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

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.


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.

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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.

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:

Need-to-Know-News: edX goes Corporate, Wired Magazine/USC Partner to Create Degree & More on Competency 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.

1) edX Goes Corporate
Udacity the for-profit MOOC provider did an about-face a few months ago, shifting its focus from the higher education market to vocational education, partnering with big tech companies. Coursera too is reaching out to companies looking for ways to generate a revenue stream. Now edX is going the corporate route. Most disappointing given its not-for-profit premise, which differed significantly from the others—”(edX is) committed to research that will allow us to understand how students learn, how technology can transform learning, and the ways teachers teach on campus and beyond“.  This past Wednesday, October 1, edX announced the launch of professional education classes on topics including energy, entrepreneurship and cybersecurity, priced at up to $1,249 a person, with volume discounts available for some employers (Korn).

Why? According to CEO of edX, Anant Agarwal, “This goes to our sustainability story. Though edX is a nonprofit enterprise, it still needs cash to develop the free courses taken by nearly three million participants world-wide”. 

When considering the statement above in conjunction with one that Agarwal made in another interview, one with Wired magazine last month, “…effective uses of the MOOC model are only beginning to take shape. Enrollment in edX courses has doubled over last year, and he (Agarwal) believes we’re on the verge of an era he calls MOOC 2.0. “We’ve been growing as others are throwing in the towel” (Lapowsky), one wonders if he meant MOOC 2.0 as the corporate-MOOC—the not-for-free version of MOOCs.

Insight: MOOC providers do not (and never did) have a sustainable financial model to offer free courses indefinitely. It sounds noble—offering free education to learners worldwide. But somebody has to pay eventually. Development costs run into the thousands (paid for by the university-partners), operating costs considerable. MOOCs are not ‘free’. We all pay for free education in different ways; now it’s running dry and the only way to go it appears is to go corporate.

post_wired_logo_150x602)  Wired Magazine and USC Team-Up to offer “Real World Degree”
Another twist this week on an education partnership—University of Southern California (USC) announced its partnership with Condé Nast and Wired Magazine (Condé Nast is the parent company) to offer a degree program. And, as a journalist at Wired puts it “it’s a real credential, not just a certificate with the WIRED logo stamped” (Wohlsen). This is perhaps the most odd combination for an education partnership I’ve read about to date. There’s other businesses involved too, Qubed Education, which is joint venture between higher-ed investment firm University Ventures and Condé Nast, and an online degree consultancy company Synergis Education.

Taking the best from USC and WIRED, we can teach discipline and disruption, business fundamentals and the very latest innovation models from Silicon Valley. This is going to be thrilling

Insight: Businesses and now education institutions are capitalizing on an underserved market in the education sector, which is the adult learner that works full-time with some or little higher education. Yet the implications for traditional higher education are many— higher education institutions (and students) become a testing ground for business experiments and models, it draws funds away from higher education institutions, and the practice could be viewed by some, as undermining the integrity of higher education.

3) (Another) Course Management Platform geared to Competency-Based Education 
A couple of weeks ago I shared a story about a new course management provider, Helix Education. The system is different from your traditional LMS, it’s created to deliver a single platform to serve competency-based education programs (CBE), on-campus, online, or continuing education formats (Helix).  This week, another LMS launch by Motvis Learning. It’s also a  platform focused on CBE, though it’s referred to as a ‘relationship management system‘ rather than a LMS.

For students, the system looks more like a social network than a learning management system. When they log in, students are greeted by an activity feed, showing them a tabbed view of their current projects, goals and feedback. A column on the right side of the screen lists connections and to-dos, and a bar along the top tracks progress toward mastering competencies. (Straumsheim)

Insight: Competency based education has more potential for disruption to the higher education model than MOOCs ever will.

4) Multi-Language MOOC on Ed-Tech starts October

The 27th of October we will launch the third edition of the Learning Design Studio for ICT-based Learning Activities MOOC. The course will last 5 weeks and a group of facilitators will support you in the task of designing your own learning activities and lessons. The course will be offered in six languages: English, Spanish, Catalan, Greek, Slovenian and French.”

For more information:


Need-to-Know-News: BBC gets into MOOCs, Global MOOC Report for $2,500 & Competency Education gets Boost

MP900405500This ‘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.

