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/

 

An Essential Read for Online Education Decision Makers: “Leading the e-Learning Transformation of Higher Education”

9781579227968_cf200
By Gary Miller, Meg Benke , Bruce Chaloux, Lawrence C. Ragan, Raymond Schroeder, Wayne Smutz & Karen Swan

“Leading the e-Learning Transformation of Higher Education” published in 2014 by Stylus Publishing in association with The Online Learning Consortium (formerly Sloan Consortium) is the first book in a planned series about distance education.

Overview The book is current and relevant; “Leading the e-Learning Transformation of Higher Education: Meeting the Challenges of Technology and Distance Education” is an invaluable if not essential resource for leaders and decision makers in online education, though anyone involved with the development or implementation of an online learning strategy for a higher education or K-12 institution will find it an excellent resource. The themes are familiar—e-learning effectiveness and quality, support for faculty success, student success and retention, and the impact of online learning programs has on an institution’s traditional programs. What sets this book apart and makes it exceptionally valuable is the diversity of perspectives from the authors—seven leaders in distance education representing five higher education institutions and the Online Learning Consortium.

The book aims to guide and support leaders as they make decisions about online learning including how to overcome barriers and implement change. The purpose of the text is to provide readers with new perspectives on online program implementation and skill development for approaching education transformation proactively. 

Each author brings experience and a perspective to the topic of online learning that gives readers insight into a variety of models and organizational structures for setting up their own online education programs. Organizational structure and culture, influence on traditional institutions are discussed at length, as are standards of quality for online education including the framework for the Five Pillars of quality online education.

Highlights The book is divided into sections categorized by three principal themes: Part One: “Leading Change: Making the Match Between Leadership and Institutional Culture”, Part Two: “Ensuring Operational Excellence” and Part Three: “Sustaining Innovation”. Each features three or four chapters dedicated to a topic that addresses current and real challenges institutions face as they seek to adapt and transform within the constraints of institutional culture, policies and administrative issues. Each offers instructive insights and practical alternatives for consideration. Below I’ve included highlights of one chapter from each section.

In Part One, Chapter Two:The Impact of Organizational Contextoutlines in detail five very different programs of online education in higher education institutions. The five examined: 1) The Pennsylvania University World Campus, 2) University of Illinois at Springfield, 3) Empire State College, 4) Rio Salado College and 5) the American Public University System.  The leaders’ views are examined within each of the programs’ institutions on the leadership challenges, culture shifts, attitudes of faculty and impact of business models. The leaders’ responses in comparison with each other is instructive and enlightening.

In Part Two, Chapter Six: “Supporting Faculty Success” suggests that the skills and competencies required by faculty are contextualized to the culture, practices and administrative structure of the online initiative of the institution. I agree with the authors— culture and administrative structure pose a significant barrier in many instances. There is gap between what is needed and what most institution  provide in the way of support and skill development for faculty and instructors teaching online. This issue, the chapter emphasizes, is central to effective online education delivered by an institution.

The challenge for the institutions is to understand and address the needs of the online instructor and create appropriate programs and support services and policies that help develop the competencies necessary for online teaching success (p. 109)

In Part Three, Chapter Ten: “Policy Leadership in e-learning” discusses the multiple challenges e-learning growth has had on policy at the federal, state and institutional level. Policy remains a barrier and threat to the growth and success of e-learning the authors’ state, and they outline five policy issues that pose real barriers to online education now, that have emerged within the past ten years. The five identified and discussed are: 1) tuition, 2) transfer credit, 3) state and campus budgeting and allocation, 4) federal and state financial aid, and 5) student support services.

Closing No doubt, one can see the value this book holds for leaders of e-learning education.  What’s also helpful to the reader is the organization of the book, which makes it  unnecessary to read it from beginning to end; readers can choose to read chapters of interest and relevance. Though I suggest that all chapters are relevant to anyone involved in online education programming.

Resources: