Information Technology has great potential for education. As one college student says, “It allows for a plethora of knowledge to be shared, as well as content that is created by other users to reach a wider audience than would ordinary [SIC] be possible” (Taylor). In recent years, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have taken advantage of this in order to offer free courses over the Internet. Unlike most online college classes, these courses allow tens or even hundreds of thousands of students around the globe to widen their knowledge. MOOCs have much to offer students. The integration of MOOCs in college courses will lead to a better learning experience.
Recently, when I was introduced to the concept of MOOCs, I created an account on Udacity and edX – two of the leading providers of MOOC content. My eyes lit up as I found courses not only on introductory level subjects but also on more advanced topics such as artificial intelligence and cryptography. These courses are offered by top universities such as Harvard and MIT and conducted by world-renowned professors.
MOOCs generally follow the format of a series of video lectures interspersed with quizzes. They do not derive most of their appeal from the use of innovation. After all, they are not far different from the lectures we see in today’s classrooms. Rather, they are revolutionary in that they make education available in a way thus unprecedented. Free, quality education is being made available to all. According to one national poll, about half of the families in the United States cannot afford college (Allebrand). For them, MOOCs are a godsend. For graduates, MOOCs give the opportunity to become life-long learners. Even for college students, there is much to gain.
MOOCs cover a lot of subjects that are not fully offered in colleges. Money is a natural limitation, and colleges simply cannot afford to cover all the content that MOOCs do. Thanks to MOOCs, much of what we want to learn is just a mouse click away. I am currently an IT student at a small community college. My college offers several courses on programming, yet none on artificial intelligence, parallel programming and other interesting courses offered by MOOCs. While attending college, I can simultaneously take MOOCs to gain a more in-depth knowledge of the subjects I learn in class.
Technically, I can take MOOCs that cover the same topics that my college courses do. At this point, one may wonder why I should even bother going to college to begin with. I contend that while MOOCs have their advantages, so do colleges.
It is hard for MOOCs alone to give hands-on experience. EdX incorporates software that simulates amplifiers and electronic circuits, but building a circuit with a mouse is not the same as doing it with my own hands. Physical college classes provide students with the equipment needed for hands-on activities and are better able to guide students in carrying them out. For example, in one of our classes, we built computers, experimented with the classroom’s network configuration, and worked with a variety of computer hardware. We also troubleshot computers with errors that the instructor purposely introduced. Such practical experience could not have been obtained through a MOOC alone.
If physical college courses are superior in helping students gain physical experience and MOOCs are superior in providing a vast resource of knowledge, then it stands to reason that a combination of the two will result in something even better. Here is an example of what I mean. The college I attend, Kapiolani Community College, is locally known for its culinary program. Yet, this college does not have the resources to delve deeply into food science. MOOCs do, and in fact, Harvard is currently offering a MOOC that deals specifically with this subject. MOOCs can offer students the theoretical knowledge needed to improve cooking. By assigning MOOC content as homework, Kapiolani’s culinary courses could then replace in-class lectures with a greater emphasis on practical activities. Such a combination would allow colleges and MOOCs to specialize in what they do best and to give students the best of both worlds. Students will be able to develop both practical skills and extensive theoretical knowledge.
MOOCs have some limitations, and this is another reason why I favor the blended approach. Since MOOCs are massive by definition, instructors do not have the time to grade everyone’s work. This means that the task of assessments must be outsourced to either machines or peers. Computers are good at objective-based questions with fixed answers, but beyond that, they are prone to error. Recently, I started auditing a MOOC on computer science. This course assigns homework that involves writing code. The submitted code is then graded by a computer. In programming, there are many possible solutions to the same problem. The computer has to run the risk of either rejecting correct responses or accepting incorrect ones. In my case, the computer accepted numerous wrong answers as correct. A human instructor would not have done so. On top of that, they would have been able to explain why my answers were wrong – something the computer cannot do.
When the issue comes to grading art and poetry, computer-based assessment becomes entirely out of the question. Creativity cannot be graded objectively. The only recourse then is to call upon peers to grade each other. Herein lies another problem. Some form of quality control must be instituted for peer review to work. Otherwise, one student may write an excellent evaluation only to receive a shoddy one in return. EdX attempts to solve this problem by making students use a rubric. Each student is then asked to rate how well other students applied the rubric. This method creates a level of consistency. However the root problem remains. A rubric can handle relatively straight-forward areas like grammar and cohesiveness. But how does a rubric evaluate holistically or assess creativity? Any attempt to do so brings in the personal opinion of the grader, which immediately defenestrates consistency.
Once again, the combined system can be used to solve this problem. College instructors can adapt and assign MOOC content (lectures and objective-based questions) much in the same way they currently assign textbook readings and problem sets. They themselves can then grade subjective content and give personal feedback. I personally prefer this over the “Read your textbook and we’ll go over it again in class” approach. If I read the textbook and the instructor merely explains content that I already understand, then I gain very little by going to class. MOOCs both provide and explain information in the same step. Classes could thereby be turned into a “flipped classroom” where students use class time to actualize concepts learned through MOOCs.
One last reason why I prefer the blended approach is that a lot of self-discipline is needed to succeed in a MOOC. According to one study, the completion rate for MOOCs is less than 7 percent (Parr). One may argue that this can be attributed to the fact that since MOOCs are free and offer no credit, students have less incentive to complete them. Indeed, when San Jose University incorporated MOOCs for credit, the completion rate soared to 83 percent. However, the failure rates for these classes ranged from 56 to 76 percent, leading to these courses being suspended (Oremus). These classes were introductory-level and were not even on difficult subjects.
The results were much better in a blended model. In the very same university, one professor picked out MOOC lectures and practice problems, and assigned them as homework. He then used class time as hands-on problem-solving sessions. In his course, the passing rate was 90 percent. This is especially impressive as the traditionally-taught version of the class had a passing rate of only 55 percent (LaMartina). Hence, a hybrid approach does have tangible merits.
MOOCs enhance college education, and colleges in turn enhance MOOC performance. The primary audience for MOOCs may be those who cannot afford to pay for education, but that does not mean that college students do not benefit too. MOOCs have a lot of potential, and I look forward to seeing them integrated more and more into college curricula.
Allebrand, Cheryl. “Half of Families Can’t Afford College.” Bankrate. 17 Sep. 2007. Bankrate, Inc. 4 Nov. 2013. [http://www.bankrate.com/brm/news/Financial_Literacy/Sept07_college_poll_results_a1.asp?caret=60a].
LaMartina, David. “Blended MOOCs: The Best of Both Worlds?” Campus Technology. 21 Aug. 2013. 1105 Media Inc, Ed-Tech Group. 4 Nov. 2013. [http://campustechnology.com/Articles/2013/08/21/Blended-MOOCs-The-Best-of-Both-Worlds.aspx?Page=1].
Oremus, Will. “University Suspends Online Classes After More Than Half the Students Fail.” Slate. 19 July 2013. The Slate Group, LLC. 4 Nov. 2013. [http://www.slate.com/blogs/future_tense/2013/07/19/san_jose_state_suspends_udacity_online_classes_after_students_fail_final.html].
Parr, Chris. “Mooc Completion Rates ‘Below 7%’” Times Higher Education. 9 May 2013. TSL Education LTD. 4 Nov. 2013. [http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/news/mooc-completion-rates-below-7/2003710.article].
Taylor, Matthew. “How Information Technology Impacts My Life.” Online posting. 25 Oct. 2013. Laulima Discussion. 4 Nov. 2013.