By Irene Lavington

14 August 2014 - 11:13

'The take-up of massive open online courses is now global.' Photo (c) Christopher Phin, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0, adapted from the original.
'The take-up of massive open online courses is now global.' Photo ©

Christopher Phin, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0, adapted from the original.

From 1 September 2014, you can learn English through our first massive open online course (MOOC), ‘Exploring English: language and culture’ on FutureLearn. Irene Lavington of the British Council's English product development team explains how it works and why we are adding this new dimension to our English teaching.

What a massive open online course (MOOC) is

A massive open online course (MOOC) is a free online learning course, to which an unlimited number of students can sign up. Starting in the US, MOOCs have emerged as a major new phenomenon over recent years, and their popularity has spread across the world.

As a language enthusiast, I was heartened to learn that the word for 'computer' in Kaurna, an Australian Aboriginal language of the Adelaide Plains, is 'mookakahnda', or 'lightning brain'. In this language, 'karnto'/'kahnda' is the word for 'lightning', and 'moka'/'mooka' means 'brain'. The word's similarity in sound to a 'MOOC' is coincidental, but highly appropriate, given that MOOCs are spreading knowledge around the world at lightning-fast speed.

In 2011, Stanford University offered an online computer science course, in collaboration with the US MOOC platform Coursera. Within days, they had 100,000 students sign up from around the world. Today, around six million people worldwide are enrolled in MOOCs, studying with recognised professors and getting college credits.

MOOCs aren't only geared towards higher education

It's true that MOOCs are most often associated with higher education. But now English language providers, like the British Council, can offer MOOCs to give new international learners the confidence to take a formal qualification, such as a UK government-recognised exam.

In the US, most people have used MOOCs for basic classes or general education. My friend Jeanine, from California, has taken MOOCs, is friends with teachers of MOOCs, and knows people in higher education who think about MOOCs all the time. In her busy life, she has found this way of studying online to be much easier than the traditional method. The only downside is that she has to discipline herself to do the work.

Jeanine thinks that mathematics and history have the winning formula for study-by-MOOC. But the likelihood of a student completing a MOOC is low, as might be expected from a free course requiring no qualifications, knowledge of the subject or experience as learners.

Language-learning MOOCs involve more interaction, which helps keep students motivated

A MOOC in a foreign language requires more interaction than other subjects. Hopefully, this is where the British Council’s MOOC will come into its own. Moderators will be checking up on what the participants are discussing, offering help where they need it, and using all their experience in online moderation and global online learning communities to keep students on track.

Access to the internet is spreading

Although MOOCs are globally available, speed of internet access remains a barrier to online learning.

As a result of investigations to make MOOCs accessible to refugees, the University of Geneva, in partnership with Kenyatta University, offers online courses at the Dadaab refugee camp (the world’s biggest refugee camp), through solar-powered learning hubs built from recycled materials where ten people at a time can access online courses. The online humanitarian training resource provides refugees with memory sticks to allow access to learning materials. They can then upload their completed coursework, when the device is connected to the internet.

Despite access problems, the take-up of MOOCs is now global. Saudi Arabia, for example, is adapting MOOCs to fit the country's own unique cultural needs, creating a portal of new and existing MOOCs to teach vocational skills to the emerging workforce. The portal has online instructors to help learners with numeracy, English and IT skills.

What's involved if you sign up for the British Council and FutureLearn MOOC

The British Council’s new course Exploring English: language and culture already has about 37,000 registered users. The six-week programme is aimed at intermediate-level English language learners with a general interest in English language and culture, and people who want to use English for work, travel or study. It's based on the Britain is Great videos and resources from the LearnEnglish website.

The idea is that learners from all over the world will get to interact with each other while developing their English vocabulary, reading and writing skills. Teachers and course moderators will have direct contact with students, creating one big global classroom.

Learners’ written work will be assessed by their peers using social media tools, and there may be some collaborative writing too. A big part of the course will be to encourage students to look at features of natural speech and think about how the English language works, and could be used, in their own use of English. They'll get to share their opinions and listen to interviews. The course is certainly experimental, but it brings people together in new ways, and that is pretty much what the British Council has always done.

Sign up for the MOOC: Exploring English: language and culture

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