What is Online Learning MOOC?
MOOC, which stands for the massive open online course, became one of those rare phenomena: an education innovation that captures the imagination of the public at large while moving at the speed of an Internet startup.
MOOC, which stands for the massive open online course, became one of those rare phenomena: an education innovation that captures the imagination of the public at large while moving at the speed of an Internet startup.
which automate the interaction between a school’s students, teachers, and administrators, and Internet-driven distance-learning programs, have only gone mainstream after the usual deliberation among stakeholders and the piloting associated with most technology initiatives.
And while these technologies have indeed transformed the learning landscape, only avid readers of education- or educational-technology-specific publications would have been aware of the ups and downs of their integration into the classroom.
Not so for MOOCs, which seem to have struck a chord not just with educators but with the public at large.
The just-mentioned “Year of the MOOC” title was given to 2012 by the New York Times to highlight a year during which Sebastian Thrun (the man behind Stanford’s artificial intelligence class—enrollment 160,000) founded KnowLabs (now Udacity) and promised to bring more free massive classes to the world.
Following right behind Thrun was Andrew Ng (who taught Stanford’s equally popular machine learning course, also with an enrollment over 100,000) and his fellow Stanford Professor Daphne Koller (a MacArthur award-winning Artificial Intelligence research scientist);
who together launched Coursera in April 2012 and immediately began forming partnerships with colleges and universities around the world that allowed them to leverage Coursera technology to give “rock star professors” the chance to educate thousands.
Some argued that MOOCs were an innovation that could have emerged only from the startup culture of Silicon Valley, but educators at prestigious East Coast universities weren’t buying it.
After all, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology had been offering access to nearly all of its teaching materials (including lecture videos and notes, syllabi, and even homework exercises and exam materials) via its OpenCourseWare initiative for a decade.
So rather than joining the queue behind other universities signing deals with venture-funded for-profit companies like Udacity or Coursera, MIT instead teamed up with Harvard to create their own competing MOOC provider: edX, a non-profit begun with commitments of more than fifty million dollars from the two Cambridge-based educational giants.
When large institutions that normally move into new educational arenas at a glacial pace start writing multimillion-dollar checks to try to quickly compete in an emerging market, that’s a story of interest to more than just the educational media.
And the fact that some of the nation’s most prestigious colleges and universities spent 2012 and 2013 lining up to deliver classes via one of the emerging East- or West-Coast MOOC-consortia established MOOCs as something that could not be dismissed as a passing educational fad.
In fact, for all of the discussion of money and technology that have played out in both the educational and mainstream press since the MOOC story broke, the most a significant aspect of the rise of MOOCs may turn out to be the changes they have wrought within the culture of higher education;
where institutions that once hoarded their classroom experiences as valuable intellectual assets were suddenly rushing to share that content with the world.
As my Degree of Freedom project was wrapping up toward the end of 2013, the “Big Three” MOOC providers—Udacity, Coursera, and edX—were offering over 500 courses on varying disciplines, with a total enrollment in MOOC classes topping seven million.
Meanwhile, new international competitors such as FutureLearn (an offshoot of Britain’s venerable distance-learning provider Open University) and Germany’s university were entering the MOOC provider market while other companies offering paid courses alongside free educational content were stretching the boundaries of what constituted a “genuine” MOOC.
But if 2012 was “The Year of the MOOC,” even if MOOCs were far fewer and more primitive during their first year than they are today, 2013 turned out to be the year of the MOOC backlash.
Rumblings against this “new thing” in education began in April of that year when Amherst College decided to take a “wait-and-see” attitude toward joining a MOOC partnership.
And while this decision didn’t prevent other schools (including Yale, which signed up with Coursera a month later) from taking the plunge, the Amherst decision communicated that participating in the “MOOC the movement” was not necessarily a requirement for every respectable institution of higher learning fretful of being left behind.
The benefits of free, open education for all were hard to dismiss when the first MOOC classes were emerging.
But once those classes had been in the field for a few semesters, there was suddenly data both boosters and critics of MOOCs could use to support their pro- and anti-MOOC arguments.
For critics, high attrition rates were an easy target, given that fewer than 10 percent of people who signed up for a MOOC tended to take it to completion.
And once institutions moved from agreeing to create a MOOC to actually building and delivering one, the amount of work involved, not to mention the challenges inherent in trying to teach tens of thousands of students simultaneously (all while balancing other teaching responsibilities), became the basis for a new set of concerns.
Tales of flame wars breaking out in the online comment forums, originally designed to replicate the civil discourse of the classroom, were part of that story, as were disappointments over the lack of engagement of many students, which caused one UC Irvine professor to abandon his course midsemester out of frustration.
And then there was the natural conflict between the claimed altruistic missions of MOOC providers to educate the planet and the need for these organizations to make money out of what was emerging as a massive Internet giveaway.
Usual methods of “monetizing eyeballs” (such as online ads) seemed anathema to the culture of education;
but proposed business models that would allow venture-funded companies to turn a profit led to suspicions that MOOCs could end up decimating traditional education in order to generate a return for investors or, in the case of nonprofits, generate the funds needed to achieve self-sufficiency.
Business Model of MOOC
One business model that has been actively explored by MOOC providers, licensing content to residential institutions of higher education such as state and community colleges, created the biggest MOOC controversy of 2013 when professors in the philosophy department of San Jose State University published a letter;
ostensibly written to Harvard professor Michael Sandel (one of the aforementioned “rock star professors” who teaches the popular ethics class Justice for edX), complaining that the school’s licensing of edX content was part of a scheme by administrators to replace paid faculty with third-party video lectures.
In fact, suspicion over this still largely experimental licensing model led one instructor of a popular Coursera course to pull his support from the project when the chance came to give the class a second time.
As MOOCs were going through this roller-coaster ride over the course of 2013, I was in the unusual position of standing still while public opinion was changing around me.
For my cautious enthusiasm over what massive open learning might eventually evolve into was neither zealous enough for those celebrating a MOOC revolution nor cynical enough to suit those participating in the backlash.
More importantly, as someone with experience watching popular technology trends play out in fields outside the politically fraught world of education, this trajectory of zeal followed by paranoia was fitting into a familiar trend: that of the “Hype Cycle” for new, disruptive technologies.
This Hype Cycle model, originally developed by the Gartner Group technology-consulting firm, maps out important peaks and valleys of perception that tend to repeat whenever an important technology-driven trend plays out.
According to this model, a “technology trigger” of some sort introduces something new into an established marketplace. This trigger might be a new invention, but more frequently it is the result of a once-experimental or peripheral technology becoming affordable or stable enough to become accepted as a standard.
MOOC's E-book Technology
For instance, e-book technology had existed for years in the form of products from different vendors who had created their own standards and devices, companies that struggled to build relationships with established publishers while working out new business models for book sales and distribution. But it was Amazon’s release of the
The peak of inflated expectations
Plateau of productivity
Slope of enlightenment
Trough of disillusionment
Kindle, a standard rapidly embraced by large numbers of major publishers, that served as the technology trigger for mainstreaming the replacement of older production and delivery systems (print, warehouse, delivery truck, and bookstore) with something new (the tablet reader fed by Internet download).
