IT departments – the institutional fall guy for MOOCs?

The Fall Guy

The Fall Guy

(Image from IMDB

As Martin Weller pointed out earlier this week there are a growing number of MOOC metaphors being created. As I’ve been following the tweets from today’s “#moocapalooza ” (a hashtag I think invented by David Kernohan) a.k.a. Open and Online Learning making the most of MOOCs and other Models Conference I think I need to to add the Fall Guy to Martin’s list, particularly after reading this tweet.

I’m going to try and not too much in this post, and I apologise for taking this tweet at face value and out with its original context, but . . . Isn’t this just another one of those MOOC myths that twist the reality of what happens within institutions to suit the “education is broken we must build something else” mind set? As Martin Hawskey and Lorna Campbell both said in response to David’s tweet it’s not the systems that are the problem.

I’m going to stick my neck out (not too far) and say every technology you need to run a MOOC is available within every University. I’ve not seen anything in my adventures in MOOC-land that has made me think “oh wow, wish we could have one of those back in the non-MOOC world”. There are VLEs, blogs, wikis aplenty. And IT departments do a sterling job in keeping these running for all that “non MOOC stuff” that Universities do. You know, the dull and boring things you need to do “traditional” teaching.

Yesterday during a webinar on analytics and assessment and feedback, Rachel Forsyth (MMU) shared some of their learning system analytics data. Since the beginning of this year they’ve had over 8 million hits on their mobile interface which allows students to access key information like assessment marks, timetables and reading lists. At key points of in the year they have over 100,000 assignments being submitted electronically. I suspect many institutions are working at this scale. So I don’t think it’s a question of IT department’s not being up to delivering MOOCs, I think it’s more that they have quite a lot to do already and adding another potentially x000,000 of users is not something that can be undertaken lightly, or without any cost implications.

Investing in internal IT resources isn’t seen as a key part of MOOC development strategy. Why would it be when Coursera etc have been able to get money to build systems. In many ways using an external platform like FutureLearn is a very sensible option. It means that experiments with MOOCs can take place without putting additional strain on existing resources. We all know, or should do by now, that there’s no such thing as a free MOOC and that includes the infrastructure they sit within. So let’s not let another myth develop that the HE sector don’t have the technology or the ability to deliver MOOCs. They do, it’s just that it’s already working at capacity delivering their day to day business.

8 thoughts on “IT departments – the institutional fall guy for MOOCs?

  1. Good one Manish! I hope others answer too, but what is a “real mooc”? This is where we move from the technology to pedagogy and learning discussions.


  2. I very much agree with the general argument here. It’s as though there is still something ‘other’ about online teaching (and learning, and assessment) – when in fact at MMU we had our first VLE available to non-computing staff in 1996. But then the OU opened in 1971 and there still seem to be a sense seem that distance education is ‘other’. A form of learning for those who can’t get to the proper thing. Poor things.

    And so, as @mhawksey points out above, the policies don’t cope. Not just IT policies, but also others. Yesterday I was called with a query which I won’t detail for privacy reasons, but it related to flexible provision which simply couldn’t cope with the demands of a quality system which is geared to N people doing a course for a year, rather than N/10 people completing the same course 10 times a year.

    Online courses which still hold (compulsory) physical course committees and wonder why/complain that students don’t turn up.

    I could go on…but the VLE itself is entirely capable of being used to organise learning resources.

    Just on a factual note, we don’t have 100k online submissions a year yet, but we do have to cope with 800k assignments generally and we do handle all of the submission records and marks electronically. We are using the data i presented to help us to specify a complete electronic assessment management system. Also, the 8.3m figure was from Jan 2012. And the usage data is from a collection of sources, including @thestubbs.

    Our IT systems are definitely not up to handling that lot, yet, but when they are we are hoping that our policies will be ready….

  3. Hi Sheila

    Interesting post, and I joined in the discussion with @dkernohan on Twitter at the time.

    My initial response was that IT systems couldn’t cope with MOOC madness, but I suspect it’s a blend of both ‘systems’ and ‘policies’. At many institutions, VLE areas are created automatically on the back of central student record systems, etc. Further, often students have to be registered for the correct amount of credits to be pushed through to the VLE. How would this cope with MOOCs?

    Whilst that is very much more likely a policy decision, I’m sure a lot of people working/managing online systems can recite those occasions where system x (read VLE/portal/assessment system/etc) collapsed under the load of students submitting work, etc. I’ve seen it at 3 HEIs in the last 8 years (probably less actually), and across systems that are hosted internally and externally.
    When the user numbers increase to MOOC proportions (even if hardly any of them submit work), the systems will undoubtedly struggle IMO.


  4. Thanks for the comment Peter, yes I think there could be “issues” with scale and more importantly policies. But my main bone of contention was the assumption MOOCs are doing something so radically different from what current uni IT provision does, which I don’t agree with.


  5. Sheila, when I look at some of the differences with MOOCs and university IT systems, the following questions come to mind:

    Are university IT departments prepared from both a policy and technology standpoint to run educational software developed by researchers on behalf of faculty at scales approaching entire departments and whole universities? (I suspect a few do this, but most aren’t prepared to do so. This is a lot of what’s going on right now in MOOCs.)

    Do IT systems in the UK let a student, or x00,000 students, run arbitrary code on their servers and evaluate that code securely? (I’m guessing in a limited number of cases faculty and departments are supporting this, such as computer science departments. But I’m guessing this isn’t going on at the scale that MOOCs are, which might just make this a scale argument.)

    Do VLE’s or question and test systems let faculty create parameterized items and offer those to individual students? (Some might, but I think that most don’t. To me this is one of the bigger differences in what we’re seeing in MOOCs.)

    Can anyone easily view a course in university system? (This is as much policy as it is a technical limitation of the VLE that requires the viewer to jump through a lot of hoops or the faculty that wants to allow it.)


  6. Hi Brandon

    thanks for your comment, as ever you raise excellent points. And tbh I don’t think any UK HE IT policies are up to doing what you outline. What I was trying to say was that they could if the right policies were in place. As they said about Steve Austin “we have the technology” but just now the policies need to get sorted out and people shouldn’t just take pot shots at our IT support staff.


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