Could Remixing Old MOOCs Give New Life to Free Online Education?

Higher Education

Could Remixing Old MOOCs Give New Life to Free Online Education?

By Jeffrey R. Young     Mar 20, 2019

Could Remixing Old MOOCs Give New Life to Free Online Education?

It’s common these days to hear that free online mega-courses, called MOOCs, failed to deliver on their promise of educating the masses. But one outcome of that push towards open online courses was plenty of high-quality teaching material.

Now, one of the first professors to try out MOOCs says he has a way to reuse bits and pieces of the courses created during that craze in a way that might deliver on the initial promise.

The idea comes from Robert Lue, a biology professor at Harvard University who was the founding faculty director of HarvardX, the college’s effort to build MOOCs. He’s leading a new platform called LabXChange that aims to let professors, teachers or anyone mix together their own free online course from pieces of other courses.

The key innovation, he says, is to stop focusing so much on courses, and start letting people get at the smaller pieces within them. “The course was actually starting to get in the way,” he says, calling courses large and “relatively unwieldy.”

As the name suggests, this platform is focused on scientific disciplines, starting with biology and biotechnology. Here’s how his system will work:

“Let’s say you want to do something on sickle cell anemia,” Lue says. A search in LabXchange would one day pull up a list of videos, text descriptions, infographics and other materials.

From that list of results, he says, you might pick three videos and an infographic, and then add a case study focusing on a really moving human story. “You drop these into a learning pathway, and you resequence them the way you want to,” he says. And the platform lets you add your own videos or texts as well. It then presents you with a unique web address you can share with students.

The end result, he says, is a “mini-MOOC—perfectly customized with your content and other content out there.”

The platform is under construction, and is expected to be released in September. And since it’s built on top of the open-source software released by edX (called OpenEdX), it will be free for anyone to use. Lue will present the project next week at the OpenEdX conference in San Diego.

A key to getting this vision to materialize, though, is getting the creators of courses to agree to put their pieces into the platform. Most MOOCs require users to sign up for them before they can even see what the course consists of. As Lue puts it, “all of the content is locked into courses.”

Anant Agarwal, CEO of edX, said that the ability to share and remix content within courses is still being developed, and that he expects that each university and professor will be given the choice of whether or not they want their course material to be available for remixing. He noted that edX already allows professors to specify the copyright preferences for their courses, including allowing easy use of Creative Commons licenses that specify that the author grants free permission for others to use it.

“There are many ways in which people have to give permission for remixing,” Agarwal said. “It’s not something we’re going to turn on and suddenly, Woops, everything is shared.”

Lue says that he hopes the LabXChange system will be a prototype of a next-generation learning platform, and that future versions could include adaptive learning features that would offer students different material based on their demonstrated skill level. Should such features emerge, that would make the platform a free competitor to systems like Knewton, the for-profit company that was an early player in adaptive learning and now focuses on selling low-cost textbooks built around open content.

“It’s a little hard to tell how Knewton works because it is so proprietary,” says Lue. He said his hope is to help build an open source alternative.

The LabXChange team says it has been building partnerships to encourage content creators to add their materials to the platform.

One of those partners is Fanuel Muindi, who leads the nonprofit Stem Advocacy Institute, which has created a library of educational materials called The Journal of Stories in Science. The nonprofit has collected and edited about 120 stories from both scientists and nonscientists about how science has impacted their lives. “A lot of textbooks and any other scientific texts don’t have this story component,” he says. “Science is much more than just facts and numbers, it’s about the people who do the work.”

One popular story in the collection is told by a father who relates how his eight-year old daughter has become fascinated by science. “There were moments like when I brought home a microscope,” it reads. “It was Daddy’s new toy and she wanted to play too. She wanted so badly to be able to touch it that she was always very careful to follow instructions when I let her operate it. I guess she wanted to show me that she respected the equipment. It wasn’t long before she was able to operate it independently.”

Muindi says that once LabXChange is up and running, all of the stories in the Journal of Stories in Science will be included for people looking for content to add to their personalized courses.
Other partners listed on the site include Hubble Studios, which creates virtual science experiments, as well as HarvardX and edX.

The LabXChange project is supported by a $6.5-million grant from the Amgen Foundation.

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