MOOCs Desperately Seeking Quality

cropped-mooc-banner1MOOCs, despite what the critics say have transformed higher education. They have spawned new vehicles for online learning, reaching new groups of learners who want and need an alternate form of traditional education. Thanks to the MOOC format learners now have numerous pathways to furthering their education. Granted, not all MOOC programs meet the definition of open, but as programs expand as we’ve seen with certificate-granting MOOCs, MOOCs for college credit, professional development MOOCs, and others, there is a pressing need for benchmarks of quality.

This need is more apparent after the recent publication of two reports: Babson’s thirteenth annual “Online Report Card” and “In search of quality: Using Quality Matters to analyze the quality of Massive, Open, Online Courses (MOOCs)”, (Allen, Seaman, Poulin & Straut, 2016; Lowenthal & Hodges, 2015).

The Babson report devotes (only) two of its sixty-plus pages to MOOCs, yet what’s most telling is the fact that the report is in its final year of publication. Though there are a variety of contributing factors, a compelling one as described in the report’s introduction, “distance education is clearly becoming mainstream” (pg. 3). In other words online education is growing up. ‘Online learning’ is simply becoming ‘learning’. The report outlines the number of organizations dedicated to online education, who report on and address issues specific to online learning. Many do address quality standards as it relates to developing and delivering online programs, as is the case with Quality Matters rubric, Online Learning Consortium’s (OLC) Five Pillars, and California State University Chico’s rubric for online instruction, yet all fall short in specifying standards for MOOCs.

This void is a concern given the number of students engaged in learning using the MOOC format which is significant. Estimates are in the range of millions—one source states there were 35 million enrollment in 2015 (“MOOC Enrolment”, 2016). Given these numbers the question is—how will MOOC learning be advanced and improved if MOOC quality isn’t addressed by organizations involved in online education? Researchers Lowenthal and Hodges bring some of these issues forward in their paper, “In search of Quality”.  They apply the Quality Matters™ rubric to six MOOCs, offered by three providers, Coursera, edX and Udacity:

The six identified MOOCs were analyzed using the Quality Matters Rubric Standards with Assigned Point Values, which involves a type of content analysis by three different reviewers using a standard coding scheme. [Quality Matters] QM has a rubric for Continuing and Professional Development that would be appropriate to use on MOOCs (Adair et al., 2014). However, we intentionally chose to use QM’s higher education rubric rather than the continuing and professional development focused rubric because of the increased initiatives about offering college credit for MOOC completion. In other words, a MOOC should score as well as a traditional online course if it is going to be worth college credit.  (Lowenthal & Hodges, 2015)

Not surprisingly, after the QM peer-review assessment all six MOOCs failed to meet QM’s passing grade of 85%. The QM rubric consists of a set of standards grouped into eight dimensions (below); in the study, most MOOCs failed in two dimensions, #5 and #7.

  1. Course overview and introduction
  2. Learning objectives
  3. Assessment and measurement
  4. Instructional materials
  5. Learner interaction and engagement
  6. Course technology
  7. Learner support
  8. Accessibility (Quality Matters, 2014)

The apparent failure of the MOOCs in this study may give fodder to MOOC critics, yet I suggest that failure stems not from the MOOCs, but from:  1) applying a tool (QM rubric) to a MOOC, which inherently serves a variety of learning purposes and needs, e.g. not just for credit, but for professional development, personal interest, etc. and 2) assessing a MOOC on dimensions such as ‘learner interaction and engagement‘ and ‘learner support‘ doesn’t make sense in context of a MOOC, specifically at the level the QM standards articulate. Considering the massive component of MOOCs, it’s almost a given that facilitating structured, mandatory engagement and active learning is next to impossible. Furthermore since MOOC students are able to choose the level of engagement based upon their learning needs, including this as a standard doesn’t fit with the intent of the course.

