Is This The Future of MOOCs?

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) provider Coursera wants to change the way we think about the revolutionary learning platform. In response to arguments that MOOCs are too impersonal, in November it announced partnerships with nine institutions that would create thirty “learning hubs,” where students taking the same MOOC could physically meet to discuss the course with each other and with an appointed group leader (often a professor, graduate student, or otherwise “expert” person). In May, after the hubs’ early success, Coursera rolled out eight more learning hub partnerships. Though Coursera seems to think this plan is innovative, it’s reminiscent of a book club—and of the brick and mortar classrooms MOOCs intend to replace.

The Forty-Five Percent

Coursera’s seventeen hub partners range from universities to foundations to libraries, nearly all of them outside the United States, and most within “emerging economies.” But forty-five percent of Coursera’s learning hubs are located in “developed economies” and include two in the United States: Dominican University of California, and the New York Public Library. (Two other hub partners are based in the U.S. but will operate their hubs abroad: Azusa Pacific University at its campus in South Africa, and the U.S. Department of State as part of its international “MOOC Camp Initiative.”)

The forty-five percent in “developed” regions of the world aim to provide a blended learning model more conducive to dialogue. Students in the same MOOC will meet each other at regular sessions where a senior member of the group, appointed in advance by the partner institution, will lead the discussion. At Dominican University, Hanna Rodriguez-Farrar,Dominican’s senior adviser for strategy and planning, will lead weekly 90-minute discussions over the course of six weeks this summer based on the University of London’s MOOC “Understanding Research Methods.” Capped at 20 students, and held on campus, Rodriguez-Farrar’s discussion sessions operate essentially as “flipped” classroom, though students won’t earn credit. They will, however, be eligible for a certificate of completion from Coursera, as will regular MOOC students who do not attend the hub.

Rodriguez-Farrar sees the learning hub as an important opportunity neglected in regular MOOCs: developing intellectual community. She views discourse and fellowship as important not only for young impressionable undergraduates, but also for the scholars and experienced professionals who, according to surveys, are often the ones registering for MOOCs. “Research often can be a solitary process,” Rodriguez-Farrar stated in Dominican University’s official announcement. “A community of students, scholars, and researchers can greatly help the research projects being done by its members.” How so? “Participants will figure out how to advance a project together. The course will move from passive – participants watching a video – to active as participants apply the content of the Coursera course into their work.”

Likewise in New York City, where Coursera estimates 50,000 residents have registered for MOOCs, the New York Public Library plans to facilitate hubs over the summer at several locations in Manhattan and the Bronx. The courses haven’t been selected yet, though director of adult education services Luke Swarthout says they’ll likely be in the humanities and there’ll be “at least a half-dozen” options.  Graduate students will lead the weekly sessions with small groups (the size hasn’t been announced yet).

NYPL President Tony Marx considers the hubs as more than an optional add-on, but as an important feature in education. He calls the courses a “boon to increasing learning, especially when students engage with each other, keep each other focused, and have access to advice and further options for study.” MOOCs need not be go-it-alone endeavors.

The Fifty-Five Percent

The other 55 percent of learning hubs are located in developing economies, where Coursera’s MOOCs are the only providers of higher educaiton. In these locations, Coursera has a second operative goal besides fostering discourse:  simply to provide a location with reliable Internet access. Students can come to these hubs to watch all of Coursera’s MOOC content, and for certain courses, they can participate in small group discussions and projects.

Barbara Moser-Mercer from the University of Geneva’s Center for Interpreting in Conflict Zones began using a MOOC to train interpreters in conflict zones.  She also arranged to download MOOC videos to USB drives and show the content in refugee camps. Using “Foundations of Teaching and Learning” from the Commonwealth Education Trust, she teaches interpreters techniques for mediating tense scenarios, communicating between parties, and interviewing refugees. She also trains refugees to teach and build communication among other refugees.

Moser-Mercer’s tactics, and Coursera’s move in general, mark an attempt to reach out to the demographic that MOOCs initially targeted but failed to reach: bright, underdeveloped talent in countries with remote access to higher education. Lila Ibrahim, the president of Coursera, describes the endeavor as an “important step in reducing geographic and connectivity barriers.”

