By Jim Shimabukuro
[Updated 10/27/13: see footnote 1.]
If we can get past the magic of “massive” and “free,” we begin to see Coursera/edX-type MOOCs for what they really are — online courses, no different from the ones your college or university is offering right now. Open up registration to anyone anywhere, don’t charge a fee, and you’re MOOCing.
The MOOCs that we’re now associating with Stanford, Harvard, and MIT are actually based on video lectures, and this alone should give us a hint as to why they’re being embraced by so many higher ed institutions. In a very real sense, it’s like having your cake and eating it, too. You can serve a theoretically infinite number of students with a single course featuring lectures by a single instructor. And the best part is, you don’t need to provide prohibitively costly infrastructure for the course. Digitize the lectures in video, store them somewhere, post links, and you’re good to go — as far as content goes.
Besides content, the basic foundation of any course is learning strategy, or a process (“instruction”) that’s designed to help students achieve course objectives. For MOOCs, traditional classroom approaches become less effective as the teacher-to-student ratio (1:X) climbs in disproportion. Simply put, when X reaches a certain point, methodology must change.
The change of least resistance is peer facilitation. Nothing new, really. Teachers, especially in writing, have been using peer feeedback strategies for decades. Results are mixed, as can be expected, depending on any number of variations in instructional quality. Still, when done right, students can learn to provide effective feedback on their classmates’ performance. The key is in the rubrics.
In courses with enrollments so massive that a teacher is unable to monitor student mastery (understanding and application) of rubrics, relatively “simple” technical innovations are needed to ensure quality peer feedback. I say “simple” because we already have the technology to automatically gather, integrate, and report data from and across a wide range of different online activities. For example, students can be quizzed on their understanding of rubrics, and the result could be used in different contexts, e.g., to rate their comments on the quality of their classmates’ work1. With this rating, authors would be able to determine how much weight to assign reviews received from classmates. A low rating would mean the critic doesn’t have a clue about the requirements for a particular assignment.
To further strengthen this process, students could also rate the reviews they receive from peers. A high rating here would mean that the information was helpful in improving their work. The rubric mastery and peer ratings, in turn, could be automatically fed back to students, thus providing formative evaluations on their reviewing performance.
The point is that this hypothetical peer review system would not require direct monitoring by the instructor. It could all be done behind the scenes, automatically. Hopefully, the result would be an improved peer-review process. I haven’t heard of a MOOC platform that uses a similar approach to generate quality peer feedback, but that doesn’t mean it’s not being done. If it is, I’d be interested in hearing about it.
A similar application of technology could be used to ensure quality discussions in forums, the heart of any online course. The key, again, is rubrics. All discussions ought to be guided by rubrics, or criteria for judging the value of students’ posts. Mastery of these rubrics could be worked into the feedback loop. Also, a simple scale allowing students to quickly rate the quality of their classmates’ posts could be built into all threads. One that’s widely used is a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. These ratings, too, could be looped. Together, this data could provide students with formative evaluations on their own posts and a standard for weighing classmates’ posts.
Quality of peer reviews and discussion posts are the two most critical obstacles to the acceptance of MOOCs, but the good news is that we already have the technology and know-how to overcome them. All we need is the will. History tells us that when need reaches a certain threshold, will will follow. And I believe we have reached or are fast approaching that point.
Any effort that we devote to improving MOOCs will pay dividends for online courses in general. Even in classes where the teacher-to-student ratio is 1:20, automated quality checks for peer reviews and discussion comments would be a godsend. In the online learning environment, almost unlimited data on student performance is both a blessing and a curse. Currently, teachers have to manually mine what they need, and this process is so labor intensive that they’re barely scraping the surface of all that’s mineable as well as usable.
As we respond to the needs of MOOCs, we invariably strengthen pedagogy for all online courses. There may come a time when all or nearly all online courses could be easily converted to MOOCs by simply eliminating enrollment ceilings and dispensing with fees and admissions policies.
Certification or the awarding of credits for MOOCs has been an issue, but I believe we’re well on our way to addressing it. One of the more popular business models seems to be the sliding pricetag, that is, pay only if you want credit, and pay more for certain types of credit. The additional cost usually translates to the need for course instructors or their representatives to assess students’ course eportfolios and performance reports.
Perhaps the greatest asset of MOOCs is their content. Unbundled from the course, MOOC video lectures could be incorporated into standard online and blended courses in colleges everywhere, replacing or supplementing textbooks. In this role, MOOC-generated videos enter the realm of publishing as multimedia learning resources, expanding the MOOC business model.
A final issue, at least for me, is the current 80-90% dropout or noncompletion rate for MOOCs. I don’t see this as a problem. It allows students to test and try, to taste, to see if a course suits them. The rate is acceptable especially when the numbers approach or exceed 500. In time, students will become comfortable with the online learning environment with an emphasis on peer facilitated learning, and the dropout rate may, as a consequence, decrease dramatically. Also, the dropout rate may be an indirect indication of the rigor of a course, ensuring that those who remain (and are active) are serious about learning.
When we ask whether we ought to move to MOOCs, we’re really asking if we want to grow our online course offerings. This is an important question because it blows the roof over our campuses. We’re inviting the world in, and we’re waiving our traditional admissions and certification policies as well as fees and our traditional classroom- and instructor-based pedagogies.
If we’re asking, then we’ve already considered some of the possible advantages, and at the top are increased enrollment, lower infrastructure costs, and institutional survival in the 21st century.
Should you consider moocing one or more of your courses? The answer is yes if you’re willing to jump in with your eyes wide open. The technologies for making them work are still evolving, and until they’re in place, don’t expect outcomes that are any different from the ones that are currently being reported.
1 This idea of signaling a reviewer’s reputation was mentioned by Jen Ross in “MOOCs, Peer Marking and Reputation – A Placeholder Post” (jennrossity, 4/9/13).
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