums, however, belies this fear.
Another possibility is that tradition will outweigh the potential advantages of MOOCs and keep them anchored to on-campus classrooms, sustaining the blended model for who knows how long.
In the end, traditional students will probably tip the scale away from blended to MOOC when they realize that online learning is just as if not better than F2F for a number of reasons, including the freedom of anytime-anywhere engagement. When — and not if — this happens, the longstanding policy of withholding college credit for MOOC courses will be on the line.
1Victor Wang, “How MOOCs helped University of Hong Kong apply e-learning tools on campus,” South China Morning Post, 20 July 2015.