Ask tens of thousands of people around the world, and they’ll tell you that, for their needs, the “hype” over MOOCs has been fulfilled.
students who gain new knowledge and skills via a MOOC, such classes are a
worthwhile supplement to their daily instructional diet. Likewise for the
educators who have enhanced their careers by reaching an international class of
students, for homeschoolers who have watched their children blossom through
interaction with renowned scholars, for cash-strapped school districts that are
able to offer classes that would have otherwise been canceled, and for even more
students in desperate need of credit recovery or exploration of advanced topics.
Few schools can compete with a course offered by the likes of those offered by the Harvard-MIT collaborative project, edX, which opened 26 courses to high school students in September 2014. Other online MOOC companies, such as Coursera, Instructure (makers of Canvas) and Udacity, also have courses aimed at high school students. Most of these are Advanced Placement and entry-level college classes, which may otherwise be expensive for traditional schools to offer, and which might divert its most gifted faculty from working with the students who would benefit most from their expertise and in-class presence.
While they may not be MOOCs per se, a number of online options are available to assist students with credit recovery as well. Virtual high schools exist throughout the world, some sponsored by state departments of education (such as Florida Virtual High School and Michigan Virtual School), colleges and universities (such as Stanford University Online High School and the University of Missouri High School) or private enterprises (such as Ed2Go and K12.com).
Low course completion rates — so what?
Much has been made of the low percentage of enrolled
students who complete MOOCs, estimated to be about 5-10 percent. But what
exactly does this metric reveal?
Assume that a MOOC enrolls 10,000 students, and 9,500 do not complete the course. This means that 500 do complete the course without any money or time lost on the part of the provider.
Enrolling in a MOOC is not the same as enrolling in a traditional course, and course completion rates may not be the best metric by which to measure success. More than their analog counterparts, MOOCs encourage exploration, trial and error, and intellectual taste testing. Most MOOCs are also free and therefore have no financial penalty for noncompletion. The distance learning software company Software Secure claims that when you include students who have seriously interacted with MOOC course materials, the numbers for course completion are much higher.
Hype is a process
According to the consulting firm Gartner, hype is part of an emerging technologies process that includes five phases:
- Technology trigger
- Peak of inflated expectations
- Trough of disillusionment
- Slope of enlightenment
- Plateau of productivity
I would argue that MOOCs are somewhere between phases 3 and 4 right now. Some educators are disillusioned that the online courses have not led to revolutionary changes in education, while others have moved on to an understanding that MOOCs are evolutionary and an important aspect of the larger picture of how digital technologies are impacting instruction.
If we have learned anything about education, it should be that in the last 100 years, no single technology, curriculum practice, legislation or innovation has proven to be disruptive. But what we can see from MOOCs is that vast numbers of students and teachers are benefiting from the incremental changes that this new type of instruction offers.
A former educational software developer and private school director of technology, Steve Taffee is currently a consultant with Educational Collaborators.
When my colleagues and I set out to design and deliver a free online course for the ISTE Inclusive Learning Network, we asked ourselves whether massive open online courses (MOOCs) were really the way to go. We had heard that although many people sign up for MOOCs, few complete them, and we wondered why. So we looked into it and discovered that the research backs up the rumblings we heard: Completion rate statistics range from 3-13 percent.
Why? We believe that it’s because they’re not designed with engagement in mind. At this point, most MOOCs are mainly mere replications of existing practice — transmission of information, not transformation of learning. Evidence also suggests that enrollee engagement is further eroded by a lack of connection, construction and support. In a massive course, participants often feel alone, left to wade through the materials without any assistance from the instructor beyond generic emails. This lack of community and purposeful learning dialogue results in the eventual withdrawal of the majority of those who sign up.
We believe that online courses are scalable, but there is a law of diminishing returns. “Massive” is just too big to be interactive and thereby, engaging.
We know that online tools can transform learning. But achieving engagement requires a focus on sound pedagogical principles over content delivery, and building community requires an emphasis on personal connections that can happen only when the number of participants is not too high.
So we decided to blow up the MOOC model and start over. With the points above in mind, we created a small (supported and short) open online course (SOOC) that went live in February 2014. Our goal was to keep participants engaged and involved in their learning throughout a four-week course on the implementation of Universal Design for Learning with mobile devices and apps.
We based the design and delivery of the course on these four principles:
- Universal Design for Learning (UDL)
- A robust online community of practice
- Instructor-student interaction and co-construction
- Continuous feedback, discussion and connections
Keeping in line with the UDL focus of the course, we used UDL principles in its design, including acknowledging learner variability and offering choice. All aspects of the course, including the website design, images, resources and videos, were made accessible to the widest range of learners. We also created a Google+ community where participants posted and shared conversations and course products in a variety of formats based on their interests and needs, and where we the instructors posted, asked questions and shared our learning as we worked with the participants to co-create the community. Finally, we made feedback, discussion and real connections a priority. We sent out emails and answered emails and posts as quickly as possible, held Google Hangout “office hours,” and provided weekly digital badges (through the Achievery system).
We were pleased with the engagement, but don't take our
word for it. Here are comments from some of the participants, nearly all of whom
said they would take a SOOC again:
This was the first time I'd taken an open online course and Google community was a great way for a course of this nature. The small size helped a lot; I am just starting a MOOC and the experience a) wouldn't lend itself well to Google communities, being so massive and b) isn't as engaging as a result!
A thanks to [the course instructors] for an interesting, thoughtfully designed, informative course. Their personal touch and dedication as instructors for a "low-stakes" SOOC which was free for participants was amazing.
I really liked the feedback from the instructors and the constant reminders that I had to complete the tasks. It was not blatant reminders, but the badges, highlighting what others posted and other activities that gently reminded me to get going with my work.
Ultimately, of the 30 participants who signed in to our Google+ community, we had a 53 percent completion rate. We learned some valuable lessons along the way that we hope to implement in our next iteration that launches Feb. 4 including more social media, a more constructivist environment, revised videos and rubrics for self-reflection. If you’re interested in participating or learning more, join the Inclusive Learning Network (free for ISTE members).
We recognize the importance and opportunity that online learning offers, but,
just like face-to-face instruction, online instruction is only as good as the
effectiveness of its design. And when nearly 90 percent of students typically
never complete MOOCs, it is hard to say that this is an effective design for
instruction. Creating an engaging environment and supported learning
opportunities in online courses is possible, however, when instructors use tools
and practices that truly connect, support and interact with their
students. It takes time and commitment, but it can be done!
In an example of distributed cognition, the author co-constructed this opinion piece, as well as the design and delivery of our SOOC, with Luis Pérez and Elizabeth Dalton.
Luis Pérez received his doctorate in special education from the University of South Florida. He is the author of Mobile Learning for All (Corwin Press) as well as an Apple Distinguished Educator and a Google Certified Teacher.
Elizabeth Dalton is director of development and research for TechACCESS of Rhode Island and an independent education consultant. She has a PhD in education and post-doc credentials in UDL and is past-president of the Inclusive Learning Network.
Kendra Grant’s varied career includes educator (teacher, library-media specialist, special ed coordinator), co-founder of a professional learning company, online course creator and large-scale technology implementation consultant. In addition to her volunteer work at ISTE, she is an adviser for ed tech startups at MaRS and is completing her master's in educational technology at the University of British Columbia.
The Inclusive Learning Network is just one of 30 ISTE Professional Learning Networks. Find one or more networks focusing on the topics that interest you most and sign up to get professional learning and collaboration free to ISTE members!