The Numbers

Hosting small group discussions can get expensive, of course, and Coursera lets its individual hub partners decide whether to charge students fees for participating. Most don’t. Dominican University, for its part, is funding Rodriguez-Farrar’s Research Methods group on a $25,000 grant from the Teagle Foundation. Dominican had earmarked the money to explore hybrid courses and other ways to integrate Internet resources with its residential liberal arts college in an effort to save money. Its announcement of the partnership with Coursera cites the plight of institutions of higher learning (“particularly smaller, liberal arts colleges and universities”) as they turn to technology for solutions to areas of “significant concern, specifically cost, access, and quality.”

The NYPL expects to foot the bill for its MOOC hub through its operating budget. Mercer-Moser, at the University of Geneva, did not charge the refugees she mentored throughout their MOOC. Nor does the State Department, which relies on foreign service officers, retired teachers, visitors on Fulbright scholarships and travel grants, and other volunteers to facilitate the courses.

Paying for a course provides a strong incentive to finish it—but so does checking in each week with a cohort of colleagues and maintaining a reputation with a teacher. Senses of shame and duty escalate when the persons to whom you are obliged are standing directly before you. So far, Coursera’s experiment has succeeded. In its first trial run, the initial nine partner hubs reported course completion rates ranging from 30-100%–a substantial improvement over the 6.8% average across all Coursera courses.

MOOC Evolution

These learning hubs are not massive. They are only partly online, and semi-open: All are welcome to sign up, though the hubs entail official size caps and practical geographic limitations. But they are, perhaps more than straight-up MOOCs, the Coursera offerings closest to “courses” yet.

Coursera’s hub-development is part of a long evolutionary trend towards enhanced student interaction. The initial idea behind MOOCs was to not host dialogue, since it requires all the elements that make university education expensive — synchronous interactions, small groups, and an invested, present professor. That version, MOOC 1.0, didn’t work well, as MOOCs faced devastating drop-out rates upwards of 90 percent.

To some degree, those rates are to be expected. MOOCs are free and without credit, offering few incentives besides a sheer curiosity to stick out a course. But sustained numbers so dismal also indicate that all is not well in the land of the MOOC. If 90 percent of readers quit a book in the first chapter, we’d seriously doubt the quality of the book—or else assume it was highly technical or difficult to read. MOOCs, with their multiple choice quizzes and optional assignments, aren’t that difficult. Rather, with the illusory promise of intellectual community perpetually left unfulfilled, they’re lonely.

MOOC 2.0 tinkered with the superstructure to make it easier for students to interact. Coursera added “Community TAs” that monitored online discussion forums, answered student questions, and shut down worthless rabbit trails. It also began nudging students towards meetup.com, an online search engine for finding and meeting people with similar interests in your neighborhood, to develop their own discussion groups.

Udacity, Coursera’s MOOC provider rival, took a more radical approach to enhance student interaction. In an epiphany after his experiment to offer San Jose State University MOOCs for credit failed, Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun concluded that MOOCs were “a lousy product” in need of “the biggest shift in the history of the company (Udacity).” Initially, he tried to rebrand Udacity’s MOOCs as tools for professionals in technical fields where, presumably, dialogue was less essential than in, say, a philosophy class. But that failed, too, and Thrun opted to make interaction more central to Udacity’s offerings. For a small fee, paid by the month, students in certain courses have the option to converse with a personal coach and receive individual feedback, along with a certificate of completion.

Coursera’s learning hubs take that interaction one step further in seeking to recreate an actual classroom, this time with MOOCs playing the role of the textbook rather than complete courseware. Audio-visual books are how Dominican University’s Rodriguez-Farrar sees MOOCs:  “One of the major things that people need to remember is that content is content. Teaching is not content…. Teaching is about critical thinking, the curation of content, the knowing of understanding what’s good content versus bad content and the analysis of content. That’s the stuff where learning happens.”

Indeed. That thirst for interaction and dialogue is a large part of why the lecture hall has outlived its initial function as a read-aloud book room. There’s a lively—and important debate—on the relative merits of Internet videos versus printed pages in conveying that content and fostering an ethos of studiousness, respect, and curiosity. My own opinion is that if given the choice between a book and a MOOC, I’d prefer the book every time. But given a choice between MOOC as stand-alone course and MOOC as a book accompanied by discussion, I’d prefer the book version. Given the early results, so do most students.

One thought on “Is This The Future of MOOCs?”

  1. MOOC plus library provide the positive aspects of universities, while eliminating their negatives – ideology, prejudices and cost.

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