In the case of MOOCs, it was the emergence of companies like Udacity, Coursera, and edX, whose technologies could facilitate classes taken by tens of thousands, that triggered a MOOC movement that had previously been relegated to theoretical frameworks or experimental courses.
Once such new and promising technologies grab public attention, the next stage involves inflated expectations that tend to minimize any potential downside in favor of visions of a near-term utopia.
For e-books, the notion of instant gratification coupled with lower-cost fed expectations that any publisher that remained attached to print in any way was doomed to oblivion, especially in a world where writers could bypass publishers entirely to self-publish directly to the Kindle or to competing technologies like Apple’s iPad or Barnes and Noble’s Nook.
MOOCs passed through this “Inflated Expectations” stage in 2012 when 100,000+ person enrollments in newly emerging massive classes fueled expectations that Harvard- or Stanford-quality education would soon be available to all for free, solving problems such as third-world poverty abroad and the skyrocketing cost of higher education at home;
if not immediately, then at least over that fifty-year period Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun predicted would be needed before MOOCs came to rule an educational landscape consisting of no more than ten institutions.
Unsurprisingly, it was this very vision that terrified those professors who feared they might not be working in one of those ten theoretically surviving schools.
But even absent an entrenched establishment threatened by disruptive technology, inflated expectations invariably lead to disappointment as euphoric fantasies run head-on into the realities associated with the introduction of any transformative innovation.
Continuing with the e-book parallel, this technology was greeted with an initial backlash by those passionate about traditional printed books (a substantial group with significant cultural influence). But disillusionment with e-book technology was not simply fueled by nostalgia.
For e-books—with their eccentric form factors, layout limitations, and live (i.e., distracting) “hot links”—were proving to offer a different and not necessarily superior reading experience compared to the printed book.
And as authors realized that their self-published Kindle editions were being downloaded by only a few family members, the role played by traditional publishers beyond layout, manufacturing, and delivery, especially with regard to building awareness of new titles, became apparent to authors and publishers alike.
In the case of MOOCs, the challenges inherent in delivering quality courses to huge numbers demonstrated that digital videos of Harvard lectures did not a Harvard education make. More pragmatically, MOOC courses seemed to vary enormously in terms of quality and workload.
And with no clear way to ensure that a student enrolled in a MOOC was the one actually doing the work, it was difficult to claim that any massive open course constituted the equivalent of a traditional semester-long college class.
In cases where college equivalency was claimed (or even proven), the complex process of turning MOOCs into genuine college credit made it an option for just an illustrious few.
And even when MOOC providers established programs to smooth the way toward obtaining credit via an established institution, few if any students signed up, indicating that the audience for MOOCs might actually not be college students seeking an alternative to a tradi-tional—and expensive—education.
As these genuine concerns met with some of the suspicion and paranoia mentioned earlier, a MOOC backlash occurred that sometimes manifested itself as outright hostility but was mostly expressed as cooling interest in MOOCs as a whole, which is why MOOC news stories toward the end of 2013 were far fewer than what we saw at the beginning of that year.
The point of the Gartner Hype Cycle curve is to demonstrate that neither the height of inflated expectations nor the trough of disillusionment are particularly productive with regard to allowing a new technology to find its proper fit in the marketplace.
For that to happen, cooler heads need to prevail that are willing to embrace the new technology—warts and all—and allow it to evolve to the point where it can achieve its potential.
For just as e-book technology now coexists with older methods of production and distribution while also evolving to create new and unique reading experiences, so too can massive open
Even when MOOC providers established programs to smooth the way toward obtaining credit via an established institution, few students signed up, indicating that the audience might not be college students seeking an alternative to a traditional—and expensive—education. classes usher in an exciting educational future, but only if the MOOC experiment is allowed to run its course.
Finding the proper pathway up this “Slope of Enlightenment” to allow MOOCs to more rapidly reaching a “Plateau of Productivity” was the goal of my Degree of Freedom project, which provided ground-level, student-centric understanding of what worked and what didn’t in reality, live MOOC classes.
It is also the goal of this book, which should be thought of as a means to shorten and steepen the enlightenment curve by providing perspective on how MOOCs came about, what they consist of, their issues, challenges, and potential futures.
On the surface, MOOCs might just seem like general online courses, albeit with no fees and huge open enrollments. But by seeing where MOOCs fit into the evolutionary history of online education, we can determine how closely the MOOCs have taken today by millions of students fit (or don’t fit) the vision of earlier pioneers in technology-driven teaching and learning.
Whether a course can simply be thought of as the sum of its constituent parts. And in an era when companies outside the original MOOC “big three” are repackaging and rebranding existing content as massive online course offerings, we take a look at the question of how to best define “MOOC” and consider what might determine whether an online course fits into this category.
Much of the writing surrounding this subject uses the phrase “the MOOC experiment” to highlight the fact that individual MOOCs, as well as the MOOC concept as a whole, should be thought of as an experimental program playing out in public rather than a product being presented as already perfected.
Although cynics could dismiss this language as a means to excuse releasing sloppy or unfinished work into the marketplace, the scientific attitude ex-pressed by MOOCs being an experiment in new learning methods is deeply embedded in the DNA of those most heavily invested in their success.
The “perfect is the enemy of the good” is a phrase attributed to Voltaire, although that sentiment can be seen in the work of other thinkers before and since.
And in the highly charged, highly politicized, high-stakes world of education, innovation and reform are frequently criticized for providing “only” partial or gradual solutions to some of the many problems that plague education, such as lack of results, high cost, and limited access to resources, rather than providing immediate answers to all of them.
It is difficult to argue that no good can come out of the world’s most successful colleges and universities making classes taught by skilled and enthusiastic professors eager to share their knowledge available to anyone with an Internet connection.
But even if we can avoid the fallacy of thinking that because MOOCs cannot solve all our educational challenges they aren’t worth pursuing, we still need to understand the nature of the benefits such programs deliver as well as who can benefit from them.
As with any book covering a fast-moving topic, there is always the risk that the words I’m writing now might seem outdated by the time you read them, especially since MOOCs (like many inventions that have come before) is a collection of technologies moving in directions even their creators never anticipated.
But with a grounding in where MOOCs came from, what they consist of, what challenges they face, and where they might be going, readers will stand a better chance of making better decisions regarding their own involvement with this promising and still potentially revolutionary new method of learning.
WHERE DID MOOCS COME FROM?
When looking for precedents regarding the symbiosis between technology and education, one could go back to the Protestant Reformation in sixteenth-century Europe when a new communication technology, the printing press, became associated with a theology that stressed personal study of the Bible, which the new printing technology made more widely available.
This historic combination created the need for a more widely literate public, a need that could be met only by expanding education beyond clerics and aristocrats.
But it was the value of later Enlightenment figures placed on universal education that led to the creation of public school systems as well as the massive expansion of institutions of higher learning from the eighteenth century onward.
These Enlightenment-era thinkers also embraced science as a road to progress in all aspects of human life, a faith that only became more intense in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries when technology was revolutionizing existing industries, such as agriculture and transportation while creating a host of new activities like automated factory production and global commodities trade.
In addition to disrupting established methods of manufacturing and commerce, these innovations also created the need for increasing numbers of educated managers and technocrats.
