Gates Foundation funds GCU study into revolutionary free online university courses

23 October 2013

Gates Foundation funds GCU study into revolutionary free online university courses

Professor Allison Littlejohn, Director of the Caledonian Academy

Millions of people worldwide study on Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS), yet little is known about how these students actually learn while using this revolutionary approach to higher education.

Now Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU), with the help of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, will investigate what strategies and behaviours people adopt while studying on MOOCS – online programmes with open access where anyone can learn from the world’s leading academics via their laptops, mobiles or tablets.

The study will be conducted by the University’s Caledonian Academy led by Professor Allison Littlejohn, with Dr Colin Milligan, with the findings being used to improve open access to high quality learning for professionals working in countries where opportunities for professional development are limited, and where MOOCS could have a huge impact on improving healthcare provision, in line with the principles of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

GCU’s Caledonian Academy has partnered with the Harvard Medical School, Harvard School of Public Health, and Harvard Catalyst to examine the ‘Fundamentals of clinical trials’ MOOC. The course was launched this month by provider edX and already has tens of thousands registered students.

The researchers will explore how health professionals go about their learning while studying on the course, which is available through open access to online lectures, and interactive user forums, rather than through conventional classroom-based courses, workshops and seminars. The study will end in April 2014 with results reported to the Gates Foundation in December 2013 and May 2014.

Professor Allison Littlejohn, Director of the Caledonian Academy, gained experience teaching in a MOOC in 2011, working with thousands of learners in one of the earliest MOOC courses – Change: Education, Learning and Technology.

Professor Littlejohn explained: “The MOOC is a new type of environment and so we want to understand how health professionals go about their learning while working in that context. We need to find out what they do to learn and are specifically interested in how they self-regulate their learning.”

“Work roles are evolving rapidly so learning for work has to be personalised and self-regulated. Yet, organisations have not taken advantage of social, semantic technologies to support self-regulated learning. MOOCs present a potentially useful way forward, but little is known about learning in these environments.”

Several high-profile initiatives have been set up in the US and UK over the past two years to deliver MOOCs including edX, Coursera, Udacity and, most recently, Futurelearn, which launched in September and is a partnership of 21 UK universities, plus Trinity College Dublin and Monash University in Australia.

Edinburgh and London International Universities already have around 500,000 students studying on 10 courses. US providers can boast more than five million students, although the drop-out rate on such courses is very high.

GCU’s Caledonian Academy is a research centre examining how professionals learn for work. Its researchers are particularly interested in radical new forms of work and learning and how people use technologies.

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