Response to: MOOCs Responses to: More publics, more engagement



I read with interest Alastair Bereford and Andrew Rice’s perspective on MOOCs, or massive open online courses. They set out a convincing argument why they offer new ways of improving teaching and do not necessarily present a threat to universities. They highlight correctly some of the things MOOCs don’t (yet) offer students or teachers.

The Open University (OU) has 40 years of experience in open distance learning, and a mature tradition of making our learning content available for free. Many will remember late night BBC broadcasts. More recently, OU material can be found on iTunesU, YouTube and, importantly, OpenLearn, our access point for free and online learning resources from all parts of our curriculum. For us, MOOCs are a logical extension and it is no surprise, therefore, that the Open University is spearheading the UK’s response to the rise of MOOCs by establishing FutureLearn, the first UK MOOC provider.

FutureLearn brings together a range of top UK universities and cultural partners (such as the British Museum, British Library and British Council) to offer free online courses to anyone in the world. In September, the first group of these courses went live – offering people the chance to learn about topics as far-reaching as branding, ecosystems and even dental photography. Drs Rice and Beresford may be pleased to hear of Reading University’s FutureLearn course on building your own mobile game for an Android phone. The popularity of MOOCs can’t be disputed – more than 20,000 people from over 150 different countries had signed up for the first FutureLearn courses in the first 24 hours.

What difference will MOOCs make to students, and why should universities and also professional organisations embrace them? Firstly, education is changing. Research we have conducted tells us that students spend a significant amount of time in online spaces, happily moving between formal and informal learning opportunities – for instance, nipping across to Wikipedia, YouTube, OpenLearn or similar sites when feeling unsure whether they have quite grasped a topic. Students already inhabit this space. Secondly, it stands to reason that they will continue to rely on informal learning resources such as MOOCs after graduation and throughout their careers. This is borne out by some evidence: many MOOC students are graduates. In conclusion: it is important that universities engage with MOOCs because their students and graduates already have.

Not just universities, but also professional bodies can benefit. MOOCs may come to add particular value to engineering professions, for instance as preparation for certification, or supporting professional development in fast-moving regulated sectors, like nuclear or marine, where engineers and technical staff need frequent updating and often work in remote places.

So whether you see MOOCs as shop window for universities, an introduction to learning, the chance for someone to develop a new skill to help their career, or a valuable extra resource for fully-fledged professionals, they are a big part of our world and – as argued so well by Drs Rice and Beresford – should be embraced.

Professor Anne De Roeck, FBCS, CITP
Dean, Faculty of Maths, Computing and Technology, The Open University


I found Dr Steedman’s editorial More publics, more engagement (Ingenia 56) intriguing, both for what it said and for what it left out. The emphasis of the article was that we need more public engagement “if we are to raise the awareness and understanding of engineering and its role in society”. That is a communications goal, and an important one at that, in which engineers are playing an ever-increasing part. But it is not an engagement goal as I understand the term.

Engagement requires a genuine openness and desire to be influenced as well as to influence. It needs values, purposes and beliefs to be challenged and discussed – and engineers, above all, understand values; it’s what drives them to make a practical difference in the world.

As engineering is heavily involved in civil and military applications that often contain highly contentious issues, engineers and engineering organisations, public and private, can expect both social and political challenges.

One of the big challenges facing engineers in the context of public engagement is the amount of work carried out in the private sector. This sector often seems to take the view that if something is legal and approved by the regulator that it is not necessary to give additional thought from a societal perspective. Whereas the public sector, and particularly the scientific community, has seen and experienced the value and moral imperative for engagement, the private sector tends to steer clear of this, unless it is with the aim of promoting itself to young people. The response to Cuadrilla at Balcombe, even if that is seen as a special case, should give the private sector cause for thought.

I see no logical or indeed moral distinction between the onus on the private as against the public sector to engage. After all, the public buys private sector products, directly or indirectly, and public money frequently contributes to the private sector through vehicles such as R&D tax credits. Quite often problems of ‘commercial confidentiality’ or ‘intellectual property’ are used to explain this absence of the private sector from public debate. But as I see it, while the private sector largely keeps out of public discussion of social and ethical issues, it is remarkably well-represented behind the scenes in governance and regulatory structures, where surely the same concerns should apply?

In conjunction with all the excellent, growing communication and promotional work of engineers, I would really like to see greater visibility, especially from the private sector, in those bigger debates in which ‘values’ and ‘evidence’ often collide.

Sir Roland Jackson,
Executive Chair of Sciencewise

I read Dr Steedman’s editorial in Ingenia 56 with interest and agree with the need for engineers to engage with the public and the media. Engineering is at the very heart of our society. Unfortunately many people don’t see it that way because engineering has an image problem. This matters because of the projected serious shortfall in qualified engineers. Another reason is that science, technology, and engineering are often conflated in the media, therefore confusing career pathways.

Ingenia readers will already know that engineering is important and interesting; however, why does it have such a poor image? There are no simple answers, but there are three that, I think, are important. First, collectively we engineers are not as good as we need to be at explaining to others what we do. Second; science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) are intertwined in a way that needs disentangling. Third, the media talk mainly of science and technology. If engineering makes the headline news then it rarely gets reported as engineering but rather as science or technology. Perversely, quite a lot of reported science is actually engineering – genetic engineering for example.

The media influence how we think and what we value and so they influence career choices. There do not appear to be media outlets with an engineering correspondent. Technology correspondents report on digital systems. Engineering is reported variously by industry, science, environment, and transport correspondents, so engineering issues are either squeezed out or reported from an inappropriate perspective.

Different things motivate different people. The purpose of science is to know by producing ‘objects’ of theory or ‘knowledge’. The purpose of mathematics is clear, unambiguous and precise reasoning. The purpose of engineering and technology is to produce ‘objects’ that are useful physical tools with other qualities such as safety, affordability and sustainability. Science is motivated by curiosity, whereas engineering and technology are motivated by wanting to make something to improve the human condition. Of course the two are not independent, but an understanding of these differences is important when considering a career.

If we want to recruit more young people into engineering, we need to fix its image. How? We need engineers to tell our stories and need to be brave, say yes to media requests and engage!

Professor David Blockley FREng
Emeritus Professor of Civil Engineering, University of Bristol

Quoted parts of this letter originally appeared on OUPblog. The original article can be found at

Author of Engineering: a very short introduction

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