From Disruptor to Bestie: How Instructors are Learning to Leverage MOOCs

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Only a handful of sessions at SXSWedu this year used “MOOC” in their titles or descriptions, but those four letters were still mentioned quite a bit.

It is safe to say, MOOCs have been passed over as the disruptor du jour of higher education. But this is a good thing, because now we can get on with the real work to figure out how to best study, utilize and improve their role in education.

Here are a few of the takeaways I gathered about MOOCs during the conference:

Renewed focus on teaching in research universities

We’ve been hearing for some time that one benefit of creating MOOCs is an opportunity to improve teaching, but this now seems to be an explicit focus of instructors and administrators. The main driver is the necessity of creating modular lessons, which forces instructors to re-conceive the subject material from the ground up, akin to the redesign process of “refactoring” in computer science.

The Chronicle of Higher Education editor Jeffrey Young welcomed this emphasis on teaching at research universities, which bucks a trend towards a greater focus on research activities. Even George Siemens, of University of Texas at Arlington, one of the originators of MOOCs and a critic of its current popular form, concedes their singular impact on teaching:

“With the development of MOOCs--and I’ll put it squarely on MOOCs--we’ve seen a conversation on teaching and learning in higher education, across institutions and various faculty that have never had this conversation.”

The lecture hall is a prime target to go blended

Several professors and administrators talked about how MOOCs can help “flip” large introductory lecture classes. They are prime targets for several reasons:

  1. they cover a relatively stable base of knowledge that can be easily reused,
  2. the large class sizes justify the investment in high-quality online content, and
  3. everyone recognizes that large lectures are impersonal and passive experiences.

Creating online content via a MOOC is only part of the equation, however. When these courses are flipped, instructors still need to determine what to do during their class sessions, a fresh new pedagogical challenge that should hopefully invigorate the lecture hall. Jimmy Wadman, a student at University of Texas at Austin, praised his flipped chemistry course, where teaching assistants walk around to help as students are doing in-class exercises: “One thing that is underestimated is the value of personalization in a huge course…it makes it so much better of an experience.”

Fostering greater collaboration among instructors

Professor Robert Lue of Harvard University made the point, “teaching has historically been a private act.” But large lecture courses are often team-designed, so instructors need to collaborate to redesign them. Also, to produce MOOC content, instructors often collaborate with design teams (which may include instructional designers, videographers, graphic designers and other production staff), all of whom may potentially influence the pedagogy.

Another benefit of the public accessibility of MOOCs is that instructors can peer into each others’ courses and benefit from their ideas, and Jeffrey Young suggests many instructors do just that. Professor Lue summarizes this overall greater level of collaboration:

“[MOOCs are enabling] the power of community with different people bringing different things to the table, within and outside the university, to make them happen.”

Experimenting with different credentialing paradigms

What passes for a meaningful credential? It is not likely that a single online course certificate is a meaningful qualification. (“Look, I passed ‘Intro to Data Science!’”)

One direction suggested was to zoom in on the learning experience and analyze the actual work (such as assignments, tests, and projects), which would allow potential employers to see more specific details of what was learned.

Another approach is to zoom out and bundle together a group of related courses and grant a credential that represents something meaningful smaller than a college degree, much like what Coursera (“Specializations”), edX (“XSeries”), and Udacity (“Nanodegrees”) have started to offer. Thankfully, these paradigms are not mutually exclusive, though there is much debate about which approach is better and whether alternative credentials will replace or sit alongside traditional degrees.

Blissfully separate from this debate on the future of learning credentials, was a session on Arabic-language MOOC platforms. This demonstrated how workforce training can be scaled with MOOCs when they are specially designed and supported for employment purposes. Both Doroob (in Saudi Arabia) and Edraak (in Jordan) are based on the open edX platform and supported by government organizations, and have already trained several hundred thousand of under-educated people. They directly solicit employers to identify desirable job skills, and then use this to drive course content, resulting in a relevant credential. (This approach is less feasible for research universities that don’t see their main role as providing immediate job readiness training.)

The need to continue innovating

SXSWedu concluded with a keynote address by Salman Khan, who traced the evolution of Khan Academy from offering one-way YouTube videos to now having a rich interactive platform that allows for learner exercises, adaptive content, and a comprehensive teacher-parent dashboard.

Like Khan Academy’s first version, most MOOCs today rely heavily on one-way videos as they try to replicate the traditional lecture-based model. Transitioning to digital media is a laudable step, as it allows for greater scale and efficiency. However, we should encourage and expect new pedagogical innovations with MOOCs, as we do with all new technologies. I am optimistic, and I hope that although the biggest hype surrounding MOOCs may be in the past, their biggest impact may still lie ahead.

Charlie Chung is the Interim iTeam Head of Product Development at ZS Associates, and the Chief Editor for the Class Central blog.

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