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:

Need-to-Know-News: An EdX MOOC as Propaganda? and Grant to ‘Accelerate’ Adoption of Personalized Learning in Higher Ed

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.

questionmark1. Is This EdX MOOC Propaganda?
An interesting development going on in the MOOC sector—whether a MOOC serves as propaganda. The MOOC in question is ‘Introduction to Mao Zedong Thought’ which some view as propaganda for the Chinese government.  Some MOOC students claim the course, delivered by professor Feng from Tsinghua University’s School of Marxism, is one-sided and glosses over events during Mao’s tenure. Significant events such as the Cultural Revolution Mao Zedong initiated. Even scholars are claiming it’s propaganda sponsored by the Chinese Government, as a professor of history from the United States Naval Academy does. He says this:

“It’s propaganda” This course is “part of a larger campaign to export a way of Chinese governance ….China wants to be part of the world, but it doesn’t want to be part of a world where Western democracy and capitalism dominate” (Logue).

An alternative perspective comes from a medical student in Tianjin who is quoted as saying, “Sure, it may be a bit like propaganda, but it’s something that’s being taught in every school in China…More Chinese universities should offer these kinds of courses because it gives the world a window into China.” (Hernandez). EdX when questioned about the course claims not to interfere with content, as long as course content is not unlawful or offensive it will allow the content on its platform.

Insight:  When reading the course description of ‘Introduction to Mao Zedong Thought’, it’s described as giving “learners around the world a rare peek into a course that millions of university students in China are required to take each year”.  This statement is telling in itself; it states how history is presented to students in China, quite a different perspective from what is presented in the West. The MOOC provides an opportunity to view Mao Zedong rule through the lens of a Chinese student, and with the knowledge of other perspectives students will gain a deeper understanding into the political process and power structure within the country.  Though the MOOC doesn’t provide other perspectives (based on student feedback), I’ve taken MOOCs that have also presented a one-sided perspective of an issue. One comes to mind—an edX course I took last year, Saving Schools: History, Politics, and Policy in U.S. Education, which presented a single perspective on public education and the reform needed. Content was drawn primarily from one source, an  organization Education Next.  Content primarily consisted of opinion essays from the Education Next publication, an expert featured in the lecture videos who also happened to be the Editor-In-Chief of Education Next, as well as a text-book chapters from a book authored by this same Editor-In-Chief of Education Next.

Stephen Downes quoted in Inside Higher Ed says it the best “There’s no such thing as a neutral course,” he said. And now, “courses that might have been offered behind closed doors are offered for everyone to see.”  He’s right.

girl_thinking
Personalizing learning is the tailoring of pedagogy, curriculum and learning environments by learners or for learners in order to meet their different learning needs. Typically technology is used to facilitate personalized learning environments.

2. Next Trend coming to Higher Ed Institutions ‘Personalizing Learning’
There’s been much written about personalized learning in education sector—it’s the latest trend in education and it’s making its way into higher education. The idea behind personalized education is customizing learning experiences by using academic data analytics, and moving from a one-size-fits-all approach to education to adapting learning experiences, curriculum or instructional approaches to individual students. Personalized learning appears most prevalent in K-12 and online education, but now universities have funding opportunities to expand initiatives into personalizing learning using adaptive courseware. This week the Association of Public & Land-Grant Universities (APLU) announced a grant available for six universities designed to help institutions ‘scale their adaptive courseware effectively’ —to improve education and help students learn (Wexler). In a nutshell adaptive courseware, is software that uses algorithms based on data generated by students to scaffold instruction.

Adaptive courseware can be used in distance education, but the university association is focused on blended learning. Faculty members will learn to use new online tools but will continue working with students in a traditional classroom setting. The group wants universities to focus their efforts in lower-level, high-enrollment courses, or in courses with high failure and withdrawal rates.

Insight: It appears ALPU’s focus is getting universities to implement adaptive courseware, and not on personalizing learning. There also seems a great emphasis on haste evidenced by the language used by ALPU—for instance in the two-page Grant Overview paper titled “Accelerating Adopting of Adaptive Courseware at Public Universties“, and in the second paragraph, “to speed post-secondary educators toward effective use of high-quality adaptive courseware.  The last statement does not lend itself to the process of a conducting a thorough needs-analysis or approaching personalized learning thoughtfully and strategically. Also of note, one of ALPU’s partners in the Personalized Learning Consortium is Acrobatiq, a provider of courseware solutions.

Need-to-Know-News: Harvard & MIT Evaluate MOOCs, ‘Lean Forward’ the New approach to Online Collaboration & Why LinkedIn Buying Lynda.com is Good for Higher Ed

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.

MP9004055001)  Harvard and MIT Evaluate MOOCs’ Impact
Harvard and MIT recently released a report evaluating the impact of their MOOCs offered on edX’s platform (Ho et al., 2015). The report uses data over a two-year period across 69 MOOCs and includes analysis on participation levels, student demographics, profile of certificate seekers, completion rates and more. It’s a worthwhile read for educators involved in planning or the delivery of xMOOCs. Three key takeaways:

1.  Participation* across eleven MOOCs offered for a second time declined by 43% from the first to second version. Of five courses offered for a third time, participation numbers remained essentially the same.  The one exception was for the Introduction to Computer Science MOOC, which doubled in size from the first to second version.

*Participation determined by number of enrolled students that accessed MOOC content at least once.

2. Computer Science MOOCs attracted four times as many participants as courses in three other categories. The four categories: 1) Computer Science, 2) Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, 3) Humanities, History, Religion, Design, and Education, and 4) Government, and Health and Social Sciences.

3. Demographics of participants are consistent with earlier reports of MOOC participants: educated with at least a bachelor’s degree, male, and in their late twenties to mid-thirties. The paper reported revealed a slight shift however in demographics:

“Year-over-year demographic shifts have been slight but indicate a direction toward courses with older, more educated, more US-based, and more female representation”

Insight:  As more data is compiled and shared about MOOCs, institutions will (hopefully) be able to make more prudent decisions about MOOC investments.  Investments in Massive, open online courses are significant, yet often the purpose for, or even the expected outcomes are not determined beforehand. With reports such as this one MOOC, (again—hopefully) decision-makers can make more informed decisions about MOOCs.

2)  Online Collaboration – New Methods including ‘Lean Forward’
The article “What Harvard Business School Has Learned About Online Collaboration” featured in Inside Higher Ed  this week presents innovative methods for online group collaboration, one in particular called ‘lean forward’.  Articles that focus on  pedagogical methods in online course design are scant, which is why this article tucked away within Inside Higher Ed’s blog column section is noteworthy.

It describes unique and novel methods for delivering learning experiences for students in Harvard’s three-course certificate program, Credential of Readiness (CORe). CORe is not a MOOC, but an online certificate offered for $1800 that is geared to undergraduate or graduate students with a non-business background. It’s described as “a primer on the fundamentals of business. It is designed to introduce you (students) to the language of business” (HBX CORe).

The article outlines how courses were designed to change the passive learning approach, typical of MOOCs and some online courses where learners are consumers of content, to an active approach that organizers label ‘lean forward’.  Lean forward means that students will not spend more than three to five minutes on the course site before being required to interact with content or peers.  Some of the methods use to foster learning forward include:

  • Student profiles and introductions were the focus of the first week—not course content. The course site which typically features content at the start, instead focuses on students by featuring their profile pictures and bios. At the beginning of the course students are required to upload a personal picture and create their profile before they can view any course content (quite brilliant!).
  • Collaboration needs a trigger – course organizers used grade incentives to get students started, requiring a “basic level” of participation. After that, momentum of the process itself, students interacting and collaborating, took over.
  • Desired behaviors for online collaboration and interaction where shaped at the beginning of the program. Course leaders actively encouraged desired behaviors, discouraged others, and clarified standards for online conversation. We encouraged participants to disagree with others — but to do it with respect.

Insight: HBX’s approach is worth considering. The innovative methods used for creating interaction and focusing on students and not content, is exactly what online learning needs. Though new approaches for online course design are in demand, there are few  public discussions about online education that focus on pedagogy.  We need more of this—sharing of different approaches that can improve online learning experiences for students. The article is a must-read for anyone involved in course design for MOOCs, open online courses, or for-credit, online education programs.

3)  Linked-In Buys Lynda.com – What it Means for Higher Ed
LinkedIn offered in to buy Lynda.com for $1.5 billion. Lynda.com is a subscription, video-based training platform that offers online training courses for a variety of technical subjects e.g. computer programming, photography, business skills video filming, editing and more. I view Lynda.com as a polished, searchable and sophisticated You Tube-type platform without advertising (bundled into convenient courses) for a fee.

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Screenshot of Lynda.com website

Insight:  Though The Chronicle of Higher Education suggests that the transaction may affect higher ed in some way as per the headline How LinkedIn’s Latest Move May Matter to Colleges (the article is a behind a pay wall), it won’t, at least not in a competitive context. Lynda.com satisfies a need for just-in-time training, training to learn how to do something—now.  Not only does the platform offer excellent training for programs such as Excel or Photoshop, but it also offers skills-training ideal for new graduates, for example Creating an Effective Resume, Insights from a College Career Coach, or Job Hunting Online.  With LinkedIn’s recent moves to attract college students to its platform, this development will only enhance and support higher education institutions by providing their college graduates and students with tools that will make them more marketable and employable—a win-win for everyone.

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.

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:

Need-to-Know-News: edX’s T-Shirt Giveaway & MOOCs Identity Crisis

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) EdX’s Free T-Shirt Campaign
As a student of edX I frequently receive edX newsletters via email announcing upcoming courses, recently added courses, new university partners, etc. Yet there’s been a subtle shift in tone lately; the last few have emphasized courses with a price tag attached: verified certificate courses* ($), two or more courses within a subject area—xSeries courses ($$), and professional education courses ($$$) .  With edX’s most recent newsletter (screenshot below) there is a not-so-subtle promotional angle:

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Screen shot of heading of newsletter emailed to edX students on November 11
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* Screenshot of options given to students upon signing up for the verified certificate track in a course on edX.  This pick-a-price option for pursing the verified certificate is a change implemented within the last few weeks.

Insight: Offering free (branded) t-shirt is a marketing tactic companies typically use to encourage sales, increase brand awareness, customer loyalty, etc. Which makes one wonder—what’s going on over at edX that free t-shirt tactics are deemed necessary? Note: Despite the offer of a t-shirt in the newsletter, determining how to get the t-shirt is impossible—there’s no mention of a the t-shirt when clicking on the newsletter, registering for a course, or on edX’s site.

2) MOOCs Identity Crisis
I thought the media’s preoccupation with MOOCs was over. If using the number of articles in the media about MOOCs as an indicator—it’s not. Over the past few weeks there’s been several articles in mainstream media about MOOCs—in The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and The New Yorker. The title of the New Yorker’s piece is amusing “Will MOOCs be Flukes” but the article demonstrates how the term MOOC now includes courses that aren’t necessarily free, or open or even massive.

MOOCs are flexible and they can (emphasis added) be free” (Konnikova, 2014)

Which is consistent with what’s happening in the MOOC marketplace. xMOOCs on platforms such as edX, Coursera, etc. look quite different today than they did in 2012.

Insight: According to a recent article in EDUCAUSE Review, MOOCs are here to stay—the MOOC “experiment is not over; in fact, it has just begun” (Mazoue, 2014). Fair enough. MOOCs have been a catalyst for challenging the traditional view of education. But it’s time for institutions to change terminology and describe courses appropriately. And as Tony Bates describes in a recent blog post, institutions need adjust strategies and approaches to online and open learning in general.

Chauhan describes the increasing variation of instructional methods now associated with the generic term ‘MOOC’, to the point where one has to ask whether the term has any consistent meaning. It’s difficult to see how a SPOC for instance differs from a typical online credit course…The only common factor in these variations is that the course is being offered to some non-registered students, but then if they have to pay a $500 fee, surely that’s a registered student? If a course is neither massive, nor open, nor free, how can it be a MOOC? Tony Bates, A review of MOOCs and their assessment tools

How to Make Bad Discussion Questions Better for an Online Course: Case Study Using an edX MOOC

I’m enrolled as a student in the MOOC Saving Schools Mini-Course 1: History and Politics of U.S. Education on the edX platform and share in this post discussion questions used for assignment purposes from the course to illustrate what NOT to do when it comes to writing discussion questions. I use these for illustration purposes to help readers who teach online to further improve their own courses.  I share three questions from the MOOC, describe why they don’t work and include revised questions in better and best categories. I’ve incorporated guidelines from “Best Practices for Designing and Assessing Online Discussion Questions”, a webinar hosted by the Online Learning Consortium along with my experience.  In a later post I’ll review the entire course from an instructional design viewpoint, highlighting what worked and didn’t. 

First we examine (briefly) why discussions can be an effective method for learning, and second explore how to write better and best questions by looking at examples of not-so-good questions.

Discussion Questions – Two Layers of Pedagogy
It’s not uncommon for educators to believe that discussion forums are used primarily as a method to encourage student interaction. This is only partly true. There are two layers of pedagogy to the discussion method.

First layer:  Good discussion questions prompt students to evaluate course content, reflect, construct knowledge and articulate understanding through a written response. Scenarios or case studies are also effective where students are required to develop and provide a written solution demonstrating application of course concepts. Student responses are (typically) crafted individually then shared in a forum. This method encourages student to construct meaning and build knowledge by engaging with course materials, reflecting then applying concepts through written explanation.

Second layer:  Dialogue is more meaningful when students have a solid grasp of the concepts accomplished in the first layer.  Students continue to evaluate course concepts, construct knowledge, but also develop alternative perspectives, even critical thinking by engaging in discourse with classmates.  Students are exposed to others’ perspectives in this phase, ask questions, defend their own positions, evaluate alternative positions, challenge others’ positions, construct new knowledge and further develop communication skills. This is the ideal scenario. In reality what’s described will not always happen, but different levels of learning will occur depending upon the student’s motivation, confidence and trust level.

