Every summer I try to learn something new. Sharing my experiences and thoughts with the Birkdale community at the first assembly in September seems a fitting way to begin the new academic year for a school that prides itself on promoting learning.  Past summers have seen me tackle, with varying degrees of success, the tenor saxophone, the harmonica, 4-ball juggling, the flute, the ukulele and Middle Egyptian hieroglyphs.

This year I have taken a MOOC, a Massive Open On-Line Course, in Oceanography.  The course was provided by Southampton University, a world leader in Oceanography, through the FutureLearn website, pioneered by the Open University.  Futurelearn hosts courses from across the world although other platforms such as EdX, Coursera and Udacity offer more international content.

Early enthusiasts for MOOCs believed that they would overturn the century-old model of higher education through making available excellent teaching from top universities through interactive technology. The dream was to do this not just for a few hundred students in a lecture hall but to thousands or millions all around the world, addressing the huge costs of higher education and democratising learning.  The reality has turned out somewhat differently with low completion rates (around 4% in some trials) and an increased awareness of the important nuances that emerge from the teacher-student relationship.

Nevertheless, I have loved doing my course, a cut down version of part of a first year undergraduate course. The time commitment is nominally 3 hours per week for 4 weeks, although extra reading and participating in discussion forums has meant that I have exceeded this by some way!

What I have learned about MOOCs?

Firstly, the egalitarian nature of a MOOC means that it can be difficult to pitch the materials at the right level. In a school classroom, the students fall into a relatively narrow range of prior knowledge with A level courses building upon GCSE courses.  Reading through the comments on the discussion forums it is clear that some of my fellow contributors found the going tough as some of the concepts and technical terms were unfamiliar to them.  Equally, the sophistication of some of the comments and questions suggested that many others were perceptive and already knowledgeable beyond me.  For most of the course I found myself in something of a ‘Goldilocks’ zone, able to grasp the material but constantly finding new and interesting thoughts and details.

Secondly, having materials that can be re-read or watched several times is very useful both as a reminder before moving on and as a means of trying to grasp something new in the first place. High quality text books and on-line links are equally essential for school learning: at Birkdale the amount of on-line material available to support learning continues to grow.  I particularly enjoyed watching enthusiastic oceanographers gushing about their subject.  The oceanographic course has been offered by Southampton University for several years, allowing the academics to refine the materials and indeed to generate large amounts of data on how people interact with the material: quiz scores, numbers of hits and page revisits must all illuminate how most people learn.

Thirdly, having links to articles and websites at the bottom of each page for optional extra reading was really useful. I can’t say that I did them all but having the next step immediately accessible when something caught my interest was excellent.  Again, having the technology to provide extra reading and video clips for students at Birkdale is so useful.

Fourthly, the forums brought a sense of collective learning to the course. I learned a huge amount from the questions posed by other participants and by the answers provided by other participants or by the (clearly identified) experts, usually PhD students, who patrolled the forums.  It was also a delight to note how respectful people were of other views and contributions: perhaps the self-selecting nature of the group spared us from the worst excesses of on-line interactions.

Fifthly, being able to learn when I felt like it was quite liberating. Some days I did a great deal of study, other days not a jot.  In schools, sadly it is difficult to see how the strictures of the timetable can be set aside to accommodate this freedom. 
Will MOOCs challenge and transform higher education? Probably not.  The networking opportunities, practical facilities and face-to-face relationships between teacher and student are too valuable to lose.  Equally, I enjoyed learning some oceanography for free and I shall be encouraging Birkdale students, particularly in the Sixth Form, to see what is available.