MOOCs and Traditional Online Courses Are on a Collision Path

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro
Editor

Updated 27 July 2015

In everyone’s bucket list, under the heading “Education,” is “Attend an elite college.” Until recently, however, this item has remained unchecked for the vast majority. According to Jonathan Wai, “Only about 2% to 5% of all US undergraduates went to … elite schools.”1

Thanks to MOOCs, the economic and scholastic barriers are going down. And thanks to Natalie Morin,2 students in the U.S. and the world over don’t have to look far for elite offerings. Among the 31 in her list are:

Harvard (“Science and Cooking; Tangible Things: Discovering History Through Artworks, Artifacts, Scientific Specimens; Poetry in America: The Civil War and Its Aftermath”); MIT (“Introduction to Computer Science and Programming; Circuits and Electronics; Molecular Biology; User Innovation: A Path to Entrepreneurship; Introductory Physics: Classical Mechanics”); Princeton (“Computer Architecture; Effective Altruism; Imagining Other Earths; Paradoxes of War; Reinventing the Piano; Bitcoin and Cryptocurrency Technology”);

Yale (“America’s Unwritten Constitution; Capital Punishment: Race, Poverty, & Disadvantage; Introduction to Classical Music; Moral Foundations of Politics”); Stanford (“Planning for a Sustainable Future with Wind, Water and the Sun; Behind and Beyond Big Data; Careers in Media Technology; Environmental Risk and Resilience; Online Certificate Program in Novel Writing; Adventures in Writing”); Columbia (“The Civil War and Reconstruction 1850-1861; The Civil War and Reconstruction 1861-1865; The Civil War and Reconstruction 1865-1890”); University of Pennsylvania (“An Introduction to Corporate Finance; The Global Business of Sports; Modern & Contemporary American Poetry; Introduction to Key Constitutional Concepts and Supreme Court Cases”);

University of Chicago (“Asset Pricing; Internet Giants; Global Warming; Understanding the Brain; Critical Issues in Urban Education”); Dartmouth (“Introduction to Italian Opera; Introduction to Environmental Science; The Engineering Structures Around Us”); Cornell (“The Ethics of Eating; American Capitalism: A History; The Computing Technology: Inside Your Smartphone; Introduction to Global Hospitality Management”);

Johns Hopkins (“Psychological First Aid; Confronting Gender Based Violence: Global Lessons with Case Studies from India; Major Depression in the Population: A Public Health Approach”); Northwestern (“Teaching the Violin and Viola: Creating a Healthy Foundation; Career 911: Your Future Job in Medicine and Healthcare; Understanding Media by Understanding Google”); Berkeley (“The Science of Happiness; Biology for Voters; Electronic Interfaces: Bridging the Physical and Digital Worlds”);

Wellesley (“Shakespeare: On the Page and in Performance; Introduction to Global Sociology; Was Alexander Great? The Life, Leadership and Legacies of History’s Greatest Warrior; Introduction to Human Evolution”); Georgetown (“The Divine Comedy: Dante’s Journey to Freedom; Globalization’s Winners and Losers: Challenges for Developed and Developing Countries; Terrorism and Counterterrorism”).

MOOCs are free and completely online, they’re open to everyone, and the registration process is simple. You’re free to plug in when and where you want for as long as you want, and if you decide to complete the course, you could earn a certificate. In some cases, a certificate requires a small fee.

Developers are beginning to design a second generation of MOOCs, or MOOC2, that can be taken for credit toward college degrees. For example, see “edX-ASU Global Freshman Academy: Will It Work?” As these evolve, the distinction between online courses locked into traditional structures and MOOCs will gradually disappear.

A key obstacle to the growth of MOOC2 has been pricing. MOOCs that cost as much as traditional onground courses are simply out of reach for nontraditional students who make up the bulk of participants. However, a recent trend toward drastically lowering the cost of traditional courses in completely online degree programs is underway at Texas Tech and other universities. A critical element in this business model is the removal of out-of-state tuition, the final barrier to the expansion of online programs.

MOOCs and traditional online courses are on a collision path, and the impact will change the face of higher education forever, obliterating the class and geographic barriers that have limited access to elite colleges. The promise of online, from the very beginning, has always been access, and here, in the middle of 2015, the promise is gaining traction.

Addendum 7/27/15: Read Ray Rose’s comment re learners with disabilities and the accessibility challenges they pose for MOOCs and online courses. Also see his Access and Equity for All Learners in Blended and Online Education, INACOL, Oct. 2014.

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1Frank Bruni Is Wrong About Ivy League Schools,” Quartz, 22 Mar. 2015.
231 Elite Colleges That Offer Free Online Learning,” Tucson.com, 23 July 2015.

MOOCs Experiencing an Identity Crisis

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro
Editor

The University of Hong Kong,1 following the popular flip trend, is taking tentative first steps toward incorporating MOOCs into their on-campus courses. (See my earlier article on blended MOOCs.) Like its counterparts in the U.S., HKU’s MOOCs are closed for their on-campus students but simultaneously open for outsiders. In other words, they remain tethered to traditional courses for F2F students and free for distant students.

Noteworthy is HKU’s discovery that MOOC forums, unlike online forums attached to onground classes, “are extremely lively.” One of the professors attributes this disparity to the comfort of anonymity and is looking into extending the anonymity option to on-campus students.

Another explanation may be that F2F meetings simply render online forums moot. Off-campus MOOC students, lacking this option, turn to the forums for their sole means of interaction.

Yet another explanation is that the open end of MOOCs is disruptive, attracting a completely different population of students. For example, HKU MOOCs — dubbed HKUx to reflect its association with edX — attracted 10,000 to 12,000 “students from 173 countries,” and “more than 10 per cent were over 50 years old, and the median age was 29.” This population, although varying widely in characteristics, shares a common problem that sets them apart: They’re unable, for whatever reason, to attend F2F classes. For want of a better term, they are nontraditional students.

The implication is that HKUx and similar MOOCs are both closed and open at the same time, serving two distinct populations with very different purposes.

In the coming months and years, it’ll be interesting to see if HKUx professors will realize that, from the perspective of on-campus students, their MOOCs are essentially blended courses. It is only from the perspective of distant students that they appear to be MOOCs.

The fact that two very different populations can coexist in MOOCs opens up a lot of possibilities. First and foremost is that the success of MOOC practices for nontraditionals could gradually loosen the tether to F2F classes for traditionals, transforming blended courses into true MOOCs or, at the least, completely online courses. The primary obstacle to this scenario is the fear that interactions inevitably suffer in online forums. The success of HKU’s MOOC forums, however, belies this fear.

Another possibility is that tradition will outweigh the potential advantages of MOOCs and keep them anchored to on-campus classrooms, sustaining the blended model for who knows how long.

In the end, traditional students will probably tip the scale away from blended to MOOC when they realize that online learning is just as if not better than F2F for a number of reasons, including the freedom of anytime-anywhere engagement. When — and not if — this happens, the longstanding policy of withholding college credit for MOOC courses will be on the line.

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1Victor Wang, “How MOOCs helped University of Hong Kong apply e-learning tools on campus,” South China Morning Post, 20 July 2015.

Why Teaching Is No Longer Relevant in Online Courses and MOOCs

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro
Editor

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.  Continue reading

Trigger Warnings, English Grammar and Style, Ed Tech and K-12 Teachers

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro
Editor

warns us that “Students no longer receive their education directly from a person standing in the front of a lectern and the learning experience may now take place virtually or across augmented realities…. Faculty should take proactive steps to address potentially triggering material that they set students to watch or read online, prior to a meltdown occurring.”1 She provides insights into how to integrate trigger warnings into assignments and lectures, e.g., via eblasts and in-line messages.

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If you’re a teacher concerned about your students’ writing or a student searching for a way to upgrade your basic writing skills, here’s a MOOC that might address your needs. English Grammar and Style is an “eight-week course… starting on July 26 [on] how to apply grammar and syntax to ‘produce coherent, economical, and compelling writing.'”2 It’s being offered by the University of Queensland via edX. Last year, it attracted 50,000 students. Thus far, it has attracted 10,000. MOOCs are free, and students can take them in conjunction with their regular classes. They can log in at a time and from a place that’s convenient for them.



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, reporting from ISTE 2015, shared results from a study “released… by the Education Technology Industry Network of the Software & Information Industry Association.” Molnar says, “In general, the study found that the most critical unmet needs for K-12 educators are: Continuous access to adequate bandwidth[;] Access to the level of technology resources common to other professionals[;] Training in technology that is available to other professionals.”3 The dirty little secret in K-12 schooling is that precious little of our education technology dollars trickle down to teachers, who are asked to do more with less every year as the gap between technology and the profession widens. The question everyone ought to be asking is, Where are the tech dollars going?

