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Learning from the MOOC model

Published on 24 April 2013
Updated on 05 April 2024

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have been around in various forms since 2008. However, The New York Times dubbed 2012 as ‘The Year of the MOOC’ due to the vast expansion in the number of courses offered by main providers (Coursera, EdX, Udacity), and the number of participating universities around the world. Not to mention the explosion of media articles and blogs endlessly analysing the phenomenon…

There is no denying that MOOCs are tremendously popular at the moment. Coursera, for example, invites new learners to join over 3 million ‘Courserians’. Has this popularity led to increased awareness and acceptance of online learning, which can benefit providers of different forms of online learning as well? Can the MOOC model be adapted and improved, to meet the needs of professional training?

These questions were the topic of an online debate held last week, as part of Diplo’s Online Learning Day. In this blog I look at some of the main points raised.

Free and open access

The MOOC idea is revolutionary: bringing free, high-quality university level education to learners all around the world. For the first time ever, learners from Papua New Guinea, Lapland, Botswana, and Argentina (to name just a few) can study together, under world-renowned professors from top institutions.

But while MOOCs are typically free, that does not mean that entry is without conditions. The first, and obvious, is Internet access with reasonable speed (for viewing video), as well as a computer or other device with which to access the Internet. ITU estimates that by the end of 2013, just 16% of the African population will be using the Internet. Only 7% of households in Africa are expected to have an Internet connection by the end of 2013. Furthermore, in developing countries 16% fewer women than men use the Internet. The digital divide is still alive and well. Access to MOOCs (and everything else the Internet offers) is something we take for granted in developed countries, but it’s an exceptional privilege for a significant part of the world’s population.

Anyone (with Internet access) can enrol in a MOOC, but certain skills are needed to benefit from the instruction: fluency in the language of instruction (usually English, although MOOCs in other languages are starting to appear), and an adequate  secondary-level education to prepare the learner for University studies. World Bank statistics show that in much of Africa less than 50% of the population enrols in secondary school. These statistics also highlight gender disparity, as well as problems related to the quality of education (teacher/student ratio, for example).

The MOOC idea is revolutionary, but it is also utopian, and as Jovan Kurbalija points out in his blog posting, we tend to succumb to the attraction of utopian ideas rather than critically assess them.

Learning methods

MOOCs are typically based around learning materials and activities which are effective for online learning aimed at adult professionals. For example:

  1. MOOCs offer flexibility, learner control, and independence within the structure set out by the course (participants decide what to study, how, and when).
  2. Frequent short quizzes interspersed with learning materials such as videos have been shown to improve overall retention of materials studied.
  3. Peer assessment (for essay style assignments) draws on the experience and knowledge of enrolled course participants, and the process provides further learning in itself.
  4. Much course learning is based on forum discussions. The knowledge contained in the student body of a MOOC is immense. In a course for adult learners, it’s important to acknowledge and draw on this knowledge, rather than suggesting that learning is delivered only by course faculty.
  5. Some MOOCs allow informal peer assessment through ‘voting’ on forum postings. Postings which receive a lot of positive votes are flagged for attention, helping students to navigate the sometime daunting amount of information.

Much was made of the recent failure and suspension of a Coursera MOOC on Online Education. However, such failure is rare (apparently this was a first, for Coursera) and can also be seen as an opportunity to learn about essential good practices for a MOOC. Failure drives innovation, even more than success. In order to improve, MOOCS need to keep space open for testing new methods and activities, and this will not be the case if the possibility of failure makes us afraid to try new things.

So if the learning methodology is good, how do we account for the huge drop-out rates with MOOCs? Around 90% of the people who register for these courses do not complete them.

Research by Kop and Fournier looks at the challenges for self-directed learners in courses where they cannot call on trusted educators for support. A high level of autonomy and motivation is needed to complete such a course. Diplo’s experience in teaching small online course based on collaborative learning shows that learner support is key to maintaining a high completion level (at Diplo, it’s above 90%). We might expect that adult professional learners are highly self-directed and self-motivated, however adult learners face specific challenges in combining online learning with work and family responsibilities. Often support from tutors and lecturers makes the difference between completion and dropping out.

But are traditional measures of success like completion rate really relevant when it comes to MOOCs? Dr Keith Devlin of Stanford University (who teaches a MOOC on mathematics) compares the number of people who sign up for a MOOC with the number who apply to attend a traditional university (rather than the number actually admitted), because signing up for a MOOCs is so quick and easy. When it comes to Stanford, apparently 95% of those who apply for entrance do not graduate.

We also have to keep in mind that people sign up for MOOCs for very different reasons. A great many never intend to complete the course. They may sign up to get a quick intro to a topic, or in-depth understanding, but may have no interest in completing assignments or exams. We cannot equate the number of ‘graduates’ with the number of people who learned and gained something of value from the course.

We can debate endlessly about the potential and value of MOOCs. However, perhaps it’s more useful to focus on what we can learn from the MOOC phenomenon, especially with regard to the delivery of courses to large audiences. If you’ve attended (or taught) a MOOC, what lessons do you draw from the experience? If you are working in the field of online education, what do you find most useful in the MOOC model?

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