The study acknowledges many of these points, and serves as a vehicle for discussion about applying quality standards to courses that align with the MOOC format. The authors also highlight a critical point, if the MOOC format is used as a vehicle for granting college credit, as it appears to be, quality benchmarks are essential.

Final Thoughts
A unique approach to quality assessment (and course design) is needed; one that heeds the needs of learners, the constraints and advantages of the delivery platform, and ensures a quality learning experience. Going further, I also suggest that before establishing quality standards, institutions would do well to first identify the primary purpose and intent of the MOOC. Categorizing a MOOC based on its purpose, then establishing quality standards is a good place to start.

References
Allen, I. E., Seaman, J., Poulin, R., & Straut, T. T. (2016). Online report card: Tracking online education in the United States (Rep.). Babson Survey Research Group. Retrieved from http://onlinelearningsurvey.com/reports/onlinereportcard.pdf

Lowenthal, P. R., & C. B. Hodges (2015). In search of quality: Using Quality Matters to analyze the quality of massive, open, online, courses (MOOCs). The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 15(5). Retrieved from http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/2348/3411

MOOC enrolment surpassed 35 million in 2015. (2016, January 05). Retrieved from http://monitor.icef.com/2016/01/mooc-enrolment-surpassed-35-million-in-2015/

 

Need-to-Know MOOC News: MOOCs Find Their Niche & Business Model in 2016

This is a special issue of the ‘Need-to-Know’ blog post series featuring the latest developments in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) offered by providers: Coursera, iVersity, edX, and Udacity.

Screen Shot 2016-01-29 at 1.04.41 PM1. Coursera’s Business Model Taking Shape
Coursera is finding its niche and business model. The MOOC provider is moving towards three revenue-generating strategies: 1) fee-based courses which require students to pay a fee for access to graded assignments, 2) Specializations, a sequence of courses with a capstone project, and 3) Course Certificates (formerly known as Signature Track).

Signature Track, launched in 2013 was Coursera’s first (significant) revenue generating strategy. Students paid a fee in exchange for the opportunity to earn a verified certificate. Initially only a handful of courses featured the certificate option. Signature Track has since expanded, had a recent name change to Course Certificate and features a flat fee of $49. The Course Certificate option is now available across numerous courses. Revenue estimates suggest Certificates generated between $8 and $12 million in 2014 (Shah, 2014). 

Specializations feature a sequence of courses (typically four to six) with a capstone project where students apply the skills learned in order to earn a certificate. Launched two years ago, the program appears successful given the number of Specializations offered—in the hundreds according to Coursera. Fees range between $300 and $600. Tuition is determined by the price of each course (which range between $39 and $79), the number of courses within each, and the fee for the capstone project. If there is even modest student demand for Specializations as Coursera founder Daphne Koller indicates, revenue opportunity is significant (Bogen, 2015).

The Purchase Course strategy announced last week requires that students pay to gain access to graded assignments. There is an option to ‘audit’ the course where students have access to course materials only. An excerpt from Coursera’s blog (below) outlines the strategy:

Starting today, when you enroll in certain courses, you’ll be asked to pay a fee (or apply for Coursera’s financial aid program) if you’d like to submit required graded assignments and earn a Course Certificate. You can also choose to explore the course [audit] for free, in which case you’ll have full access to videos, discussions, and practice assignments, and view-only access to graded assignments. — Coursera Blog, January 19, 2016

This format is similar to what’s offered at iVersity, a Europe-based MOOC provider. Tuition at Coursera ranges between $39 and $119 per course. Below is a screen shot showing the options presented to students enrolling for a course on Coursera’s platform.

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Fee-based courses appear linked to courses that are part of the Specializations programs. The screenshot above is an image of what is presented when enrolling for ‘Understanding Financial Markets’

2) iVersity’s Pay-for Certificate Program & Udacity’s Nanodegree Plus
iVersity, one of Europe’s MOOC platforms launched it’s own version of Coursera’s Specializations—The Business Communication Programme. It’s targeted to working professionals seeking skills in business communication and marketing. It’s iVersity’s first venture into bundled programs. Yet the Programme is more similar to Udacity’s new Nanodegree Plus program, given it offers enhanced customer service—support and resources to help students find a job.

Udacity’s program goes further by guaranteeing that students find a job within six months, or their money back. Fees at Udacity are monthly—$299. With an estimated program length between six and eight months that brings the cost between $1,794 and $2,392.  iVersity’s tuition model takes a different approach but the price is similar (see screenshot below)—iVersity’s Programme at its regular price  is $1,704 (approximate US funds), and the enhanced model is $2,611.

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Screenshot above: Prices for iVersity’s ‘Business Communication Programme’ as displayed on the webpage at iversity.org. Sales prices still appear on site, February 2, 2016

iVersity also offers corporate learning services to companies looking for support in creating their own professional development courses. It’s promoted on their site as “a new form of professional development“.

3) Udacity for Business
Udacity also targets the corporate training market (tech-companies specifically) via its business webpage promoting “Hands-on Training. Done Online”. The courses and programs promoted are identical to Udacity’s existing ones, but are packaged to appeal to company and human resource executives as a solution to meet skill gaps among employees and as a tool for succession planning. Screenshot below from Udacity’s site:

Screen Shot 2016-02-03 at 9.59.48 AM4) edX CEO: “edX offers complete programs online, not just individual courses
EdX, an open source platform and one of the few non-profit MOOC providers,  also has revenue generating strategies, though not for profit. The strategies are needed to support edX’s goal of sustainability in order to achieve its mission of offering “access to high-quality education for everyone, everywhere”. Some of edX’s programs are similar to Coursera and Udacity—certificates with fees typically of $50 per course. Another is the XSeries program, a group of bundled courses. Students receive a Xseries Certificate upon completion, though unlike Coursera’s Specializations or Udacity’s Nanodegree, there is no final or capstone project. Another revenue strategy is licensing edX courses to countries such as China, India, France, the Middle East who have adopted Open edX (Young & Hobson, 2015).

EdX also offers Professional Education Courses targeted to students looking for skills training and professional development. Courses are stand-alone and online, some are self-paced and others have a start and end date that span between four and six weeks. Fees can be hefty, ranging between $89 and $949, as this one “Yield Curve Analysis”.

Insight:  Offering free, high-quality content on feature-rich digital platforms is not free for the MOOC provider or the partnering institutions. Even though free appeared to be the end-goal of MOOCs at the time of their launch in 2012.  But free is not sustainable. The concept of MOOCs is shifting to where the demand is—fee-based certificate courses and programs in skill-specific areas, and corporate learning. In between are programs offering MOOCs for higher education credit, as with courses for ECTS credit at iVersity, edX’s Global Freshman Academy, and Malaysia’s national credit recognition policy for MOOCs. Even degrees (Georgia Tech’s CS Master’s degree) and mini-degrees based on MOOCs as with MIT’s Micro-Masters. There still are courses for free for the life-long learner, like myself, looking for high quality, online courses not for credit. I view this as a win-win-win for everyone; the platform providers, the institutions and the students. Who says MOOCs weren’t disruptive?

Further Reading:

What is the Optimal Size for Online Groups within MOOCs?

Is there an optimal size for groups working within a MOOC?

Multiethnic Group of Business People with Speech BubblesI received this question from a reader of this blog about optimal group size for individuals who meet online and are collaborating on a project or participating in a study group as in a MOOC. I share here our discussion via email, and resources specific to online groups that readers may find helpful.

Reader’s Question:
“I was wondering whether or not there is an optimal size for online collaborative groups. I’m referring to collections of individuals who “know” and “meet” each other only via web interactions but who interact with each other (one on one and one on many) to accomplish a goal? Do you have an instinct as to whether there is an optimal size for a student collaborative study group in a MOOC and, if so, is it 5, 15, or even more?  Anything very large would more resemble a bulletin board for postings and replies.”

My Response:
This is an interesting area of study. I’ve done a fair bit of research in this area along with practical application and my observations are consistent with the research which finds that online collaboration in an academic context where a group project is part of a grade for a fully online course, requires involvement and guidance of a moderator (instructor) for best results. Not to say that students’ won’t participate without an instructor’s guidance but that participation by group members is higher with an instructor’s influence (Peck, 2003). Also optimal size for this type of group collaboration—online in a course where students do not interact outside of the the online context, is three to five. This is consistent with my experience where I’ve seen best results when groups are this size. Five is almost too big in an online context: it’s more challenging to coordinate and a group member that is by nature lazier, will find it easier to shirk responsibility in a group of five. In smaller groups there is more responsibility and pressure for each group member to perform. I’ve found the ideal size to be three or four.

However, in a MOOC context group collaboration whether for an online study group or project varies greatly. There are several factors that influence the group collaboration dynamic and outcomes.

First is motivation of participants which is different from in online, for-credit courses; each [student] is taking the MOOC for different reasons many who are not interested in taking the course for a grade which is the case for smaller, closed online courses for credit.  This alone implies that group work or collaboration must be entirely voluntary and not directed by the instructor.

Second is the structure of the MOOC. Due to the massive number of participants, it is technically impossible for an instructor to be involved in the group formation and moderation for a formal group assignment, from a manpower perspective, and from a technical perspective in terms of providing the ‘space’ for groups to form and interact.

However there are instances where informal online study groups can happen as well as smaller discussions, that can be guided by course facilitators. Below are some instances where this can work:

  • Participants can be encouraged to form their own groups; which I’ve seen participants do where they reach out to others in the general discussion forum and form their own groups on Facebook or other platform. I’ve seen this happen in MOOCs on several occasions. Groups may be formed by interest in a specific aspect of the topic, or by geography.  Groups are then run independently of the course with no involvement from the course leaders
  • I’ve also seen success with breaking discussion groups into smaller groups which allows for more manageable and intimate conversations. For a specific discussion question related to a given topic (module), three or four discussion forums are created and participants asked to contribute based on the first letter of their last name, e.g. for last names beginning in A to G, respond here,  from H to M respond here, etc. This can be very effective as it overcomes the challenge of the cumbersome discussion boards with massive numbers of participants, granted the numbers can still be large.

Formats for what’s described above can be the discussion forum within the LMS, or there are also digital bulletin boards that can be used, which I’ve seen used for smaller groups with tools such as Padlet (though I’ve not seen Padlet used for groups over 30, so not sure of the technical implications).  I like Padlet because users do not need to sign up and create an account, once a board is created (by course facilitator) it can be open for anyone to contribute to who has the link. There are other applications, but many require creating an account and updated versions of Java etc. which some students may not have.

Some MOOC platforms and structures are based on the small group concept and require participation, Stanford’s open courses I believe work on this concept of ‘mandatory’ participation by students who sign up. I believe the groups are fairly large, up to fifteen or twenty. I have not taken a course on this platform, but have heard from practitioners in my network who have.

Hope that helps.  Below are a few resources you may find helpful.

Resources

Need-to-Know News: Universities On Board with Micro Credentials, MOOC Report Highlights Pressing Issues & App Rewards Tech Non-Use

job-education

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.

job-education1) Group of Seven Universities Collaborating on ‘Alternative Credentialing’
“The idea is to create an “alternative credentialing process that would provide students with credentials that are much shorter and cheaper than conventional degrees” — David Schejbal, Dean of Continuing Education, Outreach and e-Learning at Wisconsin Extension.

A group of seven universities are in early stages of collaboration on a joint platform that will offer skills assessments, services including tutoring and advising to students online—though the platform’s primary purpose will be to provide ‘alternative credentialing options’. This is significant. It’s the first time a group of brand-name universities (that include Northwestern and Georgia Tech) have formed their own consortium in the micro credentialing market at this scale. Up until now it’s for-profit platforms such as Udacity with their Nano Degrees partnering with corporations such as AT&T, Coursera with their Specializations offered as a ‘pathway to expertise’, and edX (non-profit) with their xSeries programs.

These programs are vocational in nature, with a focused sequence of courses that provide students with a set of skills in a specialty area. This type of credentialing differs significantly from undergraduate education—the undergraduate degree focusing on breadth rather than depth, emphasizing critical thinking with applicability to a range of career pathways. Yet recently there’s been discussion in far-reaching media outlets including the New York Times, that micro credentials are a viable alternative to traditional higher education—“it [nano degree] may finally offer a reasonable shot at harnessing the web to provide effective schooling to the many young Americans for whom college has become a distant, unaffordable dream”.  Even Sebastian Thrun, founder of Udacity was quoted as saying, “It [nano degree] is like a university…built by industry” (2014).

Insight: The fact that micro credentials are viewed as an alternative to or even replacement for an undergraduate or an associate’s degree is concerning. Even more so now with universities coming on board and (potentially) promoting this option as ‘shorter and cheaper than conventional degrees’. Micro credentialing serves a different purpose than undergraduate education, targets a different and expanding student population—working adults looking for professional development and a route to enhance job-related skills. Though there is need for higher education institutions to transform and adapt to the complex challenges the higher education sector is facing, offering a ‘mini-degree’ as a replacement to the rich and diverse education that an undergraduate degree can provide is misguided and deeply troubling.  Alternative learning pathways such as micro-credentials is a positive outcome of digital innovations, yet using it as an alternative to ‘fix’ undergraduate education is not reasonable or responsible.

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 12.40.46 PM2)  New MOOC Report Highlights Current Issues
This week UK’s Quality Assurance Agency for higher education released a concise, informative report “MOOCs and Quality: A Review of the Recent Literature” that highlights topical issues with useful, current references.  It’s instructive, informative and provides a summary of key areas of concern specific to MOOCs that are also applicable to higher education including non-completion rates, quality, instructional design, and data use for analysis of student engagement. What’s most instructive are the issues highlighted—it draws out for the reader the most pressing issues worthy of consideration going forward.

As with each new learning innovation, MOOCs present the possibility of new approaches to education, but the promises now need to be evaluated to see what can be delivered in the longer term, on a sustainable basis and with what implications for HEIs and for the assurance of quality  (Creelman et al, 2014).

Insight: Discussions should be moving from MOOCs as disruptors to deeper issues such as how can MOOCs help us improve teaching and learning, reach more students with quality education, and support change within the higher education sector. This report can be a catalyst for such discussions, providing a starting point with its reference list of recent research that provide a foundation for informed discussion.

3) New App Gives Points to Students for Not Using Personal Tech Device
A mobile app targeted to high school and college students called ‘Pocket Points’ gives students rewards for not using their phones during class. Students gain points by opening up the application and locking their phone. It works when the school signs on with Pocket Points and sets up the software and the rewards program.  Students can use points to get discounts at local and online businesses—primarily for food. Currently Chico State and Penn State University use the program.

Insight: A unique idea, though I see more potential for this application with younger children, for parents to use with their children ages 9 through 13—helping kids learn how to manage their screen time.