1) BBC gets involved with MOOCs
Four universities in the United Kingdom are partnering with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) to include never seen before film footage from World War One via its archives. Times Higher Education reports that FutureLearn will host the four MOOCs. The venture with BBC promoted as a creative approach, will be different from the traditional lecture format typical of the majority of xMOOCs:

“FutureLearn chief executive, Simon Nelson, said that many Moocs had been “rightly criticised as just being a repackaging and redistribution of the traditional lecture format, and that some universities were using the internet to “pump out videos”, rather than using their courses to tell a story. He said he hoped that working with the BBC would help institutions to be more creative.” 

Insight: This venture is a great opportunity for institutions to demonstrate they can reach non-traditional xMOOC students (traditional MOOC students: holding an undergraduate degree or higher), and engage learners not familiar with online learning or self-directed education. Not to mention introducing a novel method for delivering content. The four MOOCs launch soon—in October so we won’t have to wait long to see the response.

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Image from “BBC helps produce First World World Moocs” by Chris Parr

2) Report on MOOCs for $2,500
It’s not only Udacity and Coursera that are starting to make money from xMOOCs. It seems that there’s even demand for research reports about MOOCs—$2,500 a pop, or $10,000 for enterprise wide access. The report, published by Research and Markets, The World’s Largest Market Research Store described as follows:

“The report, the Global Massive Open Online Courses Market 2014-2018, has been prepared based on an in-depth market analysis with inputs from industry experts. The report covers the Americas and the EMEA and APAC regions as well as the key leading countries in this market. It also provides in-depth overview of the revenue generation models adopted by the vendors in the market and discusses the key vendors operating in this market It also includes discussions of  “…the market segmentation based on student demographics and course preferences, as well as the market landscape and its growth prospects in the coming years.” 

Insight: xMOOCs are big business, though not necessarily for higher education institutions.

 3)  Competency Education Gets a Bigger Boost
There’s bi-partisan support for competency-based education in the United States, a bill passed this week by the senate will allow student aid to go towards thirty academic programs that are experimenting with a range of innovative higher education academic programs that lead to degrees, many including degree-tracks grounded in competency-based education. According to sources of Inside Higher Ed,  there are nearly 350 institutions that do offer, or plan to offer a competency-based degree track (Fain, 2014).

Representative John Kline of Minnesota, the Republican who chairs the House education committee, called the legislation a “good first step” to figuring out what works and doesn’t work for competency-based education.Inside Higher Ed

The programs fall under the Experimental Sites Initiative (ESI), funded by the Department of Education. The program is still accepting applications.

Insight: The idea of experimentation with students pursuing higher education makes me uneasy. If such programs enroll students at risk for not completing a two or four-year degree, I would hope that the programs do not further jeopardize the students’ chances of success.  I think back to the Udacity and San Jose University experience with MOOCs, where one of the pilot programs was a MOOC format for remedial math.

“Another factor in the disappointing outcomes may have been the students themselves. The courses included at-risk students, high school students and San Jose State students who had already failed a remedial math course.” Inside Higher Ed

Failure rates were higher in the MOOC experiment than in the face-to-face class.  What about those students?  Granted new programs have to be piloted in some way, I would hope however, that there is a plan in place to address any negative outcomes students may experience as a result of the experimental programs.

You can keep up to date with developments in education and related sectors by following me on Twitter, @OnlineLearningI 

Three (BIG) Barriers to Student Participation in xMOOCs

This post outlines three barriers that can deter, discourage and/or intimidate students from participating in xMOOCs (MOOCs offered on platforms associated with higher education institutions, i.e. Coursera, iVersity, edX, etc).


“Construction Barriers”  Photo by Lyn Topinka

The xMOOC model that emerged in 2012 has not changed much in 2014, with completion rates and participation rates just as low as they were when concrete data on completion rates appeared in 2013 (Parr, 2013). Though there are a variety of factors that contribute to low completion rates, I suggest that three barriers, 1) technology, 2) poor usability & course design, and 3) anonymity contribute significantly to low student participation levels and completion—barriers that deter, discourage and in some cases intimidate students. Also, in some instances, barriers one and two are potential barriers in closed, online classes (as those offered as for-credit courses at public and private institutions).

To illustrate points one, technology and two, poor usability and course design, below is a selection of screenshots featuring actual student comments and questions (names obscured) taken from several MOOCs offered on Coursera. Comments below are representative of typical experiences and frustrations of students participating in MOOCs. In some instances, the examples included are similar to frustrations students experience in closed online courses, which I’ve encountered when working with faculty in online course design, and as a lead curriculum developer for online programs at a private university. I close by discussing the third barrier, anonymity in online learning, specifically in MOOCs.

1) Technology 
Examples below feature student challenges with accessing course content and engaging in events due to bandwidth and internet access limitations.

