Courses provided online across the world at no cost to the student are causing waves in higher education.
The Open & Online report to the Welsh Government (March 2014) called on higher education institutions in Wales to think carefully about what benefits they could derive from offering online courses, including MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), available free over the internet.
One of the institutions already committed to dipping toes in MOOCy waters is Cardiff University. Some time ago it joined other UK universities in adopting the Open University‘s FutureLearn platform for online courses. Two courses have been developed so far, ‘Muslims in Britain’ and Community journalism. I was invited to Cardiff recently to talk to members of the Centre for Community Journalism in the School of Journalism, Media and Culture about their work.
The Centre was set up last year to respond to the decline in local print newspapers and the rise of online hyper-local websites, which aim in part to supply new ways of communicating local news. It felt that there was scope to offer support – legal and organisational as well as technical – to the providers of hyper-local services, who often lack journalistic experience. Its initial operation depended on offering free support to community groups and charged other institutions for training. The community groups included Welsh language groups seeking to extend their ideas beyond the traditional print papurau bro to a free online platform. The Centre secured financial stability for five years of operation, won finance from the Vice-Chancellor’s fund for engagement projects, and began the process of setting up ten ‘community hubs’ across Wales. Three of these already exist, Pobl Caerdydd, Rhondda People and Lais y Maes.
Then a bold decision was taken: to try to build a MOOC on ‘community journalism’ available freely to anyone across the world with an internet connection. (The term ‘community journalism’ was preferred to the more generic ‘digital journalism’.) Within four months the organisers had developed a multimedia course lasting 4-5 weeks (assuming 4-5 hours of study a week) and mounted it on the Open University’s MOOC platform, FutureLearn. The first course was offered from 14 April 2014 and lasted until 16 May.
The course, though based on theoretical foundations, is highly practical. It covers the reasons for the rise of community journalism, how people use local news, researching audiences, searching the internet and social media for local news and content, building and engaging with communities, constructing a platform, writing stories and sourcing material, especially images, sustainability, and legal and ethical issues
Nearly 9,000 students signed up. Students came from all over the world – 118 different countries – and their ages and backgrounds varied widely. 80% already possessed an undergraduate or postgraduate degree. 60% of them were women. 20% of the enrolled students completed the course, a higher proportion than is usual for MOOCs. 400 peer review assignments were submitted, and 600 reviews of the work of others. (There was no assessment of achievement by the Centre staff, although they are contemplating offering a paid-for ‘statement of participation’ to completers in future.)
Students seemed to join the course for many reasons. Some were experienced (or ex-) journalists or journalism students eager to learn more about an area that intrigued them. Some already ran community information services, but wanted to sharpen their skills:
I’m co-founder of a hyperlocal website in south west Birmingham UK. We started the site in 2010 and it’s kind of run away with itself! I have no formal experience or training in journalism of any kind – we’ve kind of learnt by just wading in! I’m hoping to learn where we might be going wrong and how we can improve.
Hi all, I’m in Birmingham, UK, and run a hyperlocal called Sutton Coldfield Local. I stumbled upon hyperlocalism a couple of years ago but I’m pretty much going about it on a trial and error basis. Hoping to put that right with this course.
Others were new to the field but excited by the possibilities of online media. Many were already bloggers. Many students were impelled by a deep dissatisfaction with conventional media:
Hi, I am from Nigeria, I have always thought of doing some online journalism and when I saw this course I knew it was something I should go for, this part of the world is vastly under-reported I mean on a local level, causing a huge disconnection between what is reported in the conventional media and the ordinary populace, am looking forward to learning all that there is to learn and do the bit I can do.
Recruits from developing countries, a good proportion of them involved in radio journalism, were particularly well-motivated:
I thought it will be a wise venture to undergo this study so that I could report on seemingly huge social problems and poor implementation of public funds on infrastructural projects in smaller communities in my country, Ghana.
It’s obvious that the students relished the opportunity the MOOC offered to share comments with fellow-students, and there are many expressions of surprise at the geographical range and variety of backgrounds represented:
Wow – I didn’t realise there would be so many people here from so many different countries.
