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by Cally Guerin

Like most of you, I’ve been following the debates about MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) with interest. The World Universities Forum website has had some useful updates on what’s happening where, and this article
by Martin Davies provides a good history of the evolution of MOOCs. In what I’ve read, most of the focus has been on undergraduate courses; only one I’ve seen so far considered what MOOCs might mean for those of us working in the research end of universities. Joshua Kim argues that MOOCs will require lots of good researchers creating new knowledge in disciplines to feed the demand for these courses, which will have interesting implications for doctoral study and the writing of theses.

I find myself yet again considering my own role as an academic developer working with doctoral students and their supervisors. Why do I believe there is added value in having live bodies in the room together?

Obviously, there are some wonderful materials available online with well-produced content and excellent pedagogical approaches; others are perhaps ‘still under development’ (to be generous!), or not really appropriate for particular local contexts. There is certainly a great deal to be gained by pooling resources, freeing ourselves from reinventing the wheel, and creating much greater flexibility in the timing of accessing materials. Certainly, when I’m preparing workshops, I often look to all sorts of writing websites to get some inspiration and make sure I’m keeping up with current thinking (Purdue’s Online Writing Lab, for example, has sometimes saved me from some sticky situations, and Daily Writing Tips has some wonderful advice).

Some of this ties into my concerns about how we provide rich doctoral experiences for remote students. I know candidates have different motivations for embarking on a PhD in the first place, and am not suggesting everyone needs to get the same things out of the experience. For all students, however, a great deal of informal learning can take place through chance meetings and brief conversations with one’s peers passing on information about all sorts of topics relating to research and beyond. For those who are not present in person, it’s important that we provide other means of access to such conversations. Sure, there are plenty of blogs out there, but local, situated information can be equally valuable and offers a different kind of support.

This idea that one-size-fits-all is one of the areas of concern when it comes to doctoral students and MOOCs. It isn’t easy for a fixed, online lecture series, like we see in the MOOC environment, to provide this kind of localised information. It also doesn’t seem to be the place where doctoral students can engage with each other very effectively, despite attempts to create smaller discussion groups and work groups.

We do need to be conscious of what we as academic developers, academic literacy teachers and writing teachers value-add in this environment – what is the point of getting students or staff together in the same room? For me part of the answer is in the real-time group discussions where people are bouncing ideas off each other, engaging in the to and fro of half-formed thoughts, taking up some ideas and allowing others to drop when they don’t take off. I haven’t yet seen this done as effectively in online environments, but others may have found ways to facilitate this. I also want to be able to provide spaces in which students can talk freely about their writing, take risks and experiment with ideas without worrying who might be listening. But perhaps I’m simply too attached to the notion that we are embodied beings?

I’m sure lots of you have plenty of ideas about how MOOCs might impact on doctoral writing and doctoral education more generally, from all sorts of perspectives. It would be great if you would be willing to share those ideas with the rest of our readers by sending us your comments.