November 28, 2012

In my post Online Learning: Current Developments and Future Predictions, I discussed some implications of free online courses, including accreditation and obtaining degrees. These massive open online courses (MOOCs) are constantly evolving, and I’d like to continue the conversation.

Let’s start with the following question. What differentiates a MOOC from a regular online course? Probably the most salient differentiating factor is that it’s free. For regular online courses where students must be enrolled at that institution, they must pay tuition to take courses – whether online or in-person. Closely following in importance is that a MOOC is not linked to a particular institution. It is a standalone course that can be taken for fun or for credit, which may be used toward a degree from an institution. True, MOOCs may technically be offered by a particular university, but students don’t need to be attending that university to enroll in the MOOC. This is what enables 50,000+ students to take the course, putting the “M” in “MOOC.” Another feature of MOOCs, which cannot be said of all regular online courses, is asynchronous learning; in other words, students can take lessons at their own pace rather than at scheduled class times.

Now onto another question. Online courses have been around for a while. Jones International University, the first accredited, degree-granting online university, was launched in the 90’s. Many colleges and universities worldwide offer select online courses. Why only now are MOOCs coming into being? According to Keith Devlin, what led to MOOCs was Facebook, not YouTube. Devlin says that MOOCs are about online collaboration. (I need to ask him to elaborate on this.) But I think what really allowed MOOCs to arise is that there’s been a paradigm shift concerning the meaning of a quality education and how it should be delivered. The belief that being lectured by a “sage on stage” is the best way to learn is quickly dissipating, and in this globalized, digital era, so too is the idea that we must physically attend class. Only now are people beginning to see MOOCs as a viable alternative to traditional education.

And so far, MOOCs seem to be quite popular. As of mid-October, over 200,000 people have enrolled in Udacity’s CS101 “Introduction to Computer Science” course, which has already been translated into 25 languages since it first launched February 20, 2012. (Click here for a more complete list of dates detailing the beginnings of Udacity, Coursery, and edX.) Of those who took edX president Anant Agarwal’s MOOC on circuits and electronics, 63 percent claimed it was better than a similar, traditional course they took on-campus; 36 percent found it comparable; and 1 percent, worse. MOOCs will certainly become even more popular as more are offered for transfer credit at degree-granting institutions.

Now here’s another question: if MOOCs are free, how will they survive? If over $45 million in investments have gone into supporting these two ($30 million+ for Udacity and $16 million+ for Coursera), someone must smell money somewhere. According to this Gigaom article, Udacity “plans to make money by certifying students at offline proctored testing centers and helping employers find candidates with the skills that match their needs.” Or, maybe profit will come in the form of massive amounts of data generated by students who enroll in courses, which may then be sold to interested parties. Coursera is also looking at these options, although the full business models are not yet developed for either.

As these MOOCs grow in scale, new predicaments arise. One is cheating. Without a teacher physically present to closely monitor students as they progress through the course, it’s difficult to stop students from copying each others’ homework or use external sources on exams. Some ideas are described here.

Another dilemma is how to grade hundreds of thousands of assignments. Coursera utilizes a calibrated peer review system; five peers grade each student’s assignment and in turn, each student grades five assignments. This has sparked controversy, as all students must be able to grade adequately and fairly for it to work and some students don’t have confidence that their peers will do a good job. Is there a better way than peer grading? For computerized, multiple-choice tests, this is no problem. But what about essays? I don’t think paying qualified people to grade is an option. The cost would be too high. Peer grading seems to be the best method, especially because reviewing peers’ work benefits students by exposing them to various perspectives.

As for basing students’ final grades off of questionable peer-reviewed work? A polished methodology is still in the works. Crowdsourcing seems to be the most promising, realistic option. Students can anonymously upload their assignments for anyone enrolled in the course to grade; grading is transparent, so any inaccurate marks can be spotted and corrected by other students. Duke professor Cathy Davidson would call this a MOOCE – massive open online course evaluation.

As these kinks continue to be worked out in this unexplored territory, the world of education is growing more and more exciting. I’ll leave with one last thought. A salient feature of MOOCs is that they strive to foster learning communities. With tens or hundreds of thousands of students taking these courses, there will be no lack of discussion. Thus, MOOCs have the potential to create active learning communities even better than traditional schooling.

Let’s see what happens next!

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