For many students embarking on this course was their first experience of a MOOC. A few comment on its ease of use:
I am impressed by the user friendly user screens. They are simple and uncluttered yet everything is available from them.
And indeed the FutureLearn interface does seem straightforward and clean. Each of the five weeks of study is divided into different sections (videos, articles, online discussions, with valuable case studies), culminating in a recap and a quiz. The discussions are critical in sharing experience and views with other students: they’re lively, stimulating and easy to follow, and it wouldn’t be surprising if many students found the richness of information and guidance available there, especially from non-UK sources, at least as enlightening as the formal tuition from the central Cardiff team.
The introduction makes it clear that, although some attention is paid to overseas practice, the course concentrates in the UK. But the course planners were surprised to find that as many as half of the students came from outside the UK. It’s clear that for many overseas students some of the UK-centred course content is hard to parallel in their own countries. Census data, for example, that journalists can use freely at a highly local level in Britain to help research audiences are generally not available elsewhere, especially in developing countries.
The level of engagement was high. During the period of the course 14,000 comments were posted. Students from countries where literacy levels are low expected to receive more content than they did on community radio: efforts were made to accommodate this need. Two Google+ hangouts were held to encourage discussion, and students were invited to join an online network, outside the confines of FutureLearn, to continue dialogue after the end of the course: 80% expressed an interest in doing so.
99% of the students who responded gave the course a positive rating, 92% of these scoring it as ‘excellent’ or ‘good’. Here are some of the comments about the course as a whole:
This is a wonderful course. It is expanding my views of where I want to go with journalism, and getting me excited about the prospect of hyperlocal platforms.
Every session of this programme so far has been very revealing to me. I have learnt so much in so short a time.
Brilliant course, probably the most practically useful I have done.
This is my fifth MOOC with FutureLearn and by far the best and most interesting. I love the hands-on, have-a-go approach which you don’t get with other MOOCs … All the videos contain real and relevant examples, and first-hand experience, rather than relying on text book answers.
The main strengths of the course seem to me to be these:
- The subject was well-chosen. Community journalism is highly topical, all over the world. Those interested in it are likely to be digital citizens open to the idea of undertaking an online course.
- The number and range of students registering – and completing – the course is startling, and the nature and standard of the interaction between them even more so.
- The content and delivery of the course are of a high standard. Perhaps its planners had a head start with presentation, since they already possessed the media skills that other MOOC originators would not necessarily enjoy – though they also had the services of an external technical expert provided by the University.
- There are other online journalism courses (the US Knight Center on mobile journalism and investigative journalism in the digital age, and the European Journalism Centre’s data-driven journalism course) but Cardiff has the advantage of being a pioneer in the field.
- Cardiff’s name has spread across the world, with, presumably, increased prestige for the School (recruitment to traditional courses was not a primary motivation behind the MOOC).
- Experience of the course offers a new resource for local courses in the School, and a rich field for research into the educational aspects of MOOCS as well as the core subject of community journalism across the world. A major advantage of MOOCs is the huge quantity of data that can be collected and, in principle, at least, analysed after the event: the Centre have a lot to go on when they come to assess the effectiveness of their course.
The main challenge is where to go from here. The organisers plan to run the course again from January 2015, in its current form. They acknowledge that keeping it updated will require considerable resources. There seems to be no appetite at present to develop the MOOC into a fully-fledged academic course, with all the heavy paraphernalia of accreditation, assessment and quality regimes. And it’s unclear how many of the students would have been interested in gaining a qualification, or paying for one. It’s the familiar MOOC conundrum of how to find a practical financial model for the future, in the absence of other than non-recurrent project funds. Perhaps some hybrid will develop, part MOOC, part distance learning. Perhaps the MOOC’s future lies in the continuous professional development of existing media professionals.
There’s plenty more to be thought about here, by the staff of the Centre and the School, and by Cardiff University as a whole. But this is, without doubt, an example of a MOOC that works.
Many thanks to Sara Moseley, Emma Meese, Hannah Scarbrough and Nathan Roberts for their hospitality and help.