By Niall Watts
I have recently completed Stanford University’s Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), ‘Designing a New Learning Environment’. As an educational technologist, I try to keep abreast of developments in the ever‑changing world of technology. I had been reading a lot about the transformative potential of MOOCs and was keen to try one out for myself. I am always sceptical about claims of ‘reinventing education’, ‘the end of universities as we know them’ or ‘the biggest innovation to happen in education for 200 years’. I chose ‘Designing a New Learning Environment’, as it seemed like an interesting topic – one of which I already had considerable experience but where there is always something new to learn. Stanford’s reputation was also a factor.
A ten-week course where I should spend 1-3 hours per week on course activities seemed a manageable commitment. For the first five weeks, I completed individual assignments. The second half of the course was devoted to an ambitious team assignment where teams took up the challenge of designing a new learning environment.
Teams – the Good, the Bad & the Ugly
I took my time before joining a team, as I did not have a project of my own. I wanted a team with a broad mix of participants where I could contribute. I was also expecting my progress in the course to lead me towards a team or topic. This did not happen. Finally, while browsing through the list of teams, I chose the Engagineers, a team of eight interested, as their name suggests, in engagement. They had started a thoughtful discussion in their team journal. Fortunately, this proved to be a very good choice, as once the team got going, we worked well together. None of the team knew each other beforehand, but we still managed to form an effective working relationship. We used familiar tools such as Skype and email as effective and reliable means of communication.
According to the ‘Designing a New Learning Environment’ syllabus, “This course seeks to be an incubator for great ideas”. Its focus on a final project had the potential to do just that. In a very short time period, the Engagineers designed an innovative project on crisis management through gaming, teamwork and social media. Our project was ‘Black Taurus – a Social Media Crisis Simulation’ based on a product launch of an energy drink, which went wrong. The team worked because of the commitment of its members. My own contribution was modest mainly due to time pressures. From my point of view our project and my participation in the MOOC was a success. There were many other interesting projects in ‘Designing a New Learning Environment’, but many teams failed to gel and produce anything.
It is difficult for a group to agree on a project and then to agree on the roles and responsibilities needed to carry it out, especially in a very short time period. It is even more difficult when the members do not know each other. Guidelines on team development and project management could help struggling teams. Perhaps the course team could develop these for future iterations of the MOOC.
Role of Course Team
This course team had to manage large numbers of participants. As far as I could tell, they had three main roles: producing weekly video lectures, providing a grading rubric and monitoring issues in the forums. The lecture videos covered topics such as needs analysis, sustainability and access and featured some of Dr Paul Kim’s, the course leader, projects in developing countries. Some of the issues in the forum related to difficulties with the course infrastructure, which could have been more intuitive. The team seemed supportive of suggestions for improvement made by the participants and were quick to deal with an incident of harassment.
According to the participant profile, about 18,000 registered. Of these, about 10% were from the USA, 3% from India, 1% each from Canada, UK, Australia, Pakistan and Brazil with the rest from many other countries. My own country, Ireland, had 46 participants, which is a high per capita participation rate. Only about 10% of the registered participants seemed to be active. This low level of participation is not surprising, as registration is easy and free, but the work is real and time-consuming. As it was an open course, there were no entry requirements. To me this is a potential weakness as you may have ‘peers’ with vastly different levels of knowledge and experience. This affects their ability to contribute and more importantly to evaluate.
Looking at the occupations given by the participants, about 14% were in education, 4% in IT or Technology and the rest in a variety of occupations. Most seem to be adult learners who may be more self-directed than younger students.
Peer Learning in a cMOOC
Peer learning and peer evaluation were central to the MOOC. I would describe ‘Designing a New Learning Environment’ as a cMOOC where the participants learnt from each other by commenting on and evaluating each other’s contributions. This only works where everyone is willing and able to give useful feedback. I only got one such comment. Personally, I did not mind, but this could have been disappointing for participants who hoped to learn from the earlier parts of the course
The course team gave us a rubric for scoring and evaluating the assignments. All course participants could see our evaluations. This can work well when the evaluator has teaching experience but can be a daunting experience for participants who are not accustomed to this responsibility and may not see it as part of their role as students. More support for trainee evaluators would probably be beneficial.
As there was no certification, plagiarism or cheating of any kind was pointless. The task itself had to motivate the participants. Voting or badges may provide a measure of extrinsic motivation. In ‘Designing a New Learning Environment’, participants were encouraged to vote on each other’s contributions and on the final project. While I think this is positive when a participant helps others in a forum, I am dubious about its value for assignments. What does it mean when someone votes for an assignment? Different participants can have completely different criteria. Some teams actively sought votes. If voting is to continue, the course team should develop guidelines.
Not the End of Universities – but Something New
I cannot see a MOOC like ‘Designing a New Learning Environment‘ replacing a university course. In some cases MOOCs are used to attract students, for example, the Mongolian student prodigy who did so well in the MOOC was encouraged to apply for a place in MIT in Carole Cadwalladr’s article in The Guardian “Do online courses spell the end for the traditional university? “ previously featured in ETCJ.
Nor do I see such a MOOC as a ‘taster’ for Stanford. The MOOC is a completely different experience, a bit like a virtual learning environment open to the world. Such a MOOC is a valuable tool for those whose primary motive is to learn, to experiment with new ideas and to network with like-minded individuals around the world. It may be particularly useful for people in developing countries and those with little access to formal education.
The Philosophy – an Incubator for Great Ideas
This MOOC was heavily dependent on both the ability and motivation of peers. Of course, as it is voluntary only motivated people will participate. The most beneficial aspect for me was the group project, which leads to the concept of MOOCs acting as an incubator for original ideas. In some cases, these ideas may have commercial potential. cMOOCs like this could be useful as a form of continuing professional development (CPD). It is good to see that ‘Designing a New Learning Environment’ will remain open after the end of the course.
The role(s) and direction(s) of MOOCs is still very much a matter of experiment even in Stanford University. Participants are providing the data for research, which Stanford can use to build a better MOOC. This may explain why ‘Designing a New Learning Environment’ is free. Perhaps improvements will lead to its commercialisation.
It will be interesting to see how MOOCs develop – and to participate in that development. I have just joined another MOOC run by the Open University (UK) on a similar theme entitled Learning Design for a 21st Century Curriculum. It will be interesting to compare the two.
Niall Watts, Educational Technology Officer, Media Services, UCD IT Services, University College Dublin. Blogsite. Disclaimer: The views expressed here are my own personal views and not those of my employer.
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