SPOCs Are MOOC Game Changers

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro

They’re billed as SPOCs, or small private online courses, and they’re being led by Harvard and UC-Berkeley. According to Rob Lue1, Harvard’s edX director, “We’re already in a post-Mooc era,”2 and SPOCs are the next generation. Considering the specs on SPOCs, however, SOOC3 — for selective open online course — may be a better fit for what appears to be a strong candidate for nextgen status. The problem with the moniker is that SPOCs aren’t always private.

Rob Lue, director of HarvardX.

Rob Lue, Harvard’s edX director.

For example, on the one hand, one of the two new HarvardX SPOCs this fall is GSD1.1x: The Architectural Imaginary. It is closed and private, and available “only to incoming Design School students.” However, it “may be opened up to the broader public at a later date.” On the other hand, HarvardX’s first SPOC, HLS1x: Copyright, in spring 2013, was open and selective: “Law School professor William W. Fisher, III, and his teaching staff chose from 4,100 applicants worldwide to form the 500-student online class.”4

SPOCs are MOOCs with fixed enrollments.5 However, beyond this general characteristic, there are two distinct types: private and selective. The former are, for all practical purposes, indistinguishable from traditional online courses. The real innovation is in the latter — selective. Anyone can apply, but acceptance is selective to limit enrollment. Thus, SOOC is probably a better fit for the Harvard-Berkeley nextgen MOOC.

SOOC numbers are smaller, but they’re still potentially massive in comparison to traditional onground courses. Coughlan describes them as “still free and delivered through the internet, but access is restricted to much smaller numbers, tens or hundreds, rather than tens of thousands.”

The selection factor in SOOCs is a game changer. Selectivity addresses three critical problems that have plagued MOOCs from day one: low levels of active participation, low retention rates, and variable student backgrounds. By limiting enrollment to selected students, SOOCs have the potential to become serious and effective online learning platforms that retain the MOOC’s magic of massive, open, and online.

As the ratio between staff and student numbers diverge, interaction remains an issue and reliance shifts to peer-to-peer support for feedback and guidance. However, when those with insufficient background knowledge, skills, and motivation are factored out, peer support systems may have a strong potential for success. Thus, selectivity may be the second generation answer to the MOOC’s current woes.

SOOCs open up a whole new dimension of possibilities for MOOCs. For example, a variation on selecting students up front may be to allow students to self-select in via performance in the first few weeks of a course. In other words, all students are accepted in the beginning, but only those who participate actively and at a given level — determined by staff or peers using rubrics — will be retained. This would amount to a two-stage enrollment process that’s initially open but becomes progressively selective in the first phase of the course.

Regardless of what they’re called — SPOCs, SOOCs, or something else — incorporating selectivity into the MOOC design is brilliant.
1 “Robert Lue . . . Director Life Sciences Education and Professor of the Practice in the Molecular and Cellular Biology (MCB) department, directs Harvard’s edX – dubbed HarvardX” (Cathryn Delude, “edX, Transforming the Future of Education,” MCB, 11/29/12).

2 Sean Coughlan, “Harvard Plans to Boldly Go with ‘Spocs’,” BBC News, 9/24/13.

3 The acronym SOOC has been used by others, e.g., Heather M. Ross in “Instead of a MOOC, How About a SOOC?” (Educatus, 10/29/12) and Michael K. Clifford in “SOOC Challenges MOOC Muddle” (DreamDegree, 7/2/13). For Ross, it stood for small open online course; for Clifford, strategic open online courses.

4 Madeline R. Conway, “HarvardX’s New Fall Offerings to Include Two SPOCs,” Harvard Crimson, 6/21/13.

5 Dev A. Patel, “Law School Debuts First Online Course,” Harvard Crimson, 1/31/13.