Five Alternatives to the Talking Head Video for MOOCs & Online Courses

VideoCameraCircleMost xMOOCs, and some for-credit online courses rely heavily upon what many refer to as the ‘talking head’ video format. The ‘talking head’ is usually the subject-matter expert delivering a lecture in his or her area of expertise. There’s great value in this format when used strategically and sparingly. Yet the effectiveness of lecture videos as a primary content source for online courses and MOOCs is difficult to determine. Thanks to a comprehensive study done via edX  we have data on student engagement patterns with videos specific to MOOCs to draw upon (Guo, Kim & Rubin, 2014). Key findings include:

  • The optimal video length is six minutes or shorter
  • Videos produced with a more personal feel could be more engaging than high-fidelity studio recordings
  • Khan-style tablet drawing tutorials (screencasts) are more engaging than PowerPoint slides

Video Viewing Patterns: A Non-MOOC Perspective
There is also data on student video engagement in non-MOOC courses to consider. The School of Continuing Education at Columbia University examined video viewing patterns of students using analytics from their video hosting platform and qualitative data from student interviews (Hibbert, 2014). Results were similar to Guo’s.  A significant takeaway from this study—videos are an excellent format in online courses to establish instructor presence; supporting a sense of connectedness for students.

One of the benefits video can offer is creating faculty presence in an online environment. In the interviews, students cited faculty presence as a key factor related to their engagement and perceived learning from videos”

Alternatives to Talking Heads
The focus of this post is on alternatives to the talking head. I chose this topic because the majority of xMOOCs I’ve experienced over the last two years do not reflect good practices for educational videos described in the latest research. Most xMOOCs rely upon the lecture video format, and though they have their place, there are several unique and creative format options that I want to share with readers.

1. Podcasts. Podcasts are an excellent option for several reasons: 1) smaller file size for easier download, 2) the format uses less bandwidth when streaming and, 3) is a portable file format—allowing students to listen on the go.

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Screenshot of podcast from “Globalizing Higher Education Research for the Knowledge Economy” on Coursera
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Screen shot of collection of podcast links to interviews  with various experts sharing their definition of global competency. From “Globalizing Higher Education”.   This approach provides multiple perspectives on a topic, prompting students to analyze the topic from different viewpoints.

2.  Interviews This format is a variation of the traditional video lecture, except an interviewer poses questions to the subject-matter expert. The interviewer can be a non-expert as was the case in the “Saving our Schools” MOOC I completed recently on edX. In this MOOC graduate students interviewed the expert (the faculty member). Alternatively, the interviewer can be the MOOC instructor interviewing an expert or guest with a unique perspective on the topic.

 Another variation I’ve seen used frequently is a live interview conducted via a video conferencing platform, e.g. Google Hangout, with an interviewer and one or more experts. Students are encouraged to use Twitter as a back channel for questions and discussion.

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Screenshot of lecture video using interview-format in “Saving our Schools”.  A graduate student interviews the faculty member.  I prefer the format when the instructor interviews a guest or other subject-matter expert on a topic; it’s more interesting.

3. Simulations. Simulations, when done well are an effective method for illustrating course concepts and engaging students. A simulation can serve not only as content, but also provide an excellent topic for a discussion forum, or problem solving exercise via a structured assignment.  According to the study at Columbia University, videos that link to an assignment or learning activity receive more views than those that don’t.

The simulation presented here, “A Day in the Life of a Rural Homemaker” from the MOOC “Subsistence Marketplaces” illustrates a typical day of a homemaker in rural India and includes an interactive component.

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Screen shot from simulation from “Subsistence Marketplace” MOOC on Coursera.

4. ScreencastsA screen cast is a digital recording of the user’s screen with voice-over narration. This format allows the instructor to include power point slides, images, or motion— hand drawing on white board for instance (similar to Khan academy videos). This format requires little technical expertise, and is frequently used by instructors who prefer to record their own video content. The outcome is more informal.  The research suggests students respond well to an informal approach.  

“The most engaging videos for me [are] when the professors use wit and humor.” student(Hibbert, 2014)

A professor at UBC records all of her own content videos (screencasts and lectures) for her MOOC “Useful Genetics” even through she has access to a recording studio. She outlines her reasons in her YouTube video “How I record MOOC lecture videos“. She also describes how she films the MOOC content.

