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/

 

How ‘Good’ is Your Online Course? Five Steps to Assess Course Quality

The view that online education is “just as good as” face-to-face instruction was not widely held in 2003: 42.8% of chief academic officers reported that they considered the learning outcomes for online instruction to be inferior to face-to-face instruction. The view of online quality has improved over time. However results for 2013 revealed a partial retreat in faculty perceptions of online learning providing quality learning experiences. The 2014 results indicate that the retreat continues—there’s an increase in faculty that perceive online education as inferior. — Grade Level: Tracking Online Education in the United States, 2015

quality-controlOne of the main criticisms of online courses is they are of poor quality as revealed in the annual Babson study mentioned in the opening. Positive perception of online learning by faculty has declined in 2013 and 2014 (Allen & Seaman, 2015). Face-to-face courses appear to be the hallmark for quality when it comes to higher education. Yet this doesn’t seem fitting considering the ongoing and often heated public dialogue about the quality of higher education programs with little consensus on what quality is. In this blog post I suggest that online educators can and should tackle the quality issue in their own courses, and that they do so by assessing their course holistically. A holistic approach encompasses elements such as students’ perspectives, results over a period of time, artifacts created during learning, and the instructor’s course experience.

I also review recent research on quality assessment specific to online courses. I also examine existing frameworks and rubrics for online course assessment and explain why, even if an institution follows such standards, these are starting points. I outline five-steps that instructors can follow to assess whether a course is ‘good’—an assessment for quality that considers foundational elements, student perspectives, course artifacts, student and instructor learning experiences.

What is Course Quality?
Up until a few years ago ‘quality’ in higher education was measured by a course’s content, pedagogy and learning outcomes (Bremer, 2012). This approach has changed to a process-oriented system where a combination of activities contributing to the education experience are considered. Activities that include: student needs, use of data and information for decision-making, department contributions, as well as improved learning outcomes (Thair, Garnett, & King, 2006). This holistic approach of evaluating education experiences is often applied to the development and assessment of online learning. For example, Online Learning Consortium’s Five Pillars of Quality Online Education (below) and Quality Matters (QM) rubric.

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“Five Pillars of Quality Online Education, the building blocks which provide the support for successful online learning”.  http://www.onlinelearningconsortium.org

Why Assessing Quality is Difficult in Online Education
Yet there are challenges associated with setting universal quality standards for online education, and though a starting point, a thorough quality assessment requires ongoing consideration of numerous elements, some that occur over a period of time.  Key challenges with assessing quality through set standards are outlined in ‘What is online course quality‘ and include: 1) the lack of authoritative body (able and willing) to address minimum level of standards across all states with their accrediting bodies, 2) the challenge of creating a comprehensive, evaluative tool to address complexities of online courses, and 3) the implementation process itself given the significant resources that would be required to implement an institution-wide evaluation process (Thompson, n.d.).

Limitations of Quality Assessments
There are other limitations. Some assessments are inherently limiting with a prescriptive set of standards that may not fit all contexts.  Another is the tendency to establish a minimum level of quality, ‘baseline standards’ which limits innovation and creativity (Misut & Pribilova, 2015).  Most course assessments are done at a point-in-time and are unable to capture dimensions over the life of a course and post-course; dimensions that include student perceptions collected as formative feedback (mid-way through course) and end-of-course feedback surveys. Furthermore, quality assessments frequently focus on course/instructional design and fail to include learning experiences of the instructor and students.

What’s involved In a Good Course Assessment?
A holistic assessment goes beyond course design; it acknowledges the nuances that make a course unique, including input and contributions from students, developments in the field of study, and current events. Most valuable are students perceptions of their learning and of the course experience. A good course assessment considers the course over a period of time, and considers interactions between instructor and students, students and students, all of which create artifacts that can be studied and analyzed (Thompson, 2005).  Artifacts might include, emails or forum posts of student questions,  dialogue within forums, feedback from group interaction, end-of-course student surveys, LMS reports on student interaction patterns, student assignment results, and more.  Course artifacts give valuable clues to a course’s quality, more so when collected from two or more course iterations and analyzed collectively.

