MOOCs: Not Just a Moose Call Anymore

The internet is awash, lately, with sites aimed at making university-level education available for free to anyone with an internet connection. Such sites have generated a lot of excitement this year.

Apparently these Massively Open Online Classes have been around for a while now in one form or another. Now that the Ivy League universities are taking an interest in the idea, however, so is everyone else. And by “everyone else”, I mean millions of people all over the world. Literally millions. Multiple MOOC platforms have risen to popularity this year, with Coursera alone having something like 1.4 million registered users last I read. Even assuming that many, like myself, have created accounts on all the MOOC platforms they can find, I find it hard to believe that fewer than 2 million people have at least dipped their feet into the pool.

This post is the first in a series about MOOCs and my experiences with them. This first entry is about MOOCs in general.

What is a MOOC?

Good question! Unfortunately, no one really has that answer.

A recently-released, academic article titled Making Sense of MOOCs commented that in the week it took to write the paper, the Wikipedia definition changed on a daily basis. The author [wisely] wasn’t relying on Wikipedia to provide a definition; instead the changes in the Wikipedia article were used to illustrate the fact that the definition of “Massively Open Online Course” is still a very malleable thing.

Things which seem to be consistent across the board (to me and at time of this writing) are:

  • The user’s only cost is an internet connection
    • Tuition is free
    • All required course materials delivered for free via the internet
  • Available all over the world
    • Except maybe in internet-censoring countries
  • High enrollment rates — in the thousands, tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands for each class
  • Low completion rates — averaging about 10%
    • Based on assignment completion; doesn’t take into account people who sign up only intending to watch/read course materials
  • Discussion forums in the style of Reddit or StackOverflow, with upvote/downvote options

MOOC Subcategories

After pointing out how rapidly the definition of MOOCs is changing, the author of Making Sense of MOOCs went on to talk about two MOOC subcategories, which the author called cMOOCs and xMOOCs.

xMOOCs are the kind which have exploded into popularity this year and the kind with which I currently have experience. They are an attempt to emulate the me-teach-you-absorb pedagogical methods seen in traditional schools. As such, video lectures form the core of xMOOC courses.

There seem to be two popular styles for these lectures. One style, popularized by Khan Academy, involves a disembodied hand writing out formulas and illustrations accompanied by a disembodied voice. It’s a pretty good way to do things, provided that subtitles/captions accompany the video. It’s easy to follow along with the professor’s logic.

The second style is a combination of PowerPoint slides and the video of the professor’s face. The most common way of combining the two involves going back and forth between them. Sometimes the professor will have a tablet and a way to mark up the slides as he or she goes along, but not always. One course I’ve taken so far had slides designed so that the professor’s face could be shown simultaneously in one corner or another almost all the time, as well as having the professor’s notations via tablet.

The lectures are supplemented by assignments, which due to the nature of a class with one teacher and tens of thousands of students cannot all be graded by the instructor. Many xMOOCs have only machine-graded assignments. The Coursera platform allows for peer-graded assignments, but student comments about its quality vary and it’s still under development. And all the assignments are plagued by potential cheating problems — when 50,000+ students do the same homework online, someone is going to talk about the assignment before it’s due and someone else will post the questions and someone else will cheat.

cMOOCs, as far as I can tell, are based around creativist (very different from creationist) educational methods. Creativism in education revolves around having students make something. The idea is that given a project requiring skills and knowledge they don’t have, they will have to learn things to complete the project. The things learned are immediately applied in context, helping cement the knowledge in the students’ heads. Emphasis is on problem solving rather than rote memorization of abstract concepts. If you try something and fail, then you try something else.

The internet is a prime resource for this type of learning. If you can’t solve a problem by yourself, chances are good the internet can help you find a written record of someone else’s attempt to solve a similar problem. If there’s no such written record, then you can turn to social media or to one of many question and answer web sites, which are growing in size and number as time goes on.

cMOOCs, then, are designed to take advantage of these things, placing responsibility for learning directly in the students’ hands and theoretically creating a more effective and rewarding experience.

Quality

In short: quality varies widely.

One of the problems of higher education in general is that class quality varies by professor. A university hires staff based on their academic abilities and what they can add to the research the university produces. They are also expected to teach classes, but that is not their primary job and — quite frankly — some professors just suck at teaching. Most of them are decent teachers, but when you get down to it, most of them are still academics with little to no pedagogical training.