Faith in the combined virtues of universal education and technical progress meant that from the nineteenth century onward, any new breakthrough in communications technology was almost immediately put to work toward the goal of educating the masses, with MOOCs being just the latest manifestation of this historic impulse.
When MOOCs are discussed in the context of distance education, an analogy is often drawn to correspondence courses first popularized in the 1840s by the UK’s Sir Isaac Pittman, whose correspondence colleges offered to train students in his new shorthand method by sending them instruction manuals through the mail.
This early iteration of education by post created an industry that continues to this day. Those of us who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s may associate correspondence classes with invitations to draw Winky the Deer or Lucky the Duck appearing on matchbooks or in ads in popular magazines, the recruitment method for Art Instruction Inc.,
a correspondence school founded in 1914 that offers art instruction by mail.2But correspondence classes were also the means by which major universities tried to fulfill their mission for educational outreach.
In the late 1800s, for example, US schools such as Illinois Wesleyan, the University of Chicago and the University of Wisconsin all offered degree programs through the mail.
The concentration of such programs in the Midwest reflected a mission for many of these newly created institutions to support educational outreach to rural communities that lacked easy access to the resources of a major urban campus.
These distance education programs were also heavily involved with government programs at the federal and state level (such as the creation of the Extension Service and foundation of Land Grant Colleges), which tried to improve the conditions of Americans living in underserved agricultural regions.
The undergraduate and even graduate degree-by-mail opportunities these schools offered also opened up opportunities for educational advancement to other dispersed communities such as military personnel.
The technological breakthroughs that made correspondence-based education possible during this era were Faith in the combined virtues of universal education and technical progress meant that from the nineteenth century onward, any new breakthrough in communications.
The technology was almost immediately put to work toward the goal of educating the masses, with MOOCs being just the latest manifestation of this historic impulse. infrastructural (such as the expansion of rail and road networks, which enabled the mail to reach every home) and mechanical (the machine-powered printing press, which dramatically lowered the cost of printed books).
Low-cost printing, which was made possible as a result of modern farming and manufacturing techniques in the paper industry, fueled other informal means of bringing educational content to previously marginalized communities.
Public libraries, for example, which expanded into every community in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, were able to stock inexpensively produced books that a growing publishing industry was churning out in ever greater numbers.
This technology-driven downward price spiral also meant books were finding their way into private hands through familiar commercial channels such as bookstores and modern distribution techniques such as the traveling salesman.
Low-cost print and distribution opened up other avenues for books to reach the masses.
To cite one example, my father (a retired professor of literature) discovered what we would now term “The Great Books” in the library of his father, a factory foreman who had obtained them free as part of his subscription to PM, a left-leaning New York news daily that decided access to the classics was essential to uplifting members of the working class.
Broadcast media, first radio in the 1920s and then television in the 1950s, created opportunities for important partnerships between newly emerging broadcasters hungry for content, skilled lecturers with an interest in reaching a wider audience, and national governments interested in ensuring a public education mission for the broadcast spectrum they were licensing and regulating.
In the United States, this mission took the form of licensing radio stations at educational institutions (over 200 such licenses were granted between 1918 and 1946). But formal education via this medium failed to catch on (by 1940, the only college course offered by radio had no takers).
Television fared somewhat better in the educational arena with programs such as Sunrise Semester (which ran on the CBS broadcast network from 1957 through 1982), allowing New York University to offer for-credit courses on a range of disciplines to students willing to sit through enough 6 am lectures.
As advances in recording technology lowered costs of production and distribution of audio (via inexpensive LPs, cassette tapes, and eventually audio CDs), and video (via Beta, then VHS videotape, and finally DVDs), these media became yet another means to distribute educational content.
And distance education organizations were quick to embrace these new technologies, as were businesses eager to find new worker-training methods that were less expensive and disruptive than live classes run during work hours.
Recorded college lectures continue to be popular, as reflected by the success of products such as the Great Courses series by The Teaching Company or the Modern Scholar lectures by Recorded Books, both offering lecture courses in a variety of college-level disciplines via CD, DVD, and Internet download.
And Apple’s iTunes U service, which allows people to download audio and video recordings of live college classes, has been a popular part of the company’s media offerings since 2007.
But lectures alone, either broadcast or recorded (or in the classroom, for that matter), were never enough to constitute the entirety of an educational experience, which is why it required a new generation of distance-learning pioneers to come up with new pedagogies;
that would stitch together the various components of a class, including lectures, reading assignments, graded homework, and tests, into something recognizable as a complete and genuine “course.”
While the first steps in this direction were taken by schools such as the University of South Africa (which began offering degrees at a distance in 1962), the most well-known example of a virtual campus that leveraged each new communication technology as it became available is the UK’s Open University (OU), which took in its first students in 1971.
In addition to embracing radio, television, audio, and video recordings, and eventually the Internet as educational communication tools, Open University, unlike similar distance education initiatives at the time, had no formal entrance requirements beyond the ability to pay (often subsidized) and willingness to participate in classes and complete assignments.
And while the digital computing and Internet technologies that would eventually underlie MOOCs were not in existence as Open University grew to serve hundreds of thousands of students in its first decades, OU’s program represents one of the first instances of the no-barriers philosophy that would become a cornerstone of massive online learning.
Early attempts to integrate technology into the class-room—one of the most interesting being B. F. Skinner’s Teaching Machine, a mechanical device that would feed content to students using a predetermined algorithm— never got much traction in the primary grades it was envisioned to serve.
But such inventions did create a template for subsequent devices and techniques to come that would use technology to diverge from the one-size-fits-all-at-the-same-time pedagogies that formed the basis of traditional classroom education.
It took the introduction of the digital computer, which offered information storage and sharing resources that facilitated communications and interaction, to provide a platform that would eventually replace disparate educational modalities (such as lectures on audio or videotape, readings delivered by mail, or exams taken on site) with a single point of entry for most if not all of the distance education experience.
Like all of the technologies mentioned so far in this blog, the computer was embraced almost immediately as an educational instrument—this despite severe limitations of early devices, which consisted of large centralized systems with which students interacted primarily via terminals capable of displaying only text-based characters.
PLATO (standing for Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations), a system developed in the 1960s by professors at the University of Illinois, is probably the most important early attempt to apply new computing technologies to challenges in education.
While built on networked mainframe systems that primarily time-sliced character-based content to “dumb” terminals, PLATO evolved to incorporate elements its creators decided were crucial to education.
For example, the need to display graphics as well as text led PLATO’s builders to innovate precursors to the graphical user interface eventually taken up by computer scientists at Xerox PARC, innovations that ultimately found their way into the Apple Macintosh and Windows systems we today take for granted.
And the importance of facilitating professor-to-student and student-to-student communication led PLATO’s makers to construct technologies that prefigured and inspired electronic mail, bulletin board systems, and all of the other online communications facilities that underlie today’s hyperconnected world.
As computers went through their rapid evolution from centralized systems based on mainframe and minicomputers connected to “dumb” terminals through low-cost and autonomous microcomputers to today’s powerful networked machines, education continued to find new uses for each advance in computing technology.
For example, early microcomputers that ran character-based operating systems or graphical operating systems were embraced by home and school users as educational tools that could run standalone teaching software, including educational games, flashcards, and automated homework exercises.
But it was the networked communication facilitated by the Internet’s rise in the 1990s that turned computing technology from a support tool to a potential replacement for the traditional classroom.
It should be noted that by the time the Internet (first created in the 1960s) started to enter the mainstream, previous limitations associated with desktop computers were becoming a thing of the past.
For instance, plummeting hardware costs meant computers with enough memory and storage capacity to run multimedia applications like audio and video had become commodities.
And by the time a new generation of online universities opened its doors, high-speed bandwidth was also becoming available and affordable (at least in the developed world) as the once familiar modem whistle followed by a blast of static was replaced by instantly available audio and video content from, among other places, institutions of learning.
Education has been transformed not only through advances in technology but by advances in teaching methodology and pedagogy, by educational reform movements (many emphasizing outcomes and testing), and by political decisions regarding how to prioritize the substantial sums government invests in education at the local, state/ regional, and national levels.
And even as these new ways of teaching and learning have been influenced by a rapidly expanding educational technology industry, they have also provided the intellectual foundation upon which many EdTech ventures have been built.
Anyone of these topics deserves its own historical account. But for purposes of continuing this blog’s storyline leading to the emergence of the MOOC, a list of relevant innovations related to online learning that started in the 1990s includes the following:
• The introduction of learning management systems (LMSs) into college campuses, which automated the interaction between students and professors (through features such as the automated distribution of syllabus material and submission of homework assignments), as well as professors and administrators (through systems such as centralized grading and reporting).
• The creation of a new generation of distance-teaching providers that today use the Internet as their primary content-delivery mechanism, one of the most well known being the University of Phoenix, which opened its doors in 1976 and began offering online classes in 1989.
• The embrace of online teaching by traditional colleges and universities where, as described in a 2011 report by the Pew Internet and American Life Project (which incorporates survey research involving college presidents and students):
“More than three-quarters of the nation’s colleges and universities now offer online classes, according to the survey of college presidents, and about one-in-four college graduates (23%) have taken a course online, according to the general public survey. Among those who have graduated in the past decade, the figure rises to 46%.”
The Internet did not remain static as educators tried to figure out how to make use of its benefits while avoiding its pitfalls.
Upsides of the new communications medium included dramatic increases in efficiency and rapid expansion of reach, while downsides included a developing culture of distraction that threatened to disrupt class time;
not to mention a culture of giving things—including educational content—away for free that threatened to disrupt the business models undergirding higher education.
The emergence of social media products such as Facebook and Twitter provided the means to instantly create online communities, including communities of learners, who could participate in projects together regardless of geographical location.
And as free, cloud-based resources tore down barriers to content creation and distribution, comparisons began to be drawn between the education field and newspapers and magazines that were not able to reinvent themselves quickly enough to avoid decimation by an online revolution in media.
Discussion of the educational potential of these tools was taking place within a wider decades-long and fretful conversation over an education system claimed to be in a perpetual state of crisis, even as proponents of pedagogical and political solutions were providing competing answers to less-than-clearly understood questions.
This environment created a ready audience for anyone proposing technology-based cures (including magic bullets) for the ills of education, an audience that included parents staring down six-figure tuition bills that might buy their kids access to schools delivering ever-larger classes taught by adjuncts and graduate students rather than full professors.
Educational entrepreneurs and altruists, including countless emerging educational technology (or EdTech) ventures and educational nonprofits, were more than ready to provide their own alternatives in the form of educational products and programs,;
many of them leveraging the same all-but-free Internet infrastructure being used by large educational publishers and universities themselves to deliver a variety of proposed solutions to society’s educational ills.
One of these ills was the aforementioned ever-increasing size of classes, a problem that could theoretically be solved by allowing small online communities of learners to band together based on their interests and ability level to create more intimate educational experiences tailored to the needs of individual students.
But it would take until 2008 before one of these experimenters decided to deliberately increase class size as a means for improving education. And once the threshold of a thousand students in a single class was breached, the age of the MOOC had begun.
Opening Up the Class
Before “massiveness” became the focus of attention in online learning, “open” was the key driver for a series of experiments in online education from which today’s MOOCs ultimately emerged.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s OpenCourseWare (OCW) initiative was founded in 2002 to make content from MIT’s classroom-based courses available over the Internet to teachers, college students, and independent learners.
Today, material from over 2,000 MIT classes, cutting across all disciplines, can be accessed and used for educational purposes, and MIT is a member of an OpenCourseWare Consortium that makes available multilingual educational materials from countries around the world.
OpenCourseWare provides a powerful example of how institutions can share educational resources with the public. However, the contents of OCW libraries can vary considerably from institution to institution and even from course to course.
For example, only a small percentage of MIT’s OCW classes include video recordings of lectures, with the majority of courses covered by lecture notes and slides alongside reading lists, exams, and other text-based content.
And while anyone is free to follow along with a course syllabus (also provided for each course in the MIT OCW library), OpenCourseWare is generally not considered to provide a comprehensive substitute for structured MIT classes.
Throwing open the doors of existing structured classes to people not associated with the institution where Before “massiveness” became the focus of attention in online learning, “open” was the key driver for a series of experiments in online education from which today’s MOOCs ultimately emerged. The course was being taught was a logical next step in the evolution of online openness.
Technology-wise, there was little to prevent course content that was already automated and delivered to students on and off campus through a school’s online learning management system from being made available to people not connected with the college or university.
But actually inviting the public to take a course for free (where they would be working alongside traditional students who had paid to take the same class) was a radical step taken by educational envelope pushers like Dr. David Wiley of Utah State University.
In 2008, Wiley opened up one of his education courses to the world, allowing anyone interested to participate alongside his tuition-paying Utah State students.
These external students were asked to take part in all of the class work performed by Utah students, including submitting written assignments that Dr. Wiley graded like any other papers submitted in his classes.
And while Utah State did not provide official recognition or credit to external students taking the course for free, Dr. Wiley issued his own signed certificates of completion—prefiguring the types of quasi-official course-gradation documents that would come to characterize the MOOC reward system a few years later.
Now Wiley’s experiment drew fewer than ten external enrollees who took the course alongside fifteen Utah State students, so grading papers and personally signing certificates represented a modest increase in workload, well worth the effort for a professor dedicated to evangelizing the benefits of open learning.
But while that small Utah class was creating an important precedent for future open online course initiatives, further North another experiment would add massiveness into the equation.
The first course to earn the title of a MOOC was Connectivism and Connective Knowledge taught by Stephen Downes, senior researcher for the National Research Council of Canada, and George Siemens, associate director for the Technology Enhanced Knowledge Research Institute at Canada’s Athabasca University.
This 2008 course (which was repeated in 2011 and 2012) looks very different from the institution-based MOOC classes that would be making news from 2011 onward. For the connectivist approach to knowledge and learning that was the subject of the course also characterized the way the entire project was organized.
The connections model championed by pioneers such as Siemens and Downes sees knowledge and learning through the lens of how information becomes incorporated into the brain, an organic system in which billions of neurons form trillions of connections with learning measured in the net number of new connections created.
Such a vision has obvious analogs with computer networks (which is why classes organized along connectivist principles are often referred to as “networked learning”).
And once the Internet became large enough to facilitate a number of nodes that could be measured in the hundreds of millions (if not billions), it became possible to create a course based on this connectivist understanding of how people learn.
Unlike a standard online class delivering traditional classroom elements such as lectures, reading assignments, homework, and tests via a learning management system, Connectivism and Connective Knowledge was built around a variety of online communication tools with students forming organic communities through bulletin boards and chat rooms, social media products like Facebook and Twitter, or sharing services like RSS.
And as these communities formed, they linked up with other communities as the network defining the class grew and evolved.
In order to provide some connective tissue for the program, Downes and Siemens posted a daily newsletter containing links to recommended articles, videos, and other content that students were free to review, discuss, add to, or ignore.
And instead of attending scheduled lectures where the professors acted as sages performing from a virtual stage, students were invited to participate in bi-weekly presentations by the course leaders, by people the professors invited to speak, or by individuals drawn from the community of networked learners.
Under this connectivist framework, all material generated by the professors (such as presentations, reading recommendations, and discussion forums) was optional, with students free to use what they liked, create and share their own curriculum materials, and take the community-based conversation in directions never planned by the creators of the course.
Given this framework, large class size assumed to be inversely proportional to teaching and learning quality in a traditional classroom setting, suddenly became an asset rather than a liability. For the bigger the connectivist “class,” the greater the potential for the quantity and variety of nodal connections that define success for networked learning.
The term “MOOC” was created by another Canadian, David Cormier, manager of web communications and innovations at the University of Prince Edward Island and the host of the weekly EdTechTalk webcast.
Cormier helped facilitate Downes’s and Seimens’s connective learning project and coined the term “Massive Open Online Course” or “MOOC” during an EdTechTalk interview with the course creators in 2008.
The connective vision continues to generate a great deal of passion as well as a roster of online courses organized around its principles of decentralized networks.
But as class sizes for these types of courses stabilized in the three- and four-figure range, a new vision for the MOOC— the xMOOC—would start racking up enrollments of tens and even hundreds of thousands.
xMOOC vs. cMOOC
The origin of what we now consider to be mainstream MOOCs, which began with the Stanford open learning experiment and evolved into consortia of colleges and universities delivering online courses through companies such as Coursera, Udacity, and edX.
But while such classes may have become synonymous with the term “MOOC” in the educational and popular media, people involved with some of the earlier experiments in online learning described in this blog use the term xMOOC to distinguish the newer massive courses from the connectivist MOOCs (now referred to as cMOOCs) that came before.
Given that one of the saving graces of the otherwise unattractive MOOC acronym is its pronounceability, it’s no surprise that this pair of unwieldy variants failed to capture an audience beyond a small community of learning specialists.
And while it’s tempting to characterize xMOOCs and cMOOCs as representing opposing pedagogies or ideologies with regard to their approach to large-scale online learning, such reductivism threatens to blur more interesting distinctions and overlaps between the two ways MOOCs have manifested themselves to date.
After all, “xMOOC” is not a banner the current crop of MOOCs from companies like Coursera and edX chose to travel under but rather is a label assigned to later forms of MOOC classes by advocates for specific theories of connectivism.
And unlike cMOOCs, xMOOCs are not built around a specific educational theory or pedagogy, even if most of them can be characterized as replicating traditional classroom models designed around lectures, homework assignments, and assessments.
Also, as interesting as connectivist educational models might be, and as important as cMOOCs were in breaking down barriers to large-scale online classes, the number of people who have chosen to participate in xMOOC classes surpasses cMOOC participants by at least two orders of magnitude.
Now it is not at all clear whether the popularity of an MIT xMOOC like Circuits and Electronics (with an enrollment of over 150,000) is due to its xMOOC nature, the subject matter, or the fact that it is a free course from MIT.
But it does seem as though the emerging MOOC market is driven more by content and association with prestige universities than it is by either technology or pedagogical theory.
Regarding overlap between various flavors of MOOC, keep in mind the experimental nature of the entire massive open course undertaking, a culture of research, assimilation, and trial-and-error.
5. So, far from seeing cMOOC experiments in community formation as a rival pedagogy, many creators of xMOOCs see classes like Connectivism and Connective Knowledge as just one more set of precedents to draw from as they put together and continued to tinker with their own massive online courses.
Rather than focusing on narrow x- and c-genera of the MOOC phenomenon, a better way to think about MOOC variants is by placing them on different branches of a far larger and more complex family tree alongside multiple variants of online learning, not to mention other modern teaching tools and techniques, all descending from a common pair of ancestors: technology and education.
With these two playing the role of Adam and Eve, descendants of the pairing of education and technology include not just multiple species of online education (which includes MOOCs, online colleges, and LMS-driven online learning within K–12 and higher education);
but a host of transformations within the classroom where teachers at all grade levels are drawing upon new technology-based resources to construct, enliven, and transform how learning takes place, implementing pedagogies quite at odds with the way education has traditionally been delivered.
For instance, “Flipped Classroom Models” involve replacing the usual sequence of in-class lectures followed by assignments and projects done at home with a new work-flow that involves students watching recorded lectures as homework, freeing class time for extended in-depth discussion or work on complex individual and group projects.
MOOCs are frequently brought up in discussions of flipping the class where it is assumed that recorded MOOC lectures will provide at-home video content.
But even before the advent of MOOCs, educators have been implementing this method of teaching by recording their own lectures or curating material from different commercial and noncommercial third-parties for both homework/lectures and in-classroom exercises.
The concept of “curation,” which involves teachers locating and procuring educational material from various sources and integrating it into the class, has also destabilized another mainstay of primary, secondary, and post-secondary education: the textbook.
Whereas public school districts once purchased individual texts for each student (or, as in my own kids’ schools, purchases two copies per student freeing them from having to drag heavy hardcover tomes home each day), they are now gravitating toward e-book versions of the same texts which are being supplemented by material found from sources like the open web.
Professors at colleges and universities who face less pressure than do K–12 teachers to use teaching resources— notably textbooks—selected for them (often based on compliance with state standards) have gone much further in replacing textbooks entirely with articles and other content pulled together into inexpensive custom coursepacks or delivered to students free through learning management systems or a library reserve service.
This move away from printed texts in both K–12 and higher education has led to changes across the educational economy, especially since the billions in textbook spending at the K–12 and college levels means that more education dollars are tied up in this component of the education process than almost any other, including spending on school technology infrastructure.
Expectations that this money would eventually find a new home fueled massive consolidation and acquisition activity within the textbook industry in the late 1990s and early 2000s as investors bet that established publishers would have the resources and customer base needed to take the best advantage of a “move to digital” represented by the merging of content and technology.
But as those textbook behemoths struggled to wean themselves off high-margin book sales and find and implement new business models that stood the risk of cannibalizing existing businesses, another set of investors started placing bets on younger, smaller high-tech startups that could offer new educational products and services un-encumbered by existing high-profit product lines, legacy technology, or outmoded business practices.
And some of the beneficiaries of this investor interest (some would say speculation) in EdTech have been MOOC companies that have received tens of millions of dollars in funding in the belief that millions of “eyeballs” obtained through giving college courses away for free could eventually be converted into revenue.
Before leaving the subject of textbooks, it should also be noted that one of the factors that left educational publishers open to customer flight was pricing policies that raised textbook prices at nearly twice the rate of inflation.
While this also left publishers open to criticism and even political condemnation, these for-profit companies seemed a convenient surrogate for an attack on colleges and universities, whose costs were also spiraling beyond the reach of ordinary people leading to, among other problems, a trillion-dollar educational debt bubble that looms as the next great financial crisis.
While an analysis of the factors behind the exorbitant costs of college is beyond the scope of this blog, it should be noted that much of the discussion of MOOCs as a potential substitute for a traditional college education grows out of concerns that colleges and universities are pricing themselves out of a market;
and will need to be replaced (or at least supplemented) with different, less-expensive alternatives, alternatives that have the potential to disrupt the status quo.
As you can see from this history, the MOOC phenomenon is interwoven with and playing out against a backdrop of economics and politics, changes in educational pedagogies and approaches, and shifting expectations with regard to education resulting from the expanding capabilities and choices offered to students and teachers through new technologies.
But before looking at such controversies, we need to answer a more fundamental question of what is (and just as important what is not) a MOOC?
For anyone who has taken a massive online class from one of the major MOOC providers, the answer to the question of what constitutes a MOOC might seem obvious: the same lectures, reading and homework assignments, assessments, and discussions you would find in a traditional college class, albeit delivered in a digital format to thousands rather than live to dozens.
But, as I learned while taking dozens of such courses, when the content of a class moves from live to digital with the assumption that this material will be consumed by tens of thousands of students of differing and unknown abilities (including familiarity with the language in which the class is taught) working in widely ranging environments;
not only do the elements of learning take on different attributes but the rules that define meaning when these elements are linked together in a traditional classroom may no longer apply.
To take one example, the seemingly simple decision of putting a MOOC on a calendar rather than making the same course available on demand radically changes the nature of discussion in an online class, transforming it from a forum for working through ideas the class is grappling with week after week to an archive of insights primarily used to help students work through homework and assessments.
And then there is the question of what you earn upon completion of a MOOCs. some other online learning experience.
An online course that is part of an accredited degree program provides you actual credit hours you can apply toward a diploma, while an e-learning course in the latest version of Microsoft Office might earn you nothing more than some sort of informal certificate of mastery.
MOOCs, on the other hand, generally provide those who complete a course with a certificate bearing the name of a prestigious institution. With some effort, certain MOOCs can be turned into college credit.
But even if a massive course is taken purely for the sake of learning, the perceived value of a MOOC certificate can be higher than what you obtain by completing some garden-variety computer-based learning class, provided a student can figure out how to signal the value of their accomplishment to the wider world.
In this blog, we take a look at all of the parts of a course and how they fit together in order to answer the question of what constitutes a MOOC. And in an era when e-learning providers are repackaging and rebranding their material as MOOC classes, we will also use this analysis to determine what might fall outside the category of a massive open online course.
In many ways, the lecture is the most valuable component of any class in that it provides an expert (the instructor) an efficient means to deliver his or her expertise, built over years of teaching and researching a subject.
It has become fashionable to denigrate online classes, including most MOOCs, as simply taking “sage on the stage” lecturing that’s been the cornerstone of education for centuries and moving it onto the screen.
And while it is true that the lecture is an information transfer technique that has been the focal point of education (especially higher education) for centuries, there is a difference between maintaining a tradition out of inertia and sticking with a teaching strategy that works.
So are lecturing an anachronism or a tool that, like a hammer, leave minimal room for dramatic improvement?
One of the most widely read books on the subject of lecturing is Donald Bligh’s What’s the Use of Lectures?
This work synthesized existing research on the efficacy of lecturing and came to the conclusion that of the four things teachers claim students should be getting from their lessons (the acquisition of information, promotion of thought, changes in attitude, and development of behavior skills), information acquisition is the only object where data demonstrate the effectiveness of the lecture format.
This would help to explain why lecturing tends to predominate in higher education rather than in earlier grades.
For earlier schooling must include large components of cognitive and behavior training, requiring early-grade classes to include forms of classroom exercises and interactions less necessary in higher education courses that focus more on information transfer.
Bligh makes it a point to acknowledge that while research based on evidence of performance might demonstrate important general principles regarding the effectiveness of the lecture format, statistics in themselves cannot capture specific instances of inspiring teachers able to use their lectures to do more than simply transfer knowledge.
In the MOOC world, such teachers are often referred to as “rock star professors,” implying that educators most attracted to teaching a massive online course are the ones whose mastery of the art of lecturing allows them to transcend limitations of the lecture format.
While characteristics such as a lecturer’s “artistry” and “inspiration” (never mind “rock star” status) are difficult to quantify;
one conclusion in Bligh’s work—which jibes with more current research-based opinion regarding lecture length—is that widely varying student attention spans and memory stamina point to the efficacy of shorter vs. longer lectures. (Bligh recommends 20–30 minutes vs. the traditional 1–2 hours of traditional college lectures.)
And with a few exceptions, MOOC developers have taken to heart the importance of breaking lecture material into shorter segments. Most of the massive classes I took through edX and Coursera;
for example, “chunked” lectures (which tend to total between 1 and 3 hours of video per week) into 5–15 minute increments, while my classes from the early MOOC pioneer Udacity subdivided lectures into even tinier segments, most less than two minutes in length.
The fact that lectures are recorded also gives students access to video-player controls that allow them to speed up a professor they feel is taking too long to get to a point or back up to re-listen to a point that might have been delivered too rapidly, giving students far more control over the rate of information transfer and acquisition than they would have in a live classroom.
And while such controls are no more “high tech” than what VHS players allowed us to do thirty years ago, the ability to change speed, repeat, or skip micro-lectures has a pedagogical impact.
For instance, students already know about certain topics taught in a course can speed through or even skip videos on those subjects, while struggling students can repeat a lecture or return to it later, something that happens frequently during homework and assessment sequences.
Speed controls and subtitling also support students with special needs or learners for whom English (still the primary language for MOOCs) is not their mother tongue.
Many of these controls have been standard in conventional online learning systems featuring video content, but MOOC developers often have access to things traditional online courses creators lack;
such as production facilities and budgets that allow them to shoot on location or supplement “sage-on-stage” talking with interviews and recorded conversations, techniques that are beginning to create a new visual language associated with MOOC learning.
To cite a few examples, Harvard professor David Cox, who teaches an edX MOOC on neuroscience, has made it a point to get out of the building by visiting labs, hospitals, and other facilities where neuroscience research is taking place.
And Udacity’s Introduction to Psychology includes interviews with experts in animal behavior, sex and gender, and the facial expression of emotions, as well as skits and other types of creative performances.
Levels of creativity, not to mention production quality, continue to range widely across MOOC courses from different universities.
For example, during a year when I took over thirty online classes, I observed a fair share of lighting- and audio-challenged lecture videos, as well as continuity errors coupled with “outside the classroom” segments that were clearly repurposed student video projects.
But I also observed attempts to use lectures to generate the sense of intimacy lacking in other components of a heavily subscribed MOOC.
As an example, for over thirty years Professor Greg Nagy has used a traditional lecture format to teach a course entitled.
The Ancient Greek Hero to both Harvard under-graduates and to adults via the Harvard Extension School, making Greek Hero one of the oldest continually running courses at that institution.
But when it came time to turn that course into a MOOC, Nagy and the HarvardX production team replaced sage-on-stage lecturing with a series of conversations between the professor, his students, and his colleagues, giving MOOC students such as me the sense that we were in the room eavesdropping on intimate and passionate discussions between experts instead of sitting in a lecture hall being talked at by a single distant professor.
As new techniques for delivering lecture-style content continue to evolve within the framework of the overall MOOC experiment, we should not lose sight of the observation made earlier that some teachers, whether they are called “rock stars” or just highly gifted educators, have so mastered the artistry of lecturing that they would be successful in any modality of instruction.
Ethics professor Michael Sandel, for example, teaches an overflow crowd of Harvard undergraduates whenever his popular Justice course is taught and teaches the same material before even larger groups when he takes his course on the road to eager audiences around the world.
At the same time, recorded versions of his lectures were aired on public television and have been staples at iTunes U and YouTube for years, with those recordings, also used to anchor an edX version of his course, which attracted over 60,000 students.
So while technical and production-level creativity and experimentation are some of the most exciting things to come out of investments being made in massive open learning, success or failure of the lecture;
still the primary means by which information is transmitted to the student—usually comes down to the very traditional question of whether the teacher at the center of the course has the talent, skill, and flexibility to pull the whole thing off.
While there is evidence of written educational material going back to ancient times, and language primers (as well as other texts used to support rote learning) were available both before and after the advent of the printing press, textbooks that package content from diverse sources into a single volume that can serve as the basis for a semester or year-long class emerged in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when the teaching models that underlay our current educational system was being built.
But as those models begin to change and technology makes print an increasingly smaller subset of what we refer to as “publishing,” there has been a broadening of what constitutes the reading associated with a course.
For instance, while college-level classes in math and science subjects where material builds logically from one lesson to another still tend to rely on textbooks that present those building blocks with a common voice, professors teaching classes in the humanities and social sciences have traditionally required students to read a variety of material from different sources.
In some cases (such as a Shakespeare class) the material students will read over a semester can still be consolidated into a single book. But for the most part, such courses require students to obtain a collection of primary and secondary sources that make up the reading assignments for a class.
Even before technology enabled low-cost electronic distribution of content, however, students were not required to purchase everything they would read for a class from the bookstore. For instance, in cases where an article or excerpt from a longer text was assigned as required reading, students have historically obtained this material.
So while technical and production-level creativity and experimentation are some of the most exciting things to come out of investments being made in massive open learning, success or failure of the lecture;
still the primary means by which information is transmitted to the student—usually comes down to the very traditional question of whether the teacher at the center of the course has the talent, skill, and flexibility to pull the whole thing off.
From document databases or reserve room services offered through a college library, highlighting the criticality of the academic library with regard to the safe and legal distribution of academic content.
For in addition to providing secure access to texts, including rare and valuable documents, libraries have also been given rights to distribute copyrighted material in a controlled manner that allows library personnel flexibility not available to others in the academy, including professors and students.
In our digital age, a hot issue in education and library science has to do with how far legal principles designed for a hard-copy era, when documents were doled out in a physical location where activities such as photocopying could be controlled,;
still apply when that same material can be made available electronically to students who, in addition to reading it as part of a class, can copy and paste (i.e., make illegal duplicates) of library-licensed, copyrighted material in the privacy of their own dorm rooms.
In the case of MOOCs, these intellectual property issues are compounded by the fact that students enrolled in most MOOC classes normally do not attend the college or university where the course originates, meaning that institution-specific database-licensing arrangements and legal doctrines related to reserve reading do not necessarily apply to the bulk of enrollees.
The other issue MOOC creators have had to contend with regarding adding required reading to a massive open online course has to do with the notion of “openness.”
Like intellectual property rules, the subject of open educational resources, but for purposes of this discussion of reading, MOOCs are considered to be “open” to the extent that they are offered for free.
And if a free MOOC class includes required reading that students would have to pay to obtain, how open (or democratic) can a MOOC program really be?
Early MOOCs dealt with this issue by eliminating reading lists entirely or by making syllabus reading optional rather than required. While this worked (and continues to work) for some courses, such strategies serve to increase the distance between MOOC learning and a more comprehensive educational experience that takes place in a traditional college classroom.
As more MOOCs come to market, professors have been experimenting with different methods to make required reading part of their courses in ways that do not leave institutions vulnerable to copyright-related lawsuits or create out-of-pocket expenses for students.
Providing links to a public domain or open access educational content continues to be a popular strategy, most easily applied in courses where reading material is already publically available in legal, free formats.
But this method still leaves gaps, illustrated by my reading experience in The Modern and the Postmodern, a popular Coursera MOOC on modern intellectual history taught by Professor Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan University.
During the first half of the course, which focused on eighteenth and nineteenth-century philosophers and authors, those of us enrolled in the class were provided links to public domain versions of complete essays by writers such as Kant and Rousseau.
But as the class continued on to twentieth- and twenty-first-century thinkers, those links started pointing us toward YouTube interviews and other public, secondary content, rather than contemporary, primary (and copyrighted) work.
Owners of protected material are beginning to come to terms with the unique requirements (and opportunities) related to MOOCs being taken by tens of thousands of students.
For example, Greg Nagy—the professor behind the HarvardX Ancient Greek Hero course mentioned earlier—gave up royalties to a textbook he had written in exchange for making the content of the book available to all MOOC subscribers for free.
And as the MOOC phenomenon gained momentum in 2013, traditional textbook publishers began their own business-model experiments by offering students time-limited electronic editions of otherwise expensive textbooks at no cost during the length of a course, then providing them the option to buy the book at a discount after the course had been completed.
As institutions become more adept at navigating intellectual property rules and professors more experienced in leveraging open resources, new strategies for including robust reading requirements in a massive online course will continue to develop.
At the same time, exposure to a wider variety of resources and strategies related to syllabus reading is also providing professors new perspectives that have helped them rethink the role reading plays in their traditional classroom-based courses.
Separate from all of these issues related to sourcing reading content are continuing concerns over whether students are being assigned enough reading or are actually doing the reading assigned to them in college classes, whether that reading is delivered as a textbook or custom course pack (either printed or online) or as a list of links to individual pieces of content.
Reading is one of the many subjects discussed in the 2011 book Academically Adrift, which challenges higher education claims of rigor as it applies across all academic activities at traditional college campuses.
So while information on completion of reading assignments within MOOCs does not yet exist, issues regarding this largely unmonitored course component transcend teaching modality.
But given the self-motivation required to complete a massive open online course successfully, it may turn out that commitment to reading is the differentiator between those who succeed in MOOCs and other experiments in alternative learning and those who get nothing out of them.
Discussion and Community
The advantages and disadvantages of online vs. live classroom discussion have been argued over since the advent of technology-based distance education.
Even when online discussion was implemented primarily through bulletin-board-style commenting systems that today’s social-media-savvy students would find primitive, supporters pointed out that such systems gave students the opportunity to gather their ideas and respond thoughtfully to a teacher’s questions, as well as allow students to reply to one another’s postings—opening up the opportunity for students teaching students.
Supporters also highlighted that online commenting systems give teachers the ability to enforce and monitor student interchange as well as provide those who might be hesitant to speak in a group the opportunity to participate in the discussion without the social pressures present in the classroom.
But critics argued that online discussion boards could never support the type of give-and-take achievable in the live classroom or small discussion group (never mind the all-night dorm room bull session) where genuine conversation, including the facial and body language that makes up so much of human communication, is a natural part of the face-to-face interchange.
The original bulletin-board-style commenting systems still prevalent in most online courses are an example of asynchronous communication, in which interchanges between students and teachers or students and students are not immediate but rather spread out over time (much like the commenting systems that allow readers to provide feedback to stories posted on online news sites).
But in the two decades since online education came on the scene, new Internet-based communication tools such as Skype, Google Hangouts, and other audio and video conferencing services—some of them built directly into learning management systems—have allowed teachers and students to participate in synchronous communication activities, replicating live classes or discussion sections at a distance.
Some of these services have been incorporated into popular social media systems like Facebook and Google+, which allow instructors to create social network sites associated with a class as well as give students the opportunity to create their own communities to facilitate discussion or joint work on a class project.
And as professors make blogs and social networking tools a component of traditional classroom-based courses (asking every student to create a weekly posting on a class blog as a homework assignment, for example), the distinction between live-classroom vs. online learning has become increasingly blurry.
Unlike other forms of student engagement that must be measured indirectly (through tools such as self-report surveys or assessments of comprehension), online discussions leave the type of data trail beloved by educational researchers.
For instance, a study by the Silicon Valley company Piazza, whose software powers discussion functionality for over 10,000 classes, looked at the online behavior of students in 3,600 courses from over 500 institutions over 18 months to see what trends emerged.
The research included some interesting findings, such as the observation that mandatory commenting seems to correlate with comment volume, but not necessarily with student comprehension.
As anecdotal responses to a Chronicle of Higher Education story on this research (submitted, it should be noted, via an online commenting system) pointed out, however, the effectiveness of online discussion can vary enormously based on variables such as the nature of the class (100 percent online, classroom-based, or hybrid), class size, and the comfort level of teachers and students with the chosen communication technologies.
Given that MOOCs tend to attract teachers and students confidence in their use of technology-based education tools, challenges regarding discussion and community formation within MOOCs derive not from the technological adeptness of users but rather from the sheer size of the community being asked to participate in the discussion.
Drawing again from courses I completed during my one-year BA experiment, the general comments section for Professor Michael Roth’s Coursera class The Modern and the Postmodern alone included 468 unique threads that drew 4,315 comments viewed over 75,000 times.
And given that this general category represented approximately half the total comments generated for the course (other comments fell into categories such as study groups, assignments, and technical feedback), the volume of discussion taking place in online forums led some students to complain of feeling overwhelmed.
Highlighting this issue of overcrowding still further, the aforementioned HarvardX Justice class taught by Professor Michael Sandel required students to submit at least two comments in response to prompts associated with each week’s assignments.
This requirement led to weekly postings of thousands of student replies to the same questions, with each reply constituting a new forum discussion thread.
In theory, students were free to reply to one another's postings as well as vote each other’s comments up or down, with the expectation that this would cause the most thoughtful submissions to rise to the top of favor-ability rankings. But given the huge number of threads all related to the same topics, only a tiny percentage of posts received replies of any sort.
And as for voting, less than 1 percent of comments earned even one or two votes, with only a handful receiving more than ten, indicating that the vast majority of forum participants (including me) were largely talking to themselves.
MOOC developers have tried a number of methods to supplement message boards with other strategies to support community formation among enrollees in massive online classes.
For example, most courses kick off with a forum devoted to letting students find one another based on geographic proximity or commonalities in language or interest, with links providing students further information about existing course-specific “meet-ups” in their area.
While these tools are meant to help those enrolled in classes find each other so that they can form real-world study or discussion groups, the fact that MOOC students are so widely distributed around the world means such gatherings tend to get proposed only for high-density locations such as major cities.
And even in those locations, most stories surrounding meet-up attempts involve students getting stood up or physical study groups petering out after a few meetings.
This does not prevent students from creating online communities, which tend to be most widespread in classes where students are required to organize into groups to work together on a common project.
For example, an open class I took on entrepreneurship offered by Stanford University through the Novoed online learning platform asked students to form teams in order to perform research related to starting a new company based on the theories of startup planning and development taught in the course.
But for the majority of MOOC classes that do not have such team exercises as a focus, community formation continues to be an ad-hoc process among independent MOOC participants.
Other communication techniques MOOC providers have used with varying degrees of success include online conferencing, where a small group of students is selected to interact directly with the professor, with the rest of the class allowed to eavesdrop on their conversation and submit their own questions via social media.
Professors have also made occasional appearances in discussion forums, although having TAs help answer questions and guide conversation tends to be more common.
It has also become increasingly popular for courses to add “office hour” videos to the weekly lecture lineup in which instructors address specific questions arising in the forums.
Finally, MOOC vendors have recently been experimenting with programs like Coursera’s “Learning Hubs” in which online courses are taught in a physical classroom where facilitators lead the discussion and oversee work on class projects, combining the online learning experience with the traditional classroom model;
much the same way MOOCs are being implemented in less developed countries where they are used to provide the lecture component for conventional high-school and college classes.
While there is a general consensus that MOOCs still need to find the means to create intimacy within classes taken by thousands of students, it should be noted that within existing MOOC communities (where more than half of class participants are college educated, many with advanced degrees), discussion levels can be quite high.
For example, while studying Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, a play set during the Trojan War, I discovered an Achilles who bore little resemblance to the one we were reading about in my HarvardX Ancient Greek Hero MOOC.
And when I posted an inquiry about this discrepancy in the HeroesX discussion forum, a fellow student provided a detailed historical analysis of the texts Shakespeare would have had available when writing the play.
So while the interchanges in massive course forums occasionally degenerate into flame wars, more typical experiences involve students sharing their diverse expertise to facilitate some of the student-to-student teaching envisioned by the early MOOC pioneers.
Even when these systems work, however, the discussion is still an activity participated in by a small percentage of MOOC students—albeit the ones most likely to be committed to, and thus likely to succeed in, turning their classroom experience into genuine learning.
Assessment can make an appearance in a number of places within a MOOC. For example, lecture videos are often punctuated with automatically scored questions (which usually don’t contribute to an overall grade) that assess comprehension of information that has just been presented.
Homework assignments, which may or may not contribute to a grade, often consist of short quizzes or activities requiring students to post the results of their work into a multiple-choice form.
And final grades for most MOOC courses tend to be based on automatically scored exams, usually consisting of multiple-choice, matching, or fill-in-the-blank test items, and/or work products that are either self-graded or peer-graded based on a rubric supplied by the professor to student evaluators.
All of these assessment techniques are created with the assumption that classes consisting of tens of thousands of students require evaluation to be performed by someone other than a professor and his or her teaching team, which is why most MOOC grading is done either by computers or class participants.
Computer-based assessment has been widely used in education for decades, with learning management systems such as Blackboard and Moodle offering modules for creating familiar item types such as multiple-choice, multiple-response (multiple-choice with more than one correct answer), true-false, fill-in-the-blank, and matching items.
These systems, as well as various standalone testing products, also support student submission of more complex work (called “artifacts”) such as text-based short answers to questions, essays, or multimedia submissions that will ultimately be scored by a human grader.
