By Jim Shimabukuro
Harry Keller raises some hot issues in his comment on “Attrition in MOOCs: Is It a Problem or an Advantage?” The good news is that most are attributable to course design, which exposes a critical difference between traditional and blended courses, on the one hand, and online courses and MOOCs, on the other. In contrast to a series of teacher-led onground classes, an online course is more like a pattern of codes in a complex software program.
As such, it shares a trait common to all programs, and that’s bugs. In other words, it’s a perpetual work in progress. It’s never completely free of bugs. In fact, you don’t know what the bugs are until users expose them or bring them up. To make matters even worse, some of the bugs are intermittent, lying dormant for weeks or months and suddenly popping up when least expected.
This is where debugging in the form of creativity and problem solving enters the picture. In short, setting up an online course is just the beginning of a long-term commitment to debugging and improving the “code” until the course does what it’s supposed to. It’s not a matter of a semester or two but years, and the process is open-ended, never ending.
This means that abandoning a MOOC or online course because it fails in the first go around is like expecting a software program to work perfectly the first time it’s used. It’s never going to happen.
A great online course is great because it’s always evolving even after many years. It never stops growing and changing. By the same token, a poorly designed course can only get better IF the debugging is effective. Thus, teachers, students, and administrators really need to be patient and give the process a chance to evolve.
The challenge is to withhold final judgments about a course that starts off poorly as long as the debugging process is making headway. It may take one or two years before it shows some promise, and even more time after that before it’s successful. For teachers, the experience of debugging a course, of identifying problems and experimenting with possible solutions, is priceless. They begin to realize that they can’t sit still, rely on others, and hope to succeed. They have to constantly learn new technology, improve proficiency in existing technology, and learn how to apply what they’re learning in creative and imaginative ways.
For online courses, including MOOCs, “teaching” translates to “programming.” A course is no longer a series of teacher-led lectures but a sequence of student-centered activities presented in a pattern that’s engaging or, as Dewey would put it, “educative.” It’s not a matter of recording and ordering lectures but of designing an array of activities that facilitates and enhances learning.
The problem is that few professors and teachers are trained or equipped to design effective online courses. As it stands, the only option is to learn by doing, through trial and error, but the upside is that, as teachers gain competence, their courses begin to improve.
Administrators need to factor this learning curve into the cost of developing online courses. Before they can see positive ROIs, they first need to experience and embrace growing pains.
The questions implied in Harry’s comment are: How to design activities to accommodate the widely divergent schedules of nontraditional students? How to design discussion forums to maximize opportunities for constructive peer feedback? How to design lessons to optimize learning?
These are problems to be solved, not permanent roadblocks. The question is, What will it take to solve them? There are really only two answers, and one is wrong because it’s not sustainable, not cost effective. This leaves us with only one answer.
The wrong answer is to hire a layer of course designers to do the problem-solving for teachers. This costs money, and the costs don’t go away after so many years since teachers remain ignorant and forever dependent.
The right answer is to give teachers time and resources to learn how to design their own online courses. And by “time” we’re talking years and not one or two semesters. But the payoff at the end is a corps of teachers that is proficient in designing, maintaining, and improving their own courses. This is a bootstrap model, and the initial costs translate to investments in sustainable future growth.