„It is not about accessibility“ – a glance at MOOCs in Australia

Insights into the motives for and experiences with the launch of the bilingual Australian MOOC “Engaging India” and how this course is typical for Australian Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) but only mirrors a small part of the country’s digital education world. Written by Kira Leuthold, Deputy STC, Embassy of Switzerland in Canberra

Australia clambered on to the MOOC bandwagon fairly early: In September 2012, it was announced that the University of Melbourne signs on to the US MOOC provider Coursera. Early 2013, Open Universities Australia, a private distance and online education organisation, launched the new online platform Open2Study – the Australian counterpart to Coursera. And at around the same time, simultaneously with the Swiss MOOC early adaptor École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne(EPFL), the Australian National University (ANU) became an edX member.

Australia also plays a pioneering role in the MOOC field: At the end of April, ANU launched the 10-week MOOC Engaging India – the very first edX MOOC being delivered in Hindi.

And there is another aspect about Engaging India which is new, at least in Australia and for the MOOC provider edX: Engaging India is completely bilingual. All the videos and readings are available in Hindi and English, and the students can even choose which of the two languages they use for the online discussions.

For institutions based in a multilingual country like Switzerland it might be quite obvious to produce a MOOC in more than one language. E.g. the MOOC “African cities”, a Coursera course produced by EPFL in French with English subtitles, will soon start into its second session already.

For Australia however, with the main MOOC language English as their one and only official language, it might be a little surprising.

A Public Relations tool

The fact that one of the course’s languages is Hindi might give rise to the supposition that it has something to do with the enhancement of worldwide access to good quality higher education. But it has little to do with this, although the “democratization of education” is often cited as one of the most revolutionary characteristic of MOOCs.

An insight into the motives behind the launch of the bilingual Engaging India sheds some light on the situation: “It is all strategic”, as course co-convenor ANU Lecturer Dr. McComas Taylor explains.

Dr. Taylor is Head of the ANU South Asia Program which is part of the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific. The latter hosts by its own account the largest assembly of scholars dedicated to working on Asia and the Pacific in the English-speaking world. This is an “unrivalled concentration” which makes ANU the “foremost centre in Australia for learning and research on the region”, as stated on the college’s website. ANU wants the world to be aware of that fact. And this is where the MOOC Engaging India is brought into play.

“The course is first and foremost a Public Relations tool”, Dr. Taylor explains. “At the end of April, when Engaging India was launched, the course counted 11,000 enrolments. This means, that at least the same amount of people have seen the ANU logo and have learned about the university’s expertise in the field and its pioneering role – it was after all the first English-Hindi MOOC.”

And a good reputation is a university’s most valuable good.

Moreover, it might motivate some of these people to consider studying a full degree at ANU. And more on campus students mean more money – especially if these students are foreign students.

Five new students pay the MOOC

Roughly half of the students who got a free taste of ANU by enrolling into Engaging India were from India – Australia’s second largest source country for overseas students (after China). There were 37,400 Indian students studying in Australia as at the end of March 2012, according to the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

An ANU Bachelor Degree in Asia and Pacific Studies over three years would cost an international student roughly 80,000 A$ (tuition fees only). Estimations of how much the production of a MOOC costs, differ from source to source. But Dr. Taylor says that even if it was 400,000 A$ (which is much higher than most estimations) the investment would be paid off with five new international full time students.

So it is hardly surprising that ANU puts a fair amount of effort into the MOOC – and some of it is rather creative. “Every week, we send the English lessons to a company in Israel, which translates everything to Hindi and sends it back to us”, Taylor explains.

Lack of scholarly depth

Whereas Dr. Taylors considers Engaging India to be a real success in terms of Public Relations, he remains critical in regard to the pedagogic quality. Especially the teacher-student relationship is a concern.

“So far the MOOC resembles radio broadcasting more than real teaching – it is difficult to communicate. From the 11’000 who enrolled into the course, about 10% still follow the course regularly, and around 50% of these students are actively participating in the forum. But that’s still a lot – it is impossible to interact with all of them. As a teacher, I feel somehow alienated from the course.”

The missing communication between students and teachers is one of the reasons why Dr. Taylor thinks the MOOC lacks scholarly depth. “For a course like Engaging India, where seldom something is right or wrong, discussions are crucial for its pedagogic success.”

Pedagogic potential exists

However, for a more fact-based course, Dr. Taylor sees more pedagogic potential. He says that e.g. his colleagues from the ANU College of Physical & Mathematical Sciences were truly thrilled by some of the experiences they had with their MOOCs.

And Dr. Taylor is convinced that Engaging India is improvable as well: “It is a pilot project. I am happy for the experiences I had and the feedback I got. If I launch it again, I would for example make it longer: Not only 10 weeks, but maybe a full semester. And I would work on the course’s structure and the way discussions are managed.”

Corresponds to Australia’s MOOCs opportunities

Being mainly a Public Relations and student recruitment tool, Engaging India‘s purpose corresponds to the opportunities the Australian Trade Commission (Austrade) identified for MOOCs in Australia. “Participating in a MOOC with high quality US and international universities raises the profile of an institution globally”, Austrade states in a report published early 2013.

It is also mentioned that MOOCs from Australian universities could lead to increased applications from students who want to “try before they buy”. Moreover, MOOCs could be used to prepare overseas students for their studies in Australia by offering pre-university and foundation courses.

More than MOOCs

However, Austrade believes that while the emergence of MOOCs has attracted considerable media attention it is the scale of experimentation across multiple segments of the technology-enhanced education sector that is worth exploring. Correspondingly, they ask in the report mentioned above how Australian education providers can position themselves to take advantages of the opportunities that new online education models generally present.

The opportunities identified by Austrade range from education technology platforms as ways to deliver a richer experience for students, over lifelong learning with education models which are highly flexible and accessible from anywhere, to quality improvement using data analysis from thousands of online learners.

A digital education pioneer

The Australian Government seems to apply this broader view on digital education: While it does explore MOOCs more deeply (e.g. the governmental Flexible Learning Advisory Group (FLAG) recently published a working report on the application of MOOCs in the vocational education and training*), it does not limit itself on MOOCs: The Australian Government is currently funding trials to show how students, teachers and parents can benefit from improved online access to education, training and skill services made possible by broadband communications technology (Broadband-Edabled Education and Skills Service Programme).

And Australia played a pioneering role in digital education long before the MOOC wave reached the country. And this is not least of all because Australia is a huge continent and home to some of the most geographically isolated and remote communities in the world. This led e.g. to initiatives like the School of the Air – a project which started off with pedal-powered radios and was in early 2000 brought into the digital age.

 *Note: I was told by the FLAG Secretariat that work in this area has not progressed further to date. And in April 2014, the new Industry and Skills Council which was established by the new Australian Government decided to dissolve councils and committees that supported the former Standing Council on Tertiary Education, Skills and Employment (SCOTESE). This includes the Flexible Learning Advisory Group (FLAG)


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