For Fact's Sake

Andy Wright, Distance Learning Developer, College of Medical and Dental Sciences


Since the very first universities were founded in Europe, they can boast a long tradition of contribution to positive personal and social transformation.

As far back as 1088, in Bologna, Italy, the oldest surviving university in the world began as a coming together of various groups of foreign students, who used education as a means of gaining respect and promoting their human rights in a city that routinely dealt out vicious collective punishment upon innocent foreign citizens, in retribution for the crimes of their countrymen.Universities still exist to improve local and wider communities, whether through the general dissemination of knowledge, the teaching of specific skills or the creation of jobs but, these days, we live in a rapidly shrinking world, in which the concept of community is evolving just as quickly.

In a world where people can communicate instantly from different sides of the planet or travel anywhere within a day or so, where national economies and labour markets become ever more unified, and where traditional national borders are losing some of their significance, we are seeing an inevitable shift in the nature and the scope of the higher education institution’s social remit.

We are seeing evidence of this shift all the time, not least with the steady increase in the numbers of students that now choose to study outside their country of citizenship (which rose worldwide from 0.8 million in 1975 to nearly 4.3 million by 2011), but also with the arrival of more and more globally accessible, online courses such as MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and distance-learning degrees at undergraduate and postgraduate level.

The universities of today have the opportunity, and I believe (perhaps more controversially) the responsibility, to think in terms of positive social transformation on a global scale, as the various communities of the past rapidly assimilate to form the ‘Global Village’ proposed by Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan in the 1960’s. MOOCs in particular are a really exciting way for universities to engage in this transformation.

The impact of Wikipedia from 2001 to the present day has shown two things; firstly, that people all over the world constantly and consistently want to know things, and secondly, that it is possible to provide easy access to that knowledge through websites at little or even no cost to the user (though this can largely depend on voluntary donations to the non-profit organisations that administer them).Its hardly a surprise to discover that people like knowing things; and I think we can safely say that, as a rule, people are also pretty keen on getting things for free. With MOOCs, in their current form, you are getting knowledge for free. It’s as simple as that.

On top of that, whereas Wikipedia, invaluable though it may be, is a sprawling mass of facts and information (some more reliable than others), MOOCs are put together in a pedagogically rigorous way that 'softly' guides the learner along a pathway to gain not just knowledge, but deeper understanding of the subject. Essentially, if you have a desire to learn, and there's a MOOC running that sparks your interest, it’s a no-brainer. Inevitably, people have already started talking about various business models for capitalising on the commercial potential of these courses, and though I think that’s a shame, I do understand the appeal of maximum brand visibility to an institution in a globalised and highly competitive market.

I can also see that for some people, spending several hours on a course is something that needs to provide a tangible real-world benefit, such as increased employability. However, I would suggest that MOOCs can also be significant and exciting for a reason that has nothing whatsoever to do with money.People have been travelling the world for generations, to experience other cultures and broaden their horizons, and this behaviour is, seemingly, universally enjoyed and applauded. Broadening one’s horizons, then, is worthwhile. But why is this exactly? Travelling doesn’t help you find work. It doesn’t make you rich (quite the opposite in my experience!). In fact, it wouldn’t appear to be worthwhile measured against any established economic criteria. So what is the appeal?

For me, it’s this: travelling abroad is a great way of broadening and deepening your understanding and awareness of the environment you live in and the people who live in it with you. We humans enjoy learning about the world around us, and we enjoy learning about each other. It is one of the reasons that we have evolved to be the dominant species that we now consider ourselves to be, and may well be a pivotal factor in successful social cohesion and a 'happy life'.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that I don’t see any reason why doing a MOOC should be treated any differently. You’ve heard of backpacking? Well this is a new phenomenon, and it’s called factpacking! Now, I’m not suggesting for a minute that you would learn as much about the culture of Brazil, for example, by doing a 4-week online course about it, rather than physically getting on a plane and going there yourself. Obviously, you’re not going to learn as much, or as quickly, online as you would by experiencing first-hand the day to day happenings in a favela, hearing Portuguese spoken by native speakers, or shaking your derriere at Rio Carnival. On the other hand, a month in Brazil will almost definitely cost you more than the month’s broadband required to do my imaginary Brazilian Culture MOOC. Either way (and this is the key point) you’re bound to know significantly more about the culture of Brazil after doing the MOOC than you would have if you’d never actually been there and had not taken the free course. If being more aware can have a positive impact, whether socially or personally, then it follows that doing a short course about 'Muslims in Britain', or 'Climate Change', or the 'Causes of War' (a few of the offerings available at, and the cultural, ethical, environmental or political awareness that this may bring about, must also have the potential for positive change in those areas. It seems obvious, but if more people are aware of the dangers of climate change, then more people are likely to want to do something about it.

With MOOCs, universities have an exciting opportunity to offer people all around the world the chance to be knowledge tourists, exploring the rich landscape of their own interests and deepening their awareness. Who knows, perhaps we are seeing the beginnings of a world in which the internet, harnessed by educational institutions that have existed to improve lives for nearly a thousand years, can fulfil its potential for positive, global social transformation; where all people can be better informed, more open-minded and more fulfilled. How’s that for a mission statement!?

Education in it's purest form - for fact’s sake.

Find out more about MOOCs at Birmingham on the University website.


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