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Screenshot of a screencast created by the instructor for the MOOC, “Drugs and the Brain” on Coursera. The professor incorporates motion in his screencast. The red arrow highlights areas of focus during the narration.
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Screencasts are useful for showing a selection of images. In this screencast the professor shares images of vintage maps, from “Configuring the World: A Critical Political Economy Approach”

5.  Informal end-of-week Recorded Discussions:  In this format the instructor(s) delivers an informal end-of-week recap of the previous week’s student interactions and feedback within the MOOC or online course. I’ve experienced instructor’s using this format in three or four MOOCs; I find it effective in demonstrating the instructor’s presence, commitment and interest in the course. He or she will typically share highlights from the discussion forums, address frequently asked student questions, and encourage participation for the upcoming week.

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Screenshot features instructor in a weekly response video from “Configuring the World” MOOC on Coursera

There are other formats to the five presented here. One is not using any video content produced by the institution or instructor. Instead, content sources might include YouTube, TedTalks or even students. This approach was used in a Coursera MOOC “E-Learning and Digital Cultures”. The approach was quite controversial as described by one of the course creators in eLearn Magazine.  However, any format can be effective with a carefully planned instructional strategy that aligns with the learning outcomes and expectations for the course.

References:

How (Not) to Design a MOOC: Course Design Scenarios From Four xMOOCs

designThis post examines four MOOCs completed as a student then de-briefed from a course design perspective—I share insights into what worked and what didn’t for the purpose of helping educators create better online learning experiences.

I recently completed two MOOCs on the edX platform that are part of a mini-series on education policy. The courses are great examples of how higher education institutions misuse the MOOC format by using traditional teaching methods that end up falling flat. I debrief the two MOOCs from a course design perspective and share why they were sub par, uninspiring. I also describe two other MOOCs that provided exemplary learning experiences. The two pairs of MOOCs provide instructive examples of contrasting course design approaches.

This post follows “How to Make Bad Discussion Questions Better: Using a Case Study of an edX MOOC” the first MOOC of the mini-series “Saving Schools: History, Politics, and Policy in U.S. Education”. I used actual discussion questions from this MOOC’s forums as examples of how not to write questions to foster student discussion. I rewrote the questions, providing better and best formats that would be more likely to encourage meaningful dialogue.

The second edX MOOC, “Saving Schools: History, Politics and Policy in U.S. Education: Teacher Policy” wrapped up this week (December 4). Both MOOCs followed an identical course structure that included: recorded video lectures that relied on the interview format featuring one (sometimes two) faculty member(s), two assigned readings per week (from the same source), one discussion question each week, and a final exam. This format is typical of xMOOCs; one that tries to mimic the in-class experience.

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Click to enlarge. Screen shot of instructions for the final assignment, a digital artifact, in E-learning and Digital Cultures. At the end of this post my Digital Artifact created for the course assignment

Exemplary MOOCs
The other two MOOCs used a non-traditional design approach. They took advantage of what the MOOC format could offer by acknowledging its uniqueness and providing content from a variety of sources outside the MOOC platform. They also utilized a range of assessment methods, and included social media that encouraged interaction. Both MOOCs, Introduction to Sociology and E-learning and Digital Cultures (from Coursera), inspired and promoted thought. The learner was a viewed as a contributor, not a recipient.

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Introduction video of Professor Duneier introducing his course on Coursera (2012). Duneier pulled the course from Coursera after concerns over licensing his course for other institutions use.

E-learning and Digital Cultures featured YouTube videos not lecture videos to demonstrate course concepts, along with articles, mostly from academic journals. The learning experience closely resembled a cMOOC experience (the original MOOC format developed by Downes and Siemens)—one that leverages sources on the web, shares student blogs and views students as contributors. Introduction to Sociology featured two video formats; one featuring Professor Duneier, not lecturing, but sitting in an armchair (above) talking, sharing course-related experiences. He acknowledged learners (some by name) and encouraged student interactivity. The other was live (and recorded) using Google’s Hangout platform with eight students and Duneier leading a seminar discussion.

