3 things the VC said about MOOCs

johnson40-suv-0001-0The VC’s recent oration got a lot of coverage in the media because of what he said in the first of this themes: ‘Funding Oxford’. He got slightly less coverage for his second theme: ‘Diversifying Oxford’, and very little on this third theme: ‘Digitising Oxford’.  This blog aims to bring you news and views and I’m happy to bring this to your attention.  Namechecks below for OUP*,  OER on ItunesU** and Cont Ed***.

It’s all about our unique selling points (USP)  and the University Strategic Plan (USP).

Vice-Chancellor’s Oration 8 October 2013

“…………………..I want to focus today on widening access in a broader sense and in the context of the third of my themes: Digitising Oxford.

I spoke earlier about the challenges of sustained capital investment in our university infrastructure. In the past, infrastructure generally meant physical infrastructure. But that too has changed. In a digital age, our virtual infrastructure is of massive importance and can only become more so.

Like any ancient institution, Oxford’s has been a profoundly print-based culture.  Important strands of the long history of the book are woven into the fabric of this University and its spectacular collections. This is a matter of pride, celebration, and – most important – of enormous scholarly benefit and advantage. I speak as a scientist, but the thrill of being able to access the first edition of a seminal work, or to admire a world-famous manuscript or other priceless artefact in our museums and collections is a very special experience indeed.

But for all its antiquity, Oxford is also a place of profound innovation. Indeed, it is Oxford’s restless spirit of inquiry and exploration that explains the longevity of the institution and of its pre-eminence. So the new can hold few fears for us, especially when, as with the digital revolution, it is viewed not as the enemy of what has gone before but its ally and partner.

It is a revolution that affects not just how we record and store what we do, it is also increasingly central to our core academic life and mission, whether teaching, study or research.

Inevitably, virtual infrastructure has entirely tangible costs, and these too must be funded. So overseeing the University’s digital investment has necessarily become a significant feature of how we now approach planning and resource allocation. A new IT committee reports directly to Council, an indication of the priority being accorded to this area, and a recognition of the importance of the digital challenge – especially in an institutional culture as decentralised and varied as ours.

We need to find ways of developing our IT provision that is efficient, effective, and coherent, while respecting the creative diversity and autonomy of the constituent parts of our institution. It is a familiar challenge for Oxford, and as always when faced with such challenges, we need to find a way forward that works best for us.

That is true for the use of digital technology to ensure that core University operations and services run smoothly and well. But is also true when we consider how digital technology affects the way we make our academic riches more widely accessible. It was this I had in mind a little earlier when I spoke of “access in a broader sense”.

It is a highly topical subject, especially with the intense – at times feverish – attention being devoted in the world of higher education to MOOCs, or massive open online courses. You can get a hint of this intensity from the fact that The New York Times described 2012 as the “Year of the MOOC”. And the acronym has now scaled the august heights of the Oxford English Dictionary, no less****. Yet, the exact nature of this phenomenon remains somewhat elusive. The term is used to describe everything from pedagogical material made freely available online to fully-fledged online courses offering academic credits to registered fee-paying students.

So where is Oxford in the great MOOC debate? Well, we are certainly not rushing to judgement. Not least because the first and obvious point to make is that, as you would expect of a University whose alumni include the man credited with inventing the World Wide Web, we have a long and impressive record of sharing widely our rich and diverse academic capital. Let me offer a few examples.

Our Department for Continuing Education can trace its history back over a hundred and thirty years to a movement called ‘Oxford Extension’. Today the department provides more than eight hundred courses a year, 80 of which are online, offering study across a range of disciplines, from archaeology to electronic engineering.

Most are short courses of five to ten weeks in duration. Some longer courses result in Oxford qualifications at the undergraduate, advanced diploma, and postgraduate levels, while others are designed to help in acquiring and updating skills for professional development.

In a less structured way, online users can also access a vast amount of Oxford scholarly material through a variety of digital platforms. For example, the University’s iTunes U site, which features more than 4,000 free audio and video podcasts, has seen over 20 million downloads worldwide in  just five years.

Digitisation has also opened up mass public access to our collections and treasures. The Bodleian Libraries, which have been digitising content for over 20 years, made a high-profile addition to its online collections in April 2013: a digital facsimile of its Shakespeare First Folio, a rarity as the volume has not been rebound or restored since it was first received by the library in 1623.

As a department of the University, Oxford University Press has a mission to further the shared objective of excellence in research, scholarship, and education by publishing worldwide. It does so in more than forty languages, and in a variety of formats – increasingly these are digital. The number of downloads of online articles across OUP’s 300 journals has reached one billion, its online academic products receive tens of millions of hits each year, while Oxford Scholarly Editions Online, a major digital publishing initiative which launched a year ago, brings its prestigious range of scholarly editions to audiences through a digital interface, breathing new life into important texts. OUP is currently working with our Education Committee to explore forms of online teaching and assessment, including English as a second language. It’s a collaboration likely to grow.

So whatever the future and fate of MOOCs, it is clear that Oxford will continue to have a great deal to offer online audiences of all types. Our challenge is to find the best way to build on it, to link more of it together, to improve its accessibility, and increasingly, I suspect, to make sure it fits the needs of very different types of users with very different needs and expectations about their engagement with academia.

One more thing: it must be true to Oxford. By which I mean we have a highly distinctive, and highly regarded teaching method in this university. It is called the tutorial system, and though it has evolved over time to meet the needs of a changing curriculum, its essence – the close personal academic supervision of an individual student by a highly qualified academic – remains unaltered.

I’m not a great one for predictions. As Winston Churchill remarked: “I always avoid prophesying beforehand because it is much better to prophesy after the event has already taken place”. However, I don’t think I’m sticking my neck out too far ahead of the great man’s cautionary words, by saying that I don’t see our commitment to personal education changing greatly. Nor do I see us setting up a sort of parallel Open University. The current one does an excellent job.

So overall when I look at digital Oxford in the mirror, I see a figure beginning to take shape that must and will be recognisably our own.”

* a department of the University don’tcha know.

** run by this department of the University don’tcha know.

*** Also a department.

**** mook, n. was already in there, of course. Colloq. and derogatory (U.S. and Caribbean).  An incompetent or stupid person; a contemptible person (esp. with reference to low social status)

Posted in Learning Technologies Group | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

One Response to “3 things the VC said about MOOCs”

  1. Sindar says:

    So long story short, University of Oxford i snot going to offer any MOOCs in the near future. Too bad.

    Thanks for the article though, it was a very interesting read =)