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Figure from paper describing the Online Course Criticism model based on the concept of educational criticism which suggests a holistic review of a course to assess quality (Thompson, 2005)

Other elements to consider:

  Student behaviours including questions asked in forums, emails, interactive patterns within LMS, interaction with resources, participation patterns within discussion forums,  social platforms designated to course, etc.   Student perceptions evaluated through questionnaires, formative course feedback, post-course questionnaires, one-on-one interactions  ♦  Knowledge creation/transfer by students evaluated through assignment analysis, course artifacts, post-course surveys  ♦  Course design as per rubric/assessment tool    Use of current technology tools and platforms    Course data and artifacts from two or more sessions analyzed and compared  ♦  Quantity and type of interaction between students and instructor

Five-Steps to Assessing Online Course Quality

1) Asses Using a Rubric or Other Tool to Consider Basic Course Elements
Assess course using the tool or framework employed by your institution e.g. Quality Matters rubric. If your institution does not have a tool in place I recommend the rubric created by California State University Chico which covers six domains. The rubric (embedded below) is free to use and download under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.

* Thanks to a reader’s comment – there is an updated version of the Chico rubric which is a checklist format with additional dimensions. It is similar to the Quality Matters rubric. I prefer the version embedded here — its more approachable given it’s less lengthy and rigid. Link here to the updated version.

2) Analyze Course from a Student Perspective
This is perhaps the most difficult yet useful element for improving course quality. There are a variety of ways to consider students’ perspectives, several already mentioned. Other recommendations—take an online course as a student (e.g. a MOOC) in a topic you aren’t familiar with. This provides an eye-opening view of how it feels to be an online student. Another method is to ask a colleague from another department to review your course and provide constructive feedback.

3) Assess Course Artifacts, Materials, & Feedback
Another useful exercise is analyzing course artifacts. Analyzing results from student feedback via a questionnaire midway through course is helpful. If a course is offered more than once, compare data from course iterations collectively.  Consider, is student feedback incorporated into subsequent course re-runs? What about student-generated content? All artifacts and materials associated with a course are valuable material for assessing a course’s quality.

4) Consider Level and Type of Student-to-Student and Student-to-Instructor Interactions
Interaction is critical to an online course; students that feel connected, establish themselves as individuals within an online course are likely to have higher levels of motivation and learning satisfaction over those that don’t. Consider the forums, the interactive assignments where students can participate, the social exchanges within course-associated platforms, and other places for interaction. An example of assignments that encourage student feedback and involvement, leading to high levels of engagement can be found on this online instructor’s (Laura Gibbs) course site here. Also consider the Community of Inquiry model for the types of interactions in an online course that lead to positive learning experiences.

5)  Results: Are Students Learning?
Evidence of learning  is the most important assessment dimension, yet nearly impossible for a standardized quality assessment tool to evaluate.  One could argue that before and after quizzes within a course can evaluate learning. I suggest that the instructor is able to assess at a deeper level whether or not learning occurred, can determine the level of critical thinking. This can be done only when assignments demand that students demonstrate what they know and are required to apply course concepts.  Assignments that draw out students thinking by demonstration either through dialogue or written work allow the instructor evaluate learning effectively. There’s no formula for this fifth step, this is an example of customized course evaluation. But I suggest instructors evaluate student artifacts from one course to another and to consider what students learned and how well  they articulated what they learned. There may be opportunity for revising assignments, activities or other course dimensions.

Conclusion
Assessing quality in online courses is complex as we’ve seen here, yet addressing quality is critical to advance the positive perception of online education for one, but more importantly to provide learning and teaching experiences that are rewarding, rich and meaningful. Quality assessment can start one course at a time, and who better to do this than the course instructor?

References/Resources*