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1As Learning Moves Online, Trigger Warnings Must Too,” The Conversation, 3 July 2015.
2Tim Dodd, “MOOC Watch: Users Flock to Online Grammar Course from the University of Queensland,” AFR, 3 July 2015.
3Educators Report on Uses, Wish List for Student Data in K-12,” Education Week, 1 July 2015.

Attrition in MOOCs: Is It a Problem or an Advantage?

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro
Editor

It’s hard to fault research into MOOCs since there are so many more questions than answers. Thus, I was drawn to the news that MIT researchers have developed “a dropout-prediction model trained on data from one offering of a course [that] can help predict which students will stop out of the next offering.”1 Still, I find myself questioning the purpose, which is to reduce the high attrition rates associated with MOOCs. The assumption is that 90% or more stopout is a problem that needs solving.

I’m not convinced that it is. It may be for traditional onground college courses where dropouts impact revenue, but it may not be for massive open online courses where most students are more like window shoppers than serious customers. MOOCs are an open invitation for anyone and everyone on the planet to come in, look around, and sample for free with no pressure to buy. Students can participate from anywhere at anytime during the day, so commuting or traveling to a specific location at a certain time is not an issue. Thus, the investment of time and money is almost nil.

MOOCs are risk free and convenient, and this is their nature and their attraction. The option to engage as one pleases or stopout at any time are strengths rather than weaknesses or problems to be solved. In short, traditional courses and MOOCs are fundamentally different, and attrition may be a problem for one but an advantage for the other.

In the context of massive enrollment, ten percent retention isn’t necessarily a bad thing when it means 100 out of 1,000 or 500 out of 5,000. Thus, MOOCs could be considered successful despite — and maybe even because of — their attrition numbers.

The question of why students step out is worthwhile and should provide useful results, but the purpose should be to improve instructional design to retain students intent on completing the course and not just to reduce attrition. These ends appear to be similar, but they’re not. The issue isn’t retention for retention’s sake but course design that’s optimized for serious students.

What matters is the attrition of students who are serious about completing a MOOC. In this population, what is the retention rate? What are the causes of stopouts? How can these problems be addressed?

We have a lot to learn about MOOCs, and one of the basic problems is figuring out what the right questions are. All too often, our questions reflect our preconceptions of what MOOCs are instead of what they really are. If we see them in the same light as traditional onground courses, then we’ll apply the same standards. If we see them in a different light, then we’ll begin the search for standards that are appropriate.

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1Larry Hardesty, “Helping Students Stick with MOOCs,” MIT News, 1 July 2015.

Virginia Leads Way to Online High School Diplomas

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro
Editor

Virginia leads the way to completely online public high school diplomas.1 “Virtual Virginia, the commonwealth’s online high school program, is poised to recruit as many as 100 students to pilot the state’s first full-time online diploma program.” The really good news is that the state is jumping into the virtual with eyes wide open. They’re “set to operate within the program’s existing $4.6 million budget.” They’re also aware that, at this point in time, “the online format suits some students more than others.” They’ve done the homework and learned that “those most likely to succeed in an online school tend to be self-motivated, self-directed students, and their learning style is suited to an environment that involves discussion through posts on message boards.”

It’ll be interesting to watch Virtual Virginia develop in the coming months and years. They’re opening a massive door that remains locked for most school systems in the country. The qualities for success online — self-motivation, self-direction, and active engagement in discussions — are perfectly aligned with those for success in MOOCs and the growing number of affordable online college offerings, which means an open door to college courses and the possibility of earning college credits while still in high school.

The possibilities for learning online are endless, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the last vestiges of classroom walls are eventually removed, allowing students to earn high school and college credits via widely available open learning resources such as MOOCs.

The potential for online resource sharing with high school systems in other states (and other countries) is also real, providing an infinitely richer array of courses, interactive opportunities, and experiences. In other words, geographical isolation will become less an issue, and in the early going, it may be a blessing in disguise, hastening the migration to online options. The challenge for administrators and teachers will be to maintain an open attitude toward schooling.  Continue reading