Need-to-Know-News: The Post-College SAT, a Dino MOOC and a SMOC

This ‘Need-to-Know’ blog post series features noteworthy stories that speak of need-to-know developments within higher education and K-12 that have the potential to influence, challenge and/or transform traditional education as we know it.

Dino 101 , University of Alberta
Dino 101: Dinosaur Paleobiology, University of Alberta

Two new MOOCs, though not your typical Massive Open Online Courses, launched this week. One is a SMOC—Synchronous Massive Online Class, created by two professors at the University of Texas at Austin. At the other end of the spectrum we have Dino 101: Dinosaur Paleobiology, a MOOC developed by a team of researchers and faculty at the University of Alberta, which may prove to be a ground-breaking format for MOOCs going forward. And, have you heard of the Collegiate Learning Assessment Plus, also known as theCLA+? I would think the U.S. is test-weary but apparently not, given the launch of this test designed to assess college graduates’ critical thinking, writing and problem solving skills. Think of it as a post-college SAT.

1) The Dino MOOC
Dino 101: Dinosaur Paleobiology is more than a massive, online course featuring recorded lectures and multiple choice quizzes. This course is different. Not only is it taught by one of the world’s foremost dinosaur experts, Philip Currie, it leverages the latest technological applications to make it highly interactive and visually appealing, including 3D fossil files of actual scanned dino bones, online puzzles, and a ‘history of time’ interactive tool.

The University of Alberta is offering Dino 101, a high quality and rigorous massive open online course (MOOC) that teaches learners the scientific method through the universal appeal of dinosaurs.  We are drawing on the reputational strengths of professors at the Alberta Innovates Centre for Machine Learning (AICML), one of the top five machine learning institutes in the world, and our researchers working with our Canada Research Chair in Educational Measurement.

While Dino101 is on the Coursera platform, we also want to thank Udacity, with whom we have a research MOU, as they have been heavily involved in the pedagogical setup of Dino 101 and we are happy to have their ongoing support. University of Alberta

Insight: This format may be the future for MOOCs. As institutions experiment with the different formats and platforms, and the market is flooded with courses, it will be the MOOCs of highest quality that remain in high demand by students that will prevail.  Dino 101 is a collaborative effort with significant resources invested from numerous organizations including Udacity and Canada’s Research Chair in Educational Measurement. What is also unique is the thoughtful design strategy which targets three distinct groups of learners:

  1. University of Alberta students for UAlberta credit, as either the online course version (PALEO 200) or the in-class experience version (PALEO 201)
  2. Any students wanting to take the course for credit can do so by paying a modest fee.
  3. Any interested learner. And U of As’ website goes further by encouraging families, and community members to participate.

2) University of Texas launches a SPOC
I can’t quite figure out what makes this format, SPOC, so unique and deserving of a headline in the Wall Street Journal. Small, closed online classes, [and even some MOOCs] have been conducting synchronous sessions for quite some time now, yet…

Two University of Texas at Austin professors this week launched their introductory psychology class from a makeshift studio, with a goal of eventually enrolling 10,000 students at $550 a pop and bringing home millions for the school.

The professors have dubbed the class a SMOC—Synchronous Massive Online Class—and their effort falls somewhere between a MOOC, or Massive Open Online Course, a late-night television show and a real-time research experiment. The professors lecture into a camera and students watch on their computers or mobile devices, in real-time.  Wall Street Journal

Insight: Again, why this story made it into the WSJ is beyond me, but it does highlight the fact that the public and even some educators are unclear about the numerous alternative options to traditional learning.

Screen Shot 2013-09-04 at 3.00.20 PM
Screen Shot from Lunch Break Video from WSJ featuring sample question from CLA+

3)  The Post-College SAT
A new and controversial assessment aims to be the litmus test for college seniors’ ability to think critically and solve complex, real-world problems. The Collegiate Learning Assessment Plus [CLA+] is a new standardized test designed by the New York-based Council for Aid to Education that seeks to satisfy employers looking for evidence that college graduates can communicate well, think critically—in other words are a low-risk hire. According to some employers, GPA is no longer a metric to consider when hiring given the number of graduates’ unpreparedness for the working world.

Insight: This test does not address the problem of the gap that appears to exist between what employers are expecting and colleges’ are providing. It’s a weak solution at best, and I can only hope that few institutions will choose to implement it.

If interested in keeping up with what’s new in online education, you can follow Online Learning Insights on Twitter @OnlinelearningI.

4 thoughts on “Need-to-Know-News: The Post-College SAT, a Dino MOOC and a SMOC

  1. I love your comments about the CLA+ I am doing a report on it for school and I didn’t think about how the employers are using this to see who would be a low-risk hire. I always thought about it from the schools or students perspective. But the employers can gain from this assessment as well.


  2. This is the first time I ever heard of a MOOC and now I found out that there are other courses out there. How does one know if a MOOC is a valid one? How can a person tell if the MOOC is a real learning experience, or if it is just a way for some online company to increase it’s user base?


    1. Hi Carmen,
      These are really good questions. I am not sure how to determine if a MOOC is valid or not, as the criteria for a valid MOOC will be defined differently depending on numerous of factors. However one factor to examine is the organizations and/or institutions that are providing the learning. If the MOOC provider is an established and recognized university or other higher education institution, you can deduce that it will provide learning content of value and quality, though this is not always guaranteed. A good resource is Within this web site is a page of MOOC providers,
      Hope that helps.


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