Talking Teaching

February 11, 2014

musings on moocs

I’ve had a few conversations lately around the topic of Massive Open On-line Courses (or MOOCs). These fully on-line courses, which typically have very high enrolments, have become widely available from overseas providers (my own institution recently developed and ran the first such course in New Zealand, which I see is available again this year). If I had time I’d probably do the occasional one for interest (this one on epigenetics caught my eye).

Sometimes the conversations include the question of whether, and how much, MOOCs might contribute to what’s generally known as the ‘universities of the future’. This has always puzzled me a bit, as in their current incarnation most MOOCs don’t carry credit (there are exceptions), so don’t contribute to an actual degree program; they would seem to work better as ‘tasters’ – a means for people to see what a university might have to offer. Depending on their quality, they could also work to encourage young people into becoming more independent learners, regardless of whether they went on to a university – there’s an interesting essay on this issue here. So I thought it would be interesting to look a bit more closely.

Despite the fact that these courses haven’t been around all that long, there’s already quite a bit published about them, including a systematic review of the literature covering the period 2008-2012 by Liyanagunawardena, Adams, & Williams (2013), and a rather entertaining and somewhat sceptical 2013 presentation by Sir John Daniel, (based largely on this 2012 paper).

The term MOOC has only been in use since 2008, when it was first coined for a course offered by the University of Manitoba, Canada (Lianagunawardena et al, 2013). Daniel comments that the philosophy behind early courses like this was one of ‘connectiveness’, such that resources were freely available to anyone, with learning shared by all those in the course. This was underpinned by the use of RSS feeds, Moodle discussions, blogs, Second Life, & on-line meetings. He characterises ‘modern’ MOOCs as bearing little relation, in their educational philosophy, to these early programs, viewing programs offered by major US universities as

basically learning resources with some computerised feedback. In terms of pedagogy their quality varies widely, from very poor to OK.

Part of the problem here lies with the extremely large enrolments in today’s MOOCs, whereas those early courses were small enough that some semi-individualised interactions between students and educators were possible. Unfortunately the combination of variable pedagogy plus little in the way of real interpersonal interactions in these huge classes also sees them with very high drop-out rates: Liyanawardena and her colleagues note that the average completion rate is less than 10% of those beginning a course, with the highest being 19.2% for a Coursera offering.

Daniel offers some good advice to those considering setting up MOOCs of their own, given that currently – in his estimation – there are as yet no good business models available for these courses. Firstly: don’t rush into it just because others are. Secondly,

have a university-wide discussion on why you might offer a MOOC or MOOCs and use it to develop a MOOC strategy. The discussion should involve all staff members who might be involved in or affected by the offering of a MOOC.

His third point: ensure that any MOOC initiatives are fully integrated into your University’s strategy for online learning (my emphasis). To me this is an absolute imperative – sort the on-line learning strategy first, & then consider how MOOCs might contribute to this. (Having said that, I notice that the 2014 NMC Horizon report on higher education, by Johnson et al.,  sees these massive open on-line courses as in competition with the universities, rather than complementary to their on-campus and on-line for-credit offerings. And many thanks to Michael Edmonds for the heads-up on this paper.)

This is in fact true for anything to do with moving into the ‘universities of the future space (with or without MOOCs). Any strategy for online learning must surely consider resourcing: provision not only of the hardware, software, and facilities needed to properly deliver a ‘blended’ curriculum that may combine both face-to-face and on-line delivery, but also of the professional development needed to ensure that educators have the pedagogical knowledge and skills to deliver excellent learning experiences and outcomes in what for most of us is a novel environment. For there’s far more to offering a good on-line program than simply putting the usual materials up on a web page. A good blended learning (hybrid) system must be flexible, for example; it must suit

the interests and desires of students, who are able to choose how they attend lecture – from the comfort of their home, or face-to-face with their teachers. Additionally, … students [feel] the instructional technology [makes] the subject more interesting, and increase[s] their understanding, as well as encourag[ing] their participation… (Johnson et al., 2014).

This is something that is more likely to encourage the sort of critical thinking and deep learning approaches that we would all like to see in our students.

Furthermore, as part of that hybridisation, social media are increasingly likely to be used in learning experiences as well as for the more established patterns of social communication and entertainment (eg Twitter as a micro-blogging tool: Liyanagunawardena et al., 2013). In fact, ‘external’ communications (ie outside of learning management systems such as Moodle) are likely to become more significant as a means of supporting learner groups in this new environment – this is something I’m already seeing with the use of Facebook for class discussions and sharing of ideas and resources. Of course, this also places demands on educators:

Understanding how social media can be leveraged for social learning is a key skill for teachers, and teacher training programs are increasingly being expected to include this skill. Understanding how social media can be leveraged for social learning is a key skill for teachers, and teacher training programs are increasingly being expected to include this skill. (Johnson et al., 2014).

There is also a need, in any blended learning system, to ensure skilled moderation of forums and other forms of on-line engagement, along with policies to ensure privacy is maintained and bullying and other forms of unacceptable behaviour are avoided or nipped in the bud (Liyanawardena et al. 2013; Johnson et al., 2014). And of course there’s the issue of flipped classrooms, something that the use of these technologies really encourages but which very few teaching staff have any experience of.

Another issue examined by Liyanagunawardena and her colleagues, in their review of the MOOC literature, is that of digital ‘natives': are our students really able to use new learning technologies in the ways that we fondly imagine they can? This is a question that applies just as well to the hybrid learning model of ‘universities of the future’. In one recent study cited by the team, researchers found that of all the active participants in a particular MOOC, only one had never been involved in other such courses. This begs the question of “whether a learner has to learn how to learn” in the digital, on-line environment. (Certainly, I’ve found I need to show students how to download podcasts of lectures, something I’d naively believed that they would know how to do better than I!) In other words, any planning for blended delivery must allow for helping learners, as well as teachers, to become fluent in the new technologies on offer.

We live in interesting times.

And I would love to hear from any readers who have experience in this sort of learning environment.

T.R.Liyanagunawardena, A.A.Adams & S.A.Williams (2013) MOOCs: a systematic study of the published literature 2008-2012. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning 14(3): 202-227

L.Johnson, S.Adams Becker, V.Estrada, & A.Freeman (2014) NMC HOrizon Report: 2014 Higher Education Edition. Austin, Texas. The New Media Consortium. ISBN 978-0-9897335-5-7

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