Course Design Shortcomings of the edX MOOCs
The purpose of the following discussion about the edX MOOCs is not to criticize the course designers or faculty, but to consider the MOOCs as learning opportunities. Doing so aligns with one of the goals of edX, to use the platform to advance teaching and learning.

Learning/instructional methods: The MOOCs relied upon mostly traditional methods of instruction—lectures, multiple choice assessments. Content was instructor-centered, limited to lectures (featuring faculty member), textbook readings (from a book written by same faculty member), and articles from one source, Education Next, of which the same faculty member is editor-in-chief.

  • The edX MOOCs would benefit from inclusion of open resources, with links to outside sources showing various perspectives as well as social media platforms where students could engage live with content experts or static content. Also to share content sources, and/or their own content creations (blog posts, etc.)
  • Learning was confined to a virtually, walled classroom—inside the MOOC platform.
Target objectives
MOOCs that provide a focus and structure for students by including goals or focus questions, allow students to shape and customize their own learning accordingly

Course Objectives: There were no learning goals outlined for the MOOCs. There didn’t appear to be a focus for each week, or guiding questions to provide structure. Granted, learners should create their own learning objectives when working within a MOOC, though a stated focus or general goals for the course allows learners to establish and shape their own learning goals. E-learning and Digital Cultures provided an overview of the course which outlined the focus for each unit of study, and each week included focus questions to consider. 

Rigor: Course rigor was low. Disappointing given the institution behind the MOOC was Harvard. It’s worth noting at edX’s launch in 2012, the Provost of MIT at the time L. Rafael Reif emphasized the rigor and quality of courses on ex’s platform ”(edX courses need) not to be considered MIT Lite or Harvard Lite. It’s the same content” (MIT News).  Yet the discussion questions as outlined in my first post, the biased readings, lectures, the application activities for students did not add up to a rigorous learning experience that encouraged critical thinking. Several factors may have contributed. Suffice to say that the course design team would have benefited from someone with a high-level of expertise in effective course design principles, knowledge of learning theories and instructional methods.

Content: As mentioned the majority of the content was limited to the faculty member in the lectures, two or three chapters of a book authored by the same faculty member, and essays from the one source.

  • Biased resources did not contribute to learner’s considering multiple perspectives. Though in the second MOOC there was an effort by course facilitators to incorporate other perspectives in the discussion forums.
  • Lecture videos were long — typically 12 to 15 minutes. Research on MOOC videos suggest ideal length is 4 to 6 minutes (Guo, 2013).
  • Repetitive Content. Content from the readings were also included in the lecture, and frequently two interviews in the same lecture covered the same content.
  • Delivery methods of content were repetitive, uninspiring.
  • Content came across as telling, not interactive.

Application activities: There were few activities for learners to engage in except for discussion forums. Unfortunately the questions in the first MOOC did not encourage robust discussion, though they improved in the second course. There were two or three multiple choice questions after each video. Several questions could be considered common knowledge. I could have answered the majority of them without watching the videos.

Screen Shot 2014-09-30 at 2.20.48 PM
Screen shot of a forum discussion question from the MOOC “Saving Schools: History, Politics and Policy in U.S. Education”. A close-ended question, and one not likely to stimulate thoughtful discussion. In my previous post, “How to Make Bad Discussion Questions Better” I provide examples for more effective questions formats.

Conclusion
The pairs of MOOCs illustrate how varied approaches to MOOC course design significantly impacts engagement levels, perceptions and learning outcomes. The edX MOOCs examined here, typical of the majority of MOOCs, relied upon learning methods that failed to leverage the benefits of an open platform, failed to view as students as knowledge sources and contributors. Over time the MOOC format will no doubt settle into something quite different from what we’re experiencing now. A format that will find it’s purpose, engage learners and build bodies of knowledge that benefit all.

Further Reading: