What Are MOOCs Anyway and Should You Consider Moocing?

Jim ShimabukuroBy 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).

20 Responses

  1. Already many school systems have virtual schools. There are moodle and blackboard courses. Here is a request ” Massive Open Online Courses are taking off in higher ed (Coursera, Udacity, edX) and offering amazing learning opportunities for adults around the world. But what about MOOCs in K12? There is a global teacher shortage, and MOOCs can help fill the void. In the US, we need almost 250,000 new math and science teachers over the next decade. According to the UN, almost 2 million new teaching positions need to be filled globally to ensure universal access to a primary education by 2015. What if master K12 teachers started sharing their classes in an open online environment? Then less experienced teachers or adult mentors in the classrooms could use the materials to provide their students with challenging coursework that they otherwise might never be able to access.

    We’re in the beginning stages of finding teachers who want to share their coursework online, schools around the world that would like to use this content for their K12 students, and funders who want to support free, high-quality education for all. Our focus across all content areas will be on helping our students develop 21st century skills they need to prepare them for their futures: ”
    This is a solicitation for teacher pioneers,so you are on to something.

    Interestingly enough the tools and technology are still scares in remote, rural, urban and depressed economic areas.
    It will be interesting to see how the digital divide is overcome to do this on an international basis.

    • Bonnie, good point re potential benefits of MOOCs in K-12. When we think of them as free supplements or resources for blended learning, then we begin to realize that they’re like books, only much, much better. In cases where tech is scarce, classroom teachers could “broadcast” MOOC videos on a single computer screen to a group of students. However, MOOCs are still evolving, and their content and interactive features will increasingly accommodate personal mobile devices such as smartphones, which are less expensive and, thus, more accessible. Perhaps the new mantra could be “a smartphone for every K-12 student.”

  2. You and Larry Cuban are thinking in the same ways ..Here is his blog post.

  3. MOOCs are not the answer but are a piece of the answer. That’s my view and appears to be part of Jim’s view as well.

    The issue of managing peer review is significant and can be used effectively in courses requiring human evaluation once the system becomes fully functional. Other courses, such as math, don’t require this piece but do require more carefully created instruments than we find in typical courses (or more peer review).

    The comment that we already have the technology rings true as far as the basic or underlying technology is concerned. Technology has a broader meaning these days. It’s layers. The topmost layer for the rubric implementation envisioned must be created. We don’t have it as far as I know.

    I encountered the same issue in science education a dozen years ago and created that topmost layer. It took me and my partner a year just to decide what it should look like. These creations can be quite complex. We’ve now spent the intervening years refining and improving that technology. Unless you’ve created truly large and complex software (as I have many times), you cannot really appreciate the process. You’re beginning with a blank slate, a white board, an empty drawing pad.

    I see a different model for MOOCs that schools should pick up. The peer review might or might not be used in this model. I think of it as a “seminar” model. I recall those English literature and history classes in my college with only a dozen or so students in each with a professor teaching. (Sometimes, I was sitting with just two other students and the professor — no mandatory attendance.) I wish I could go back today and do these over because, at the time, I was too immature to understand fully what was going on. What wonderful learning I would have today.

    MOOCs, being free and having great lectures, are an opportunity for colleges around the world to offer MOOC-based courses. The professors would only have to meet with students once or twice a week to discuss the latest assigned MOOC lecture. Keep the number of students small so that a real seminar discussion can take place. The professor assigns written work or writes tests or whatever, and the college provides credit. Presumably, the cost of credit-hours would be less than with current models. Everybody wins.

    I’m sure that it’s not all quite this simple. I also think that any bumps to such a process can readily be smoothed out.

    I see the smaller colleges, the very ones whose future seems most in peril from MOOCs, as being the greatest beneficiaries of such a plan.

    Ultimately, the MOOC model must be changed because no one really enjoys watching hour-long lectures week after week on some subject or other unless it’s their passion. I’d break up the lectures into 20-minute or smaller segments. I’d include plenty of illustrations, animations, and videos. Ideally, I’d also add on some nice interactive online work for maybe five or ten minutes afterward. Ad-hoc online discussion groups should help some students fully understand the material. Then, the seminars bring it all together under the supervision of a real expert of whom students can ask questions that may even be discussed among the seminar attendees with the professor moderating.

    BTW, the seminars could even be synchronous remote activities. However, I really liked the heavy dark oak tables around which we sat in substantial leather chairs on a floor of earthen tiles and walls that were wainscoted in beautifully finished wood. A computer isn’t the same and certainly doesn’t deliver the aromas of such a room. I felt that I was absorbing knowledge just by sitting there.

    • Harry, what I have in mind re improving the peer feedback process via software engineering (as opposed to manual teacher processing) is actually quite simple. Here’s how it might play out: An instructor sets up a simple quiz to test understanding of a rubric for evaluating classmates’ projects or performances. The quiz immediately pops up when a student completes the reading. The quiz is automatically scored and rated, and the results are added to his/her reviews of classmates’ works. In this way, instructors could quickly set up new rubric quizzes for different peer feedback activities, and students have a way to determine the value of the comments they receive from classmates. Furthermore, students can use their quiz scores to gauge their understanding of rubrics.

