Reflections on the first week of the FutureEd MOOC

I’m participating in the History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education MOOC, on the Coursera platform, run by Cathy Davidson from Duke University. The subject of this MOOC, billed as looking at the Future of Higher Education, was interesting enough to a number of colleagues at the Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching at the University of Cape Town and hence we have formed a study group to meet once a week to talk about our experiences and to see how the experience of taking a MOOC from an American University might be made relevant to a higher education institution in South Africa.

Having a local study group has been motivating. By the middle of the first week, I had already watched the videos, annotated the transcripts with notes, read some of the articles, engaged a little on Twitter and felt reasonably prepared to disuss whether what the MOOC offers thus far is something that I and other colleagues can make use of in our context.

Thoughts on the MOOC Content

I’ve enjoyed the first week’s presentation of content and ideas, which seemed to set a background for framing the development of higher education in the light of what Davidson calls the four ‘information ages’ and to make links between what changed in these information ages (writing, moveable-type, mass printing leading to distribution of cheap literature and the internet) and that these changes led to changes in the social relationships and communications between people, leading to new ways of communicating and interacting.Davidson’s point seems to be that such changes follow a pattern of what might be termed ‘moral panics’. The availability of information in forms that led to social changes produced reactions that might seem to us now as patently absurd. For example, in the first information age, Socrates thought that writing would lead to a deterioration in the dialogic process, while the consumption (by women) of low-brow novels made possible by mass printing was considered  to making oneself open to sexual predators, as well as challenging structures of authority and convention. The implication is that the concerns brought about about by what Davidson calls the fourth information age, that started in April 1993 with availability of the internet and the word wide web, might be regarded by future generations as equally absurd.

Having framed the history through the lens of the four information ages, Davidson considers the types of new literacies required to learn in these ages and which education should be supporting and promoting. These include skills of privacy, security and understanding intellectual property that are necessary for people to understand, protect and negotiate. Other skills such as the ability to collaborate, establish credibility through ‘crap detection’ and being globally conscious are other ’21st Century’ literacies. Thus far, the course has set the stage and pointed to the types of discussions that are likely in future weeks, centred around imagining the Higher Education of the Future.

The study group’s thoughts

The study group members had a thoughtful discussion about their participation in the first week. The content itself was considered to be interesting, although at times simplistic, perhaps geared towards an undergraduate curriculum textbook level and to have predominantly US-centred examples. Those new to MOOCs found the Coursera platform rather busy and a little clunky although more experienced MOOCers shared tips such as using transcripts to get the gist of the videos. The first week’s quiz caused some bemusement, as it was seen as either so easy as to be a bit pointless, or that all the answers seemed to be right (Tip: ‘answer all the above’ to most of the quiz questions)! More interesting discussions centred around the motivation of this particular MOOC. Who is the MOOC really for? Can global participants, such as those in Africa, really contribute and influence the learning of others, as the course is billed to achieve. Or is it about taking what is offered (for free) and make the course relevant (localise) to particular contexts? As seen in this Google Hangout, Cathy Davidson’s face to face class at Duke appear to be studying this MOOC as part of their own course, and these students seem to be engaging with MOOC participants as a way of finding out more about MOOCs, almost in a strategic way. Are MOOC participants guinea pigs or test subjects for another more exclusive course? Furthermore,  this interesting blog post argues how global MOOC participants might help internationalize American higher education, which could be seen as a seemingly happy by-product of the global nature of MOOCs but also as a strategic view of the ‘benefits’ a global cohort might bring to a particular group.

So for me, the real value of the MOOC is the discussions it has engendered, which is what its aims appear to be. Members of the study group are sufficiently intrigued to continue with the MOOC and look forward, in particular, to seeing how the peer review assessments will work.

“Image courtesy of Sira Anamwong /”