A Proposal to Put the ‘M’ Back in MOOCs

column | Digital Learning

A Proposal to Put the ‘M’ Back in MOOCs

By Dhawal Shah (Columnist)     Oct 24, 2017

A Proposal to Put the ‘M’ Back in MOOCs

MOOCs have evolved over the past five years from a virtual version of a classroom course to an experience that feels more like a Netflix library of teaching videos. The change has helped companies that provide these courses find a business model, but something crucial has been lost for students taking the courses.

One important benefit of the first MOOCs was that they started at fixed times, like traditional college courses, which meant that large numbers of people were sharing an experience and posting questions and answers to forums. These days, most MOOC providers let learners start courses whenever they like (or on a bi-weekly or monthly basis, as Coursera does). As a result the forums are far less vibrant and informative than they were in the early days.

Pat Bowden, a learner who plans to complete 100 MOOCs (she has finished 86 courses so far), puts it this way: “To me, there seems to be a growing trend for students to simply post their own thoughts on the topic without engaging with others’ comments."

That’s been my experience as well, as someone who took one of the first MOOCs in 2011 and now watches these courses closely as the founder of Class Central, a place to keep track of the free university courses. In many ways, Massive Open Online Courses are no longer as massive.

Many learners have welcomed these changes as the content is available almost all the time.

But this means that instead of tens of thousands of people learning together as part of a shared experience, everybody is learning at their own pace in significantly smaller cohorts. The on-demand MOOC trend has led to a drastic reduction in forum activity within MOOC cohorts. At one point Coursera boasted about a average forum response time of 22 minutes; that’s no longer the case.

The push for monetization hasn’t helped build community. Over time the free components of MOOCs have gradually been reduced, making these courses less appealing to many in their initial audience.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

The MOOC Semester

If providers of these online courses want to make MOOCs massive again, they will need to go back to the characteristics that made them popular in the first place: semi-synchronous, instructor led and sufficiently hyped.

Imagine that once or twice a year MOOC providers published a limited catalog of courses that are instructor-led (meaning that professors play an active role in running the courses). These courses would have a fixed schedule, and have a start date and end date with some soft-deadlines through the course. The goal would be to get everybody moving at a similar pace.

In the early days, course videos were created as the course progressed, sometimes drawing on student feedback. As a course participant, this really made me feel part of something larger and helped me maintain my enthusiasm throughout the course.

Al Filreis, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who teaches a MOOC called Modern & Contemporary American Poetry (or ModPo),offers a synchronous version of his class every fall. Fileris goes even further and re-shoots his videos.

Fileris gave a fiery keynote speech at Learning With MOOCs conference in 2015 where he laid out his approach on how to make the MOOC feel like a residential-college experience. One way ModPo achieves this is by being extremely responsive. Every comment in the MOOC gets a response within a few hours, but usually within a few minutes.

The results are there to see: ModPo is one of the highest rated MOOCs of all time according to Class Central users. Since the course first launched in 2012, many students have finished ModPo multiple times.

Even Fileris admits that the approach he proposes might require too much time and attention from MOOC instructors. But he suggests trying things like weekly live interactive webcasts, office hours and bringing in community TA’s who can help engage the community.

Having talked with multiple instructors over the last few years, I believe many would be willing to jump on this opportunity. Providers can make the MOOC Semester an opt-in event.

Finally, sufficient hype. I think that the way to get people excited about MOOCs again is to offer free certificates. I suggest offering free certificates during a MOOC Semester to anyone who completes all the course requirements by a certain date. Those who don’t meet the deadline could pay an upgrade fee and earn the certificate.

MOOC providers abandoned free certificates because they were looking for a sustainable business model. Reintroducing them could reignite some of the enthusiasm MOOCs initially generated. The potential loss in revenue from free certificates would be offset by the marketing benefits of reaching more users.

Early this year I published an article on Medium which listed 250 Ivy League MOOCs. That article went viral and attracted 2.5 million views, showing that there is still a tremendous appetite for online courses taught by universities.

A MOOC Semester with free certificates can tap into this appetite. If multiple MOOC providers got together and coordinated their PR efforts, it would result in similar viral articles in different parts of the world.

MOOC providers have seen this hype before and benefited from it. In Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller’s own words: “We reached 20 million learners with minimal marketing costs, largely because of the PR cycle around us.” A MOOC semester can recreate this PR cycle, bring in new learners, as well as engage old learners who might have fallen of the MOOC bandwagon.

In her TED talk in 2012, Kohler explained why the Coursera courses were different than previous online courses—it was a real classroom with real homework assignments, real grades and real deadlines. These days, most MOOCs don’t feel like a real classroom. The MOOC Semester could fix that.

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