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File size is a common problem in MOOCs and small courses

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Connectivity issues are common due to bandwidth, and even limitations of the devices used

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Restricted access to certain sites in some countries

Examples below feature students’ frustrations with applications (discussion forums, etc) within the MOOC platform itself which put up barriers to student participation and engagement, for example, i) discussion forums (volume of student posts and organization), ii) synchronous events offered via Google Hangout or other platform which often fail due to technical glitches, or because of students’ lack of technical ability, etc.

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Discussion forums often become unwieldy; though more common in MOOCs it also happens in closed, small online courses

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Discussion forums in most MOOC platforms have options for ‘subscribing’, where participants receive alerts of new posts within that particular forum, though not all students are familiar with this settings and don’t know how to turn the notification emails off (or on). It’s helpful to provide participants with the instructions of how-to do so (among other features) in an orientation or introduction to the course

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The forums with large numbers of participants can be overwhelming to the point that there is little opportunity for reflection or deep discussions. In closed online classes it helps to have focused discussion questions per thread, and if more than 20 participants to break the class into smaller groups

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Google hangouts and other platforms used for synchronous events, are not immune to technological glitches. A practice run prior to the event helps (granted even still, problems occur),  and having a back-up plan is recommended

2) Poor Usability and Course Design
Usability refers to how effectively students can navigate, interact and engage with the course interface, find the content they need, determine what they need to do to engage, etc. How user-friendly the course is (or is not) is a function of how the course content and pages are organized, what is featured on the course home page for example, or where the course announcements show up, even how the course tabs appear in the navigation menu. Usability falls under the umbrella of course design; it is a component with its own principles and guidelines that impacts the students overall course experience and learning outcomes in online spaces. Usability adds another layer of complexity to designing learning experiences mostly due to the newness of online platforms as delivery mediums for education.

Course design is a broad and deep topic, which I can’t address at all adequately in this post, but below are some examples that are representative of issues that frustrate students, and can deter learning outcomes that have to do with how an assignment’s instructions are worded, presented to the student, or even designed in the first place.

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Instructions for student assignments or activities need to be written with exceptional clarity. This means expanding on details is necessary, including examples, and reinforcing instructions and expectations via course announcements or live sessions when the course is in session. Another issue is the use of  consistent terminology throughout the course.  In this above example ‘thread’ and ‘post’ were used interchangeably, when in fact they mean different things, thus confusing the students.

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Another example of student confusion when there is inconsistency or conflicting information in the course

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Frequently, it is student assignments that generate the most confusion among students in virtual formats, often due to unclear instructions, or those that require students to use technical applications (e.g. to create a digital artifact) that they are not familiar with

3) Anonymity
A view on participants posting anonymously within a MOOC from iVersity:

“MOOCs offer an environment that may engage introverts. Online anonymity can make students comfortable expressing themselves in forums…participating in course conversations online may give students confidence to contribute in traditional classrooms and work environments.” iVersity blog post on Anonymity

I disagree with iVersity’s position, and with Coursera and edX, which both allow anonymous posting within discussion forums. Anonymity does not contribute to effective online learning communities such as MOOCs; it’s counterintuitive to the premise of a learning within a community, where the idea is that learners actively engage, and learn with, and from each together. Several papers have identified the benefits of learning communities in distributed (online) learning environments (Dede, 2004), with some emphasizing the value of communities in MOOCs especially (Kop, Fournier & Mak, 2006). What is consistent in the research is the idea of trust and a set of common values or goals among learners.

The type of support structure that would engage learners in critical learning on an open network should be based on the creation of a place or community where people feel comfortable, trusted and valued, and where people can access and interact with resources and each other. (Kop, Fournier & Mak, 2006, p. 88)

Learning in a virtual community, where students go outside of their comfort zone, are challenged to consider alternative perspectives and build a personal learning network for example, requires a level of rapport, familiarity and trust between classmates and instructors. This sense of community can and does happen in small, closed learning environments, and in cMOOC learning communities, but experiencing a sense of community in xMOOCs is far more difficult to accomplish with many of variables making it so, anonymity is just one. With this learning approach (and others) assumed by MOOC platform providers, I see xMOOCs destined to be static resources posted on the web—open courseware such as MIT OCW.

Closing Thoughts
Learning in xMOOCs is far more complex than what the MOOC platforms seem to be able to address. Low completion rates are just one metric of how students’ views of MOOCs are at odds with what the expectations of the MOOC providers. The three barriers discussed here, technology, usability and anonymity are just one piece of a bigger problem that MOOC platform providers will need to address if they are interested in creating a communities of learning where students actively engage, contribute and learn.

Further reading:

How to Create a Video Strategy for MOOCs: Costs and Considerations

“Harvard has built what amounts to be an in-house production company to create massive open online courses, or MOOCs…[it] has two video studios, more than 30 employees, and many freelancers — an astonishing constellation of producers, editors, videographers, composers, animators, typographers, and even a performance coach to help professors get comfortable in front of a camera.The Boston Globe

Harvardx Studio Filming for MOOC

In the HarvardX video production studio, Harvard historian & museum curator being filmed for a MOOC.  Image credit: Katherine Taylor for The Boston Globe

I saw scores of dollar signs when I read about Harvard’s production studios created solely for the purpose of producing videos for MOOCs to put on the edX platform. The article featured in The Boston Globe about Harvard’s new studio, describes videos that share traits similar to documentaries rather than the typical lecture videos featuring a professor speaking to the camera, typical of xMOOCs. Here’s the catch though, the money spent on these production costs for MOOC videos, which is dear, may not always be worth the investment according to recent studies (Guo, Kim & Rubin, 2014), (Hollands & Tirthali, 2014).

For readers considering, or are in the process of developing a MOOC I’ve outlined guidelines that will help in the development of an instructional strategy for the delivery of the course content for xMOOCs (MOOC featured on a platform such as Coursera or Open2Study).  I’ve drawn from recent research on video production and student engagement specific to xMOOCs—one study out of MIT using data from edX, and the other a noteworthy report released this May “MOOCs: Expectations and Realities”.

Following are considerations and questions to guide the development and choice of the content delivery methods, including videos for MOOCs. Don’t be misled by the flashy [and expensive] studios that Harvard established, thinking that this is a requirement for putting on effective MOOCs. This high bar set by Harvard, may be unjustified, more so when analyzing why institutions choose to offer MOOCs, and how they fit into the vision, and long-term strategy. For the most part institutions’ reasons for offering MOOCs are vague, and few establish metrics to measure the effectiveness of MOOCs, including return on investment, as discussed in Hollands & Tirthali’s report:

“…Most institutions are not yet making any rigorous attempt to assess whether MOOCs are more or less effective than other strategies to achieve these goals.

The Numbers $$$
The two primary cost drivers of MOOC production are the hours invested by faculty members, administrators, instructional designers, technical support and the costs associated with the quality and type of delivery method for the course content. Videos, the typical mode for xMOOCs, can range between high and low production values. The estimated costs for high quality video production is $4,300 per hour of finished video (Hollands & Tirthali, p 11). High quality video production typically involves a team of at least five video experts each involved in one aspect of the process, including  filming, sound, lighting, editing and project management.

  • Development costs of MOOC vary significantly: as low as $38,980, Teacher’s College, Columbia University, to a range between $203,770 – $325,330, Large Midwestern University (Hollands & Tirthali, p 12)
  • Harvard’s costs as per the Boston article, $75,000 and $150,000, though depending upon the method for calculating, it’s difficult to compare to the study quoted above.

Chart showing student viewing time in minutes.

Guiding Questions and Considerations for Creating a Video Strategy

  • Consider goals for each module/week within the MOOC when planning for content delivery. What delivery method will communicate content to students effectively? Is there an opportunity for student-developed or student-curated [and shared] content sources?
  • Consider a variety of content delivery methods: video, open source content (video and other), interactive online resources, etc.
  • If using video, consider between formats, tutorial-style (illustrating a procedure, step-by-step, i.e. Khan Academy-style) and lecture.  Within each format there are variations influenced by filming technique [screen cast, podcast, filming on laptop, studio, etc], media choices, etc. Research shows students engage differently with each (Guo, Kim & Rubin).
  • Consider: the average engagement time of any MOOC lecture video maxes out at 6 minutes, some as few as 4. However, students engage with tutorials quite differently, often pausing, re-watching, fast-forwarding, etc. (Guo, Kim & Rubin).
  • Are there existing open and accessible content sources on the web that can illustrate a course concept [rather than filming from scratch]?
  • Call students to action to use and apply content from video, i.e. via a  discussion forum or upcoming assignment.
  • Finally, plan the strategy upfront where: 1) each content delivery mode (video, etc) is planned by module/week (content is outlined and scripted when necessary), 2) content within delivery mode links directly to goals of given week, and 3) there is a requirement for students to apply and use the content, for example in discussion forum, assignment or quiz.


Further Reading: