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Putting the E into MOOC: Open Courses and English Language Education

Putting the E into MOOC: Open Courses and English Language Education
English language MOOCs are not intended to replace IELPs, but rather work with them to create robust and all-encompassing hybrid learning opportunities for international students.
Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have entered the English language education environment and are already making waves.

Late last year, we launched a Massive Open Online English Course (MOOEC) and quickly established a global user base in the thousands. We are also about to launch a series of Australia-wide workshops (in partnership with English Australia) to professionally develop English as a Second Language (ESL) staff in the use of online ESL tools. This will help to expand the number of education professionals able to provide English language education over the web.

The MOOEC provides open, online ESL lessons constructed by partner universities and colleges. As opposed to seeking financial return through certification, the platform seeks to build an alternative recruitment model for on-campus enrolment.

Discussions around the potential for MOOCs to disrupt higher education’s status quo are well advanced. Some of the key concerns are:

  • Will MOOCs threaten the on-campus model of educational instruction or will they form part of a blended model?
  • Will certificates of completion become widely recognised by institutions for credit?
  • Will they be recognised by industry for employment?

The major MOOC platforms (including Coursera and FutureLearn, among others) are similar in the ways they communicate with their potential and actual audiences. The typical modes of instruction and learning activities included in the courses are broadly similar and in themselves unremarkable. In general, MOOCs mirror the established pattern of studying in a campus-based higher education program: a course starts/ends on a particular date; there is a tutor/lecturer who provides key ‘lecture’ material (split into bite-sized chunks of video); multiple choice style assessment tasks check progress through the learning sequence and written discussions allow participating students to engage with one another (if not necessarily the lecturer).

The innovation and new paradigm stems from the professionalism of the services, the quality of the content knowledge and the scale of the student enrolment — not from the academic tools of the trade.

But what about teaching English? Is this model best equipped to engage this cohort of learners? Or could teaching a language online require something else? What factors might be considered in developing a MOOC that might better engage with language learners?

As we entered the development phase for the MOOEC in partnership with 15 Australian colleges and universities, we considered these questions at length. The MOOEC is quietly building a dedicated community of language teaching professionals, working together in a distinct and different type of MOOC. Moreover, some of the challenges faced in order to make the MOOEC platform fit-for-purpose may provide some interesting comparisons more generally.

Firstly, there’s the nature of the web audience and the active ESL learners. No one nationality dominates the user base; in fact, the largest country represented (China) makes up less than 20 percent of the whole, and groups of users have emerged in unexpected places (hello, Guernsey!) A particular challenge is to reach out to individuals whose English proficiency is low and would be unlikely to be functional in an English language web environment. If a person has not yet mastered how to communicate in English, they may need orientation material in their own language to help them navigate the site prior to starting the MOOEC.

Secondly, we’re attempting to make the learning and assessment tools language specific. Along with the usual tools, the MOOEC has incorporated features such as sound recording and waveform displays, an array of visual-quiz types, a vocabulary bank with words in ascending frequency of use, a 3D virtual world and an automated conversation tool allowing learners to practice directed conversations. These tools are made available to the MOOEC academic community to manage their own course content, track users and crunch academic data.

The MOOEC consists of individual English lessons. The lessons themselves are categorised by proficiency level. They cover a wide range of content dealing with academic pathway support, test preparation, lifestyle-related lessons and/or vocationally-specific material. At this stage, the value of providing certification is unclear. If students wish to demonstrate their English proficiency, there are widely recognised online and offline tests available (e.g. IELTS, TOEFL, etc.). The focus remains on engaging and supporting ESL learners rather than formally testing them.

In addition, many ESL teachers interested in online learning are often isolated at their institution and have limited opportunity to communicate with others who share their interest. The MOOEC teaching community has quickly become a vital source of professional development, providing teachers with an opportunity to share their ideas, suggest improvements and test new features.

There are no concerns the MOOEC might have a negative effect on campus enrolment. No online program, as the technology currently stands, could realistically supplant the learning experience of immersion in an English-speaking country/environment. Rather, the MOOEC supports a blended vision, whereby ESL students form a substantial learning profile with their institution of choice prior to and after campus enrolment.

Institutional partners see their involvement in MOOEC as a potential recruitment opportunity: showcasing their skills, their facilities and their staff.

For me personally, leading the way to put the “E” into MOOC has been an exciting journey of discovery. I have been both delighted and humbled by the support from ESL professionals in Australia getting us this far. But there’s a long way to go. I hope you’ll join us for some of that journey.

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