      The types of teacher-centric interactions that you mention aren’t ruled out when MOOCs are used as supplements in blended instructional models.

      • H. Libergot once showed us at an IITF meeting a bunch of content and how people with different learning styles could make their way through the data and content. Steps in learning were measured in a game type interaction and you got your grading as you worked.
        Then it became a business and I could not afford to continue to attend the meetings.

        • In a meta-programing structure, data can seamlessly flow between “layers” (Harry’s term). As I said earlier, this concept and its supporting tech aren’t new. Adapted for virtual learning environments, it can strengthen the peer review process that is so vital to online courses where enrollment figures are so high that instructor-student interactions are limited.

      • I know some programs with extensions and standards that would fit some of
        these ideas.
        This is a post from 2004 or so..
        Kinetic City,The Jason Project, Some Earthwatch Projects. Virtual Digs, Start Something and Math Counts, as well as
        Xpeditions. There are many resources available.
        John Sculley and I entertained the idea of museums as schools. I have taught
        at the Smithsonian doing theme based teaching.

        I know from workshops with Harrison LIbergot, and from an instructor at
        Maastricht that there is a whole new vision of education that can be created in
        metadata and that students can step through the process of learning using many
        ways of learning, to achieve the same goals, with testing as a part of the path.
        We know that SRI, and Other groups do this in training for employees.

        We also know that New Zealand and Australia have tremendously scattered populations with programs in place..

        We who have the vision of technology are developing ideas ..

        In the meantime we forget that there are the people who are just having time
        reading as was portrayed in the tale of two schools on PBS.

        While I see that as a story, one of many, it seems that there are those who
        forget that the reasons many are behind is of other origins, there are parents
        who have never been to school, there are children who do not speak the
        languages, there are those who have had no enrichment , but we go on talking
        about ..
        the other limits, the bleeding edge. Mind you , I am working with new
        technologies that employ visualization and modeling, such as Shodor.org, and the
        projects in http://www.eot.org.

        I don’t see anything about the depth of knowledge that teachers and helpers
        need and how we will
        teachers are involved in knowledgenetworks. One of those networks was
        http://www.cilt.org, and others are clustered around various subject areas. But the
        picture of those places with nothing or little technology, the Indian
        reservations some of them, the rural areas as in Mississippi as shown, I have
        and talked to these kinds of communities. The technology is not there unless we
        are talking pencils and paper as tools . How can we get rid of that problem
        to achieve newer ways of educating.

        Calendars year round?

        Learning Centers?

        But who will be responsible for the legalities, the discipline, the
        medications, the food delivery.. School in some ways is a glorified sitting
        What happens if whe get rid of schools as we see them now. Does that create a
        more uneven playing field and an ever starker digital divide. I know many think
        there is no such thing, but did you see ONE computer in any of those schools
        on television? Nope because they were NOT there.

        I am just seeking ideational scaffollding for the infrastructure too? Is it
        ubiquitous computing that we use to bridge this gap? You have excited me with
        ideas, but I work in countries where only the elite get educated and the rest
        are conveniently forgotten.

        There are schools where if the teacher put the book down there would be
        trouble because of the lack of depth in subject matter fields , we know this.

        But I don’t know the answers. I am a victim of understanding technology as
        media and using it …loving it. I am not sure that it translates well if there
        are only a few practioners using it.
        Are the children of economic apartheid to be made “Invisible by design and
        excluted by technology?”

        • As Dewey says, an innovation that doesn’t make learning easier or better is counter productive. MOOC-related technology holds the promise of universal, free or low-cost access to eveyone, not just the privileged. It can’t solve all the problems of poverty and educational neglect, but it can address some of the shortcomings of current practices. In my mind, this is a step forward — a step toward quality education for all.

          • I agree , just trying to think how schools will or communities will do this . In New Zealand I work with Wendy Pye. The reading and literacy programs are on line and have been for years in a country where sheep stations get delivered the school programs. They also deliver school to expatriate and embassy populations.

            I think you are on to something.

            In Fairfax Virginia one can attend high school virtually. The virtual programs sometimes need a little polishing. I don’t know whether it was BYOD or if the school provides the technology.

  4. […] By Jim Shimabukuro Editor 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 co…  […]

  5. […] By Jim Shimabukuro Editor 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.  […]

  6. […] Technology has a broader meaning these days. It's layers. The topmost layer for the rubric implementation envisioned must be created. We don't have it as far as I know. I encountered the same issue in science education a …  […]

  7. […] By Jim Shimabukuro Editor 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.  […]

  8. […] What Are MOOCs Anyway and Should You Consider Moocing? (etcjournal.com) […]

  9. […] “What Are MOOCs Anyway and Should You Consider Moocing?“ […]

  10. […] company. He thinks its time to “stop buying stuff” and move to a digital space. He sees MOOC’s as the opportunity to let students and teachers build the process of their learning. He sees great […]

  11. […] What Are MOOCs Anyway and Should You Consider Moocing? […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: