MOOC Quality Comes Down To This: Effective Course Design

“Design brings forth what would not come naturally”
                                —Klaus Krippendorff, Professor of Cybernetics, Language,and Culture

designThere’s little data to go on to determine the quality of learning outcomes in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Traditional education measures the quality of learning with a variety of assessment methods against a set of established criteria or objectives. But MOOCs don’t fit into the traditional education mold and given it’s usually unclear what the intended outcomes are for MOOCs, assessment is challenging (Gaebel, 2013). If the objective is to deliver quality learning there’s little to go on except for low completion rates and even smaller percentages of student rankings of their perceptions of learning (via end-of-MOOC surveys). A recent study attempts to address MOOC quality by assessing instructional quality of 76 MOOCs—50 xMOOCs offered on dedicated MOOC platforms and 26 cMOOCs or connectivist MOOCs (Margaryan, Bianco & Littlejohn, 2015). My aim in this post is to share results of the study and outline the framework used to evaluate the MOOCs in an effort to highlight how a course design framework is critical to developing quality learning experiences within MOOCs.

Factors Affecting Quality Course Design
Course design is a critical to delivering quality learning through online courses and MOOCs, yet it’s rarely mentioned in literature and articles discussing MOOC and online course outcomes. This study fills a gap. It determined that while most MOOCs were well-packaged, design quality was low. Out of a possible 72 points that each MOOC could score, not one MOOC scored above 28 points (p. 82).  Reasons vary, but I see it as absence of one or a combination of: skill set of course designer(s), time, and/or a structured process that includes a course design framework.

My view is that an online course takes on a persona of the instructor where the course guides and promotes part of the learning process as an instructor would. This thinking requires a different design approach—a different mindset than one used for traditional courses. A well-designed course also provides a learning path that students can follow and influence. A path that includes: quality, varied and curated resources, methods that encourage active learning whether individually or within self-selected groups, places for students to engage and share where they also act as contributors to the course. The latter is key—students should be able to shape the course through application of course concepts using their existing knowledge and experience.

Overview of the Study & “First Principles of Instruction”
The study analyzed quality through the lens of the Merrill+ model, a framework based on the “First Principles of Instruction” framework of David Merill (2002). Merill’s model is remarkably thorough, detailed and thoughtful in its inclusion and application of learning theories and approaches incorporating components of R. Gagné and H. Gardner’s theories as well as models of instructional design. First Principles also aligns closely with Malcolm Knowles’ adult learning theory andragogy, which I’ve discussed in previous posts. There’s significant research in support of Merrill’s theory suggesting it’s a credible, perspective tool to evaluate curriculum design of traditional, online courses and MOOCs (Frick et al. 2007; Margaryan et al., 2015).

Screen Shot 2015-12-11 at 11.15.33 AM
Merrill’s’ model is grounded in the practical as shown by figure 1 which describes how his five principles focus on problem-focused learning (Merrill, 2002).

Ten Principles of the Merrill+ Model
Margaryan and Collins added five additional principles to Merill’s First Principles to create Merrill+ Model which builds on Merrill’s philosophy and synthesizes contemporary instructional theories and practices (2014). The 10 principles of Merrill+ Model:

Learning is promoted…

  1. Problem Centered Learning: …when learners are engaged in solving real-world problems
  2. Activation: …when learners activate existing knowledge, experience or a skill set as a foundation for creating new knowledge and/or skills.
  3. Demonstration: …when learners observe a demonstration [that includes learning of new knowledge via a primary resource] of the skill [knowledge] to be learned.
  4. Application: …when learners apply their new knowledge or skill through discussion, written work, or creation of an artifact to solve a problem.
  5. Integration: …when new knowledge is integrated and into the learner’s context
  6. Collective knowledge: …when learners contribute to the collective knowledge of a subject or topic
  7. Collaboration: …when learners collaborate with others to expand knowledge of individuals and a community of practice
  8. Differentiation: …when learners are provided with different avenues of learning, according to their need, e.g. scaffolding
  9. Authentic resources: …when quality learning resources are curated from and applicable to real world problems
  10. Feedback: …when learners are given expert feedback on their performance

Closing Thoughts
There are other course design frameworks that can be used as alternatives to the Merrill+ Model, Khan’s e-Learning Framework (I’ll be writing about Khan’s Framework next month) and the Dick and Carey model for instance. Some institutions develop their own course design model as Purdue University did with its IMPACT model. The key to MOOC quality is selecting, then following a framework grounded in learning theory that supports an effective course design process that delivers quality learning experiences.

References

  • Frick, T., Chadha, R., Watson, C., Wang, Y., & Green, P. (2007). Theory-based course evaluation: Nine Scales for measuring teaching and learning quality. Retrieved from  http://www.indiana.edu/~tedfrick/TALQ.pdf
  • Gaeleb, D. (2013). MOOCs: Massive open online courses. (Tech.). European University Association. Retrieved from http://www.eua.be/Libraries/publication/EUA_Occasional_papers_MOOCs
  • Margaryan, A., Bianco, M., & Littlejohn, A. (2014). Instructional quality of massive open online courses (MOOCs). Computers & Education. 80. 77–83. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2014.08.005
  • Merrill, D. M. (2002). First principles of instruction. Educational Technology Research and Development, 50(3), 43-59. doi:10.1057/9781137394644.0012

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