In 1728 Caleb Phillips placed the following article in the Boston Gazette:CALEB PHILIPPS Teacher of the NEW Method of Short Hand, is remov’d opposite to the north door of the Town House in King-street. As this way of Joyning 3, 4, 5 &c. words in one in every Sentence by the Moods, Tenses, Persons, and Verb, do’s not in the least spoil the Long Hand, so it is not anything like the Marks for Sentences in the Printed Character Books being all wrote according to the Letter, and a few Plain and Easy Rules. N.B. Any Persons in the Country desirous to Learn this Art, may by having the several Lessons sent Weekly to them, be as perfectly instructed as those that live in Boston.
While I’m unable to find the original text a number of sources seem to back this up [1, 2, 3 – and it’s on Wikipedia so it must be true]. In adding the nota bene allowing those outside city to be posted lessons on shorthand he may well have started the first distance learning course (that I can find with a quick google). As time progressed so did distance learning, in 1899 the International Correspondence Schools organisation enrolled over 70,000 students – how much the students learnt from their 50 page lesson pamphlets we may never know .
Fast forward a hundred years – in 1999 my family got our first computer. At the time my dad had been trying to improve his French by following a course convened by the BBC that consisted of cassette tapes and books. The arrival of the computer meant that he could use the high-tech CD-ROM, assuming he could get his 11 year old son off Actua Soccer or Sim City.
Courses were still posting physical media, broadcasting at odd times on the television (the Open University used to broadcast in the early hours on BBC2) – but they had a new weapon of mass instruction – the internet. But bare in mind what it was like at the time – this is what the Leicester homepage looked like at the time  (strangely apt – the top story is that a new VC had been appointed) – at best you may have been able to submit your work back by email rather than post – it was still hardly accessible to all.
My History of MOOCs
Now fast forward to 2013. I had an accident in the January that meant I wasn’t that mobile (it was about May when I first able to start standing up again), what was I going to do to keep myself occupied? I was temporarily suspended from my PhD on medical grounds – and it was quite hard to get back into the swing of self directed learning following a month on opiates pain relief.
I turned to MOOCs – Massive Open Online Courses and other online learning platforms. I’m fairly sure that things had moved on since 1999. The number of participants on one of these courses can vary greatly from the hundreds to many thousands – you share your virtual classroom with students from across the globe. I predominantly used Coursera, and Standford Online – platforms where you can watch lectures in HD, download image rich lecture notes and have forum discussions with people from the other side of the earth. They are also supplemented with sessions like Google+ hangouts where you can speak with your fellow students and go over lectures, just as I used to with friends when I was on a ‘real life’ course. There are thousands of courses online that you can sign up to at a variety of levels, all you need is an internet connection. They’re great, as are other online learning platforms like codecademy. However, that is enough of a sales pitch on the services that are already available.
More recently I signed up to SysMic an online course funded by the BBSRC. The purpose of the course is to address the skills gap in bioscience PhD students – namely our mathematical and computer science knowledge is below what it should be! A few months down the line I have so far found it a really useful experience and like everything the problem is finding the time to do the 5 hours per week.
MOOCs and PhD training
This got me thinking about how MOOCs, and the changes in technology could impact upon PhD training.
I’ve split it up into a few areas – the first being basic skills, the second being technique skills and the third being specialist lectures.
With our current reliance upon technology, a PhD student would probably struggle to complete their course without being fairly computer literate. However, is that the level that is needed? I’m sure I’m not going out on too much of a limb to suggest that the future of biomedical science research is likely to be heavily reliant on computing, if it isn’t already. If this is the case is it enough to be able to make a mean powerpoint and manage a long document in word? Researchers are going to need to be able to have at least a basic understanding of programming, even if this is just to understand what their computer scientist colleagues are on about.
The field of statistics is also progressing, yet the current practice in the biomedical sciences appears to often be to be as technical as looking on the graphpad website and doing a test that you think is most suited. Everything either needs a t-test or an ANOVA right? It is rather discouraging to read scientific papers which even I, as a mere statistics Padawan, can identify as carrying out inappropriate analysis. Surely the only way to correct this is to be producing researchers that have a solid grounding in statistics, so we can not only carry out quality research but also critique the quality of other research.
Most research groups are run like a small business, often funded by charities, the state or other companies. It is therefore probably a reasonable expectation that this money is used as efficiently and appropriately as possible and that spending is accountable. I would be surprised if the current situation reflected this.
I find it hard to imagine anyone justifying these knowledge gaps. Surely everyone graduating with a PhD in a science related subject needs to have a reasonably understanding of computing, statistics and management skill. As well as other generic researcher skills such as an awareness of the laws surrounding research, ethical issues and some commercial awareness. It appears that the BBSRC agrees with me . With the College of Medicine, Biological Sciences and Psychology having a cohort of at least 60 new postgraduate researchers per year  it may be possible to deliver these courses in a traditional manner. However, MOOCs would allow parallel courses delivered at different levels and make it easier to deliver courses for students who don’t start with the October cohort. In addition one course could be run for a group of Universities, reducing cost.
As a PhD student the chances are you are going to be working on something unique in your department. Most departments organise seminar sessions, where a speaker speaks about their research. Some speakers can be really engaging and explain their research well, others not so much. While a broad knowledge is undoubtedly useful in science and a number of lectures contain an aspect relating to your work (either a technique, or area) I’m not convinced they are the most efficient use of their time – based on the average attendance rates, it appears others are of the same opinion. Doing this virtually would allow you to engage with the scientific discussions in your area, and watch lectures that are most relevant to you.
Who to Teach the MOOCs?
Why not us? As PhD students we have a reasonable amount of expertise in our area. We could all be tasked with making a course relevant to our subject. Hopefully developing our teaching skills further.
I’m excited to see how open education will develop, and look forward to engaging with courses in the future. I see that the University of Leicester is offering its first MOOC  – does anyone else want to join me and make the second?
 Based on the estimate that each of the 12 departments has at least 5 new PGRs per year