In the MOOC arena, where there is no direct student-teacher interaction, any pedagogical lacks in the professor’s delivery become very obvious very quickly. Shortly after the lecture is posted, students take to the discussion forums going, “WTF?!” Even if professors want to adapt to student needs (and they generally do, it seems), lectures are often recorded well in advance and changes can’t easily be made right away, if at all. MOOCs are not as flexible as a traditional classroom.

I imagine that in a cMOOC, the social and self-driven nature encourages students to work together to figure things out. In an xMOOC, however, those students who are accustomed to the traditional classroom experience expect coherent instruction and guidance from the professor. Many of them have never been to college and get a shock at being expected to take learning into their own hands.

The best xMOOC instructors, or so it seems from my experience thus far, are the ones who take the limitations on student-teacher interaction into account and plan around those limitations as best they can ahead of time. These instructors also tend to encourage discussion on the forums by providing prompts in the lectures and/or assignments. They deliberately work social aspects into the course.

I can’t imagine planning for those limitations is an easy thing to do, but a couple of the instructors I’ve dealt with so far have done a magnificent job. One such professor is Keith Devlin, who’s been blogging about the experience of planning and running a MOOC for months now, even though the class is only about 3 weeks in. Even though his class is a math class, he hired TAs who are postgraduate majors in educational methods to help him figure out how best to run his class (and giving them direct access to all the data metrics as the class unfolds so they can incorporate studies on MOOCs into academic literature).

Accreditation and Certification

Having no experience with cMOOCs, I don’t really want to try to address certification in that arena. This section therefore focuses solely on xMOOCs.

The accreditation system for universities and colleges is in place to assure that classes and degree requirements meet certain standards. At present, xMOOCs do not meet those standards. Setting variance in course quality aside for a moment (since it’s something universities are used to dealing with anyway), there’s another easily measurable factor in accreditation: course completion rates.

xMOOC completion rates are pretty dismal if you only look at percentages. The estimated average completion rate is about 10%, with the lowest I’ve seen coming in at about 5%. The thing is, 10% of 60,000 is still 6,000 people; 5% of 155,000 is still 7,750. That’s more than even take a given traditional college course at one time. Even if a university runs ten sections of the same class at 200 students each in one semester, that’s only 2,000 students.

Furthermore, completion rates are determined solely by getting a certain grade on assignments with set due dates. But what about the people who enroll in an xMOOC with no intent to do any of the assignments, who just want access to the expert-guided course materials and follow those all the way to the end? They don’t factor into the traditional model of course completion and can’t count for accreditation under current standards, even if they learn as much as the students who do complete the assignments and get a satisfactory grade.

It seems there are quite a large number of these lurkers. And I can’t really blame them. At present, completing a course may or may not get you a certificate of completion, depending on the professor’s preference and what university he comes from (some universities allow their faculty to participate, but not to give out certificates). Even so, the certificate is an e-mailed PDF. Many people don’t consider that sufficiently motivating, in spite of the efforts of some xMOOC platforms to remain free by offering job placement/recruitment services.

And this is where I return to the issue of course quality. At this very experimental stage, no one is sure how good these online classes are, and so no one really wants to give them too much weight. Later, when some of the kinks have been worked out and success metrics are better understood, we’ll be able to asses how close to a real university education these classes get you. Until then, however, none of this is accredited. What it can do for you in the real world depends on who you talk to and how you present it.

Some Final Words

Many people want to hail MOOCs as the next evolution of education and pedagogy, but I’m a bit skeptical about that. MOOCs are still very much in development, with most of the professors involved (at least among the ones running classes I’ve taken) openly admitting that this is one big, exciting experiment to them. As it stands, MOOCs are nowhere near meeting accreditation standards.

Keith Devlin, mentioned above, has said that he “[sees] MOOCs as replacing textbooks.” I, for one, am inclined to agree with him, at least where xMOOCs are concerned. I’ve been learning well from these xMOOCs, but I’ve always been a good independent learner. At present, xMOOCs are a multi-media alternative to picking up a book and teaching yourself, with the added benefit of a ready-made community for collaboration and discussion.

That said, I’m enjoying my MOOCs so far. Given the price tag, the phenomenon is worth checking out if you have the time and a desire to learn more things.

In continuing to discuss MOOCs, I plan to write a couple more posts about xMOOCs in general before writing about my experiences with specific platforms. The next one will talk about accessibility, to the best of my abilities as a non-disabled person with no training in the area.

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