MOOCing a difference

By Garet Marling, Instructional Designer for eLearning

You may have heard of a new trend in online instruction: the Massive Open Online Course (or MOOC). In this new approach to online instruction, students enroll by the tens of thousands to watch video lectures, do reading assignments, take quizzes, and otherwise do the work of taking a college-level course—and they aren’t earning one jot of college credit.

Why would people do that? Some are lifelong learners, curious about an unfamiliar subject; some are trying something new; some are gaining skills for work; and some are hoping to get a credential out of the deal. That last group is out of luck for now, but efforts to credential MOOC completers—or even offer them college credit—are gaining traction.

Regardless of why MOOCs are so popular,the numbers describing them are astounding. My first MOOC had 40,000 students in it (offered through Coursera by The University of Edinburgh). And really, that’s ho-hum enrollment for a MOOC— many courses exceed 100,000 students—and I was completely overwhelmed just trying to wade in on a discussion. If you’ve never tried to voice an original idea in a conversation with that many participants… well, it turns out exactly the way you expect.

Dr. Danna Vessell, Director of Educational Technologies at Missouri, can vouch for that experience. She enrolled in a MOOC earlier this year. When asked about her experience with communicating in a MOOC, Danna explained:

“The discussion board/small group experience for me was really not good. We were using Google Groups and were supposed to limit the number in our group to 75. I started my own group and had 75 people within two hours. I didn’t have any way, technologically, to limit the group. So people just kept joining the group and introducing themselves. We couldn’t get anything done.”

Now, if you’re asking yourself how many students actually finish their MOOCs, you’re ahead of the game. The vast majority do not: MOOCs have an attrition rate between 90% and 95%. Still, in absolute terms, 5% of 40,000 is a pretty impressive 2,000. For most disciplines, that’s far more than can take an introductory course in a given semester. Laura Foley, Instructional Developer for eLearning, admits to being a MOOC dropout after enrolling in her first course.

“I enrolled in ‘eLearning and Digital Cultures’ hoping that it would explore eLearning from a sociological perspective, but at least as far as I got into it, it wasmore of a metaphorical look of the nature of technology and online interaction. Had this been a ‘real’ class, for which I’d paid money and anticipated earning credit hours, I would have stuck it out; as it is, I drifted away completely by the end of the third week,” said Laura.

Some people (myself included) think MOOCs are most promising because of the implications for developmental and prerequisite courses. It’s important to keep in mind, though, that this genre of instruction is highly unstable.

“I am honestly still skeptical that they are good for much,” said Laura. “A well-designed MOOC (and the format is still new enough that I think we’re still establishing what “well-designed” means in this context) might provide valuable enrichment experiences for students and publicity for a university’s credit offerings. But given that students need to be able to earn credit hours to achieve a degree or certification, and that a university needs to be able to charge tuition in order to cover its expenses, I don’t see how the current model is going to be sustainable for anyone.”

There aren’t a lot of strong conventions, and that means fast change is to be expected. Danna added, “MOOCs are an experiment at this point but certainly fulfill a need because they offer free education to anyone who seeks it. Many of the people who take a MOOC do not reside in the United States, and their opportunities to access education may be limited. For universities, they are a good discussion starter for topics like student engagement, large scale course design, and technology use in education.”

Universities are being asked to educate an ever-widening group of people. MOOCs are one way to educate those masses if universities can just find a way to make them engaging for students and have them pay for themselves in terms of development and teaching. MOOCs probably won’t exist in their present form for very long, but I have high hopes for what they’ll evolve into.