Guidelines for Developing Discussion Questions:
Discussion questions should closely align with course concepts and objectives. Below are guidelines to consider with developing questions for an online forum.

  • Frame the question as open-ended. Begin questions with how, what or why
  • Create questions that will elicit more than one answer or solution
  • Ask students to provide support for their response with examples/references, e.g. personal experience, course materials or outside sources.
  • Create questions that encourage students to voice their opinion, perspective or personal experience
  • Make specific reference to theories, diagrams, authors, and/or page numbers
  • Use words such as ‘describe’ or ‘explain’ to elicit deeper responses.
  • Review and consider the course/module objectives —ask  ‘does this discussion question support the course/module objective or focus?’ Students dislike busy work— discussion questions without a focus and purpose lead to shallow responses

Consider the above guidelines as you read the discussion questions below from the MOOC on edX. I realize that this is not perfect as the questions are out of context given you don’t have full access to the course. However the aim is to provide readers with ideas and tips for online discussion forums. Blue text highlights content from the MOOC. Following I explain why the question is ineffective—bad.  The rewritten questions follow the blue text in better and best categories.

Question One: The Challenge

Read “U.S. Students from Educated Families Lag in International Tests” by Eric A. Hanushek, Paul E. Peterson, and Ludger Woessmann from the Fall 2014 issue of EducationNext: “U.S. Students from Educated Families Lag in International Tests”

Based on the results of this study and the lecture video, are you surprised to discover that the United States has two large gaps in its education — the gap within the country and the gap internationally?

Why it’s a Bad Question: The question is closed, “are you surprised?” •  It encourages no further dialogue or application/exploration of course content • Research suggests majority of MOOC students hold at least an undergraduate degree, this question would not be a surprise to MOOC students and could suggest to MOOC learners the course is shallow, superficial

Better:  “Consider the International PISA results presented in the article and discussed in the lecture video. Identify two or more reasons using course content and/or outside sources that could account for the United States performance. Explain.”

Best:  “1) Describe the impact of PISA scores on education policy in the United States. Identify one education policy designed to raise student performance. Describe the intended outcome(s). 2) Do you agree with the policy, why or why not?”   Note: The course materials would need to provide background information, including primary sources. The questions could be more focused by providing a time range for policy, or even identifying a list of policies.

Question Two: School Boards

Read Lost at Sea by Lisa Graham Keegan and Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Steering a True Course by Sarah C. Glover, both from the Summer 2004 issue of Education Next: Lost at Sea   and  Steering a True Course.  Based on these readings and the lecture videos for this week,  discuss what you feel the role of the local school board should be in the 21st century.

Why it’s a Bad Question: Using the word ‘feel’ in questions does not encourage students to approach questions from an analytical perspective • The readings and videos in this module show only one (biased) perspective • Models a narrow point-of-view

Better:  “1) After reviewing the primary role of the school board as outlined in the materials (examples below) determine the role the school board has in the district where you reside. If there is not a school board in your district consider one from this list [provide list of 4 or more]. 2)  From your research do you think the school board is effective?  Why or why not.”

Best:  “1) After reading about the role of the school board as outlined and the other materials, and considering the poor performance of several districts within the United States as outlined in______,  do you think school boards should have a role in school districts?  Explain. 2)  What do you consider as a viable solution(s) to districts’ poor performance? Share any resources that may be of interest to other students.”

Question Three: The Progressive Movement

Read “Romancing the Child” by E.D. Hirsch, Jr. from the 2001 issue of Education Next:  “Romancing the Child”.

Based on the lecture videos, do you feel Progressive political reforms have gone too far or do they still have an important place in 21st century education? Based on the required readings (both the above article and the this week’s chapter from Saving Schools), do you feel Progressive philosophy should still play a role in 21st century education?

Why it’s a Bad Question: Questions are closed • First question is leading — “Do you think reforms have gone too far“… (it’s better not to include options) •  There is little content or resources that describes the principles of progressive education or its characteristics thus (some) students won’t have the background to respond adequately  • The content is biased and suggests that progressive reform is ‘bad’ • The essay is overtly critical of the progressive education movement, which is fine if there were resources provided to portray additional perspectives

I would eliminate this question altogether. The question lacks purpose and focus.

Alternative question:  What are examples of education reforms put forth by John Dewey in the progressive era that are evident in policy of US public schools today? Discuss.  2) Are these policies still applicable to learners’ needs? Why or why not?”

 Further Resources: