Friday, September 12, 2014

The stalled MOOC revolution: Not over; not yet

I've signed up for about a dozen MOOC courses. I've a Master's degree and a doctorate. Why would I take a MOOC course? Several reasons: 1) I like to learn; 2) they're free, so why not?; 3) I don't really have to do anything to "take" the course but I can learn some new things and gather some new resources; and 4) I'm curious to see how some educators are translating their content for a MOOC. I mean, what or should an instructor do differently if there are thousands, even millions, of students in a class? How do you assign groups? How do you grade student assignments? How do you provide any kind of meaningful feedback?

Dan Friedman (@DNFriedman) asserts the MOOC Revolution is over; well, that it never really happened. He could be right. Mr. Friedman believes the key factor is engagement.

Dror Ben-Naim asked if the those "born digital" can "save" MOOCs in his August 21 post. Ben-Naim reports that MOOC completion rates are in the single digits and suggests that the reason is that "MOOCs combine a set of existing tools that can be useful instructional supports, such as online lectures, social networks, and quizzes. But few professors would consider these technologies, together, as a substitute for the course experience."

Ben-Naim goes on to tell us of a professor at Arizona State University, an institution long known for its forward thinking. Professor Ariel Anbar decided to "smash the disciplines" and his science course focuses on a single big question. That in itself is reason to pause for contemplation, but do that later. 

When you're done with this blog post, go read the linked article. Not now, later--because there are a few things I'd like you think about including some observations by Dr. Jeff Borden who published in WIRED and told us that MOOCs are dead, but not really. Dr. Borden asserts that "the fact that so many people took MOOCs not for the course, but for a section of the course is telling," and I agree. That kind of learning is truly personalized learning because the students made the choice of what part of the course was valuable to them. I think it's also important to note that many MOOC students are folks like myself: people who have college degrees and are looking for additional learning. This is an important distinction.

An instructor of a MOOC, Robert Wright (@robertwrighter), a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, had 59,000 students sign up for his "Buddhism and Modern Psychology" course. But that doesn't mean the majority of those 59,000 students who expressed an interest in his course had any intention of completing the course. Keep in mind that MOOCs are free. There is little incentive for anyone to participate in the forums, to do any of the reading or watch any of the videos, to do any of the assignments. Mr. Wrights notes that participation did, in fact, decline. But he also relates a social experiment conducted in 1985:
Mike Kinsley, who later founded Slate, did an experiment to test the hypothesis that “much-discussed” books in Washington, D.C, don’t actually get read. He had an assistant visit local bookstores and insert, about three-fourths of the way through various books, a card with Kinsley’s phone number and the promise of a cash reward to anyone who called him. No money changed hands
Mr. Wright later states that
Lots of factors will determine whether MOOCs wind up being important—and MOOCs will in any event evolve, maybe to the point of being barely recognizable descendants of their current selves. But in the near term their viability will depend very heavily on whether students want to take them and whether capable professors want to teach them. 
In my opinion, MOOCs have already changed the way we think about higher education. Coursera offers various proof of participation and/or completion through its Statement of Accomplishment, Verified Certificate, and Specialization Certificates, though the option is not available for all courses. I imagine this is an instructor choice. Yes, for some options there is a cost to the student and yes, the student has to do some actual work rather than just download the content and read some stuff or watch a few videos every now and then, if ever. But it also gives the student a "try before you buy" option so if the student really likes the course, the student can sign up for the certification options well into the course.

What we have yet to do, though, is think differently about how we teach and how students learn. Yes, it goes back to engagement. Yes, it relates to how we expect students to show us what they've learned. Yes, it relates to professors who believe they have to determine if students have learned the "right" stuff and quite possibly the "right" way.

Professor Anbar's courses use Smart Sparrow (@smart_sparrow), a company Mr. Ben-Naim represents. Smart Sparrow is an adaptive learning environment; check it out.

Pay attention now. There are K-12 schools that have adopted systems that use adaptive learning environments and, by the way, adaptive learning is really nothing new but the technological possibilities are quite incredible; the implications and consequences yet to be discovered. Adaptive learning and deep learning (not to be confused with deeper learning) will continue to influence our educational and our consumer worlds.

In Mr. Ben-Naim's article, he stated that Professor Anbar chose to "smash the disciplines." I think there are a lot of teachers who have been smashing the disciplines, flattening their classrooms, and shredding the boxes. Like Mr. Wright and Dr. Borden, I think the MOOC revolution has really only begun. Inventive and thoughtful educators will learn from what works with MOOCs and adaptive learning, and what can influence personalized learning, growth mindset, project-based learning, and a host of other educational trends and practices to continue to expand and shift the way we think about learning and teaching.

I don't think the MOOC revolution is close to being over, and I think we are seeing a leading edge of what education can be and how it can help ensure today's students are prepared for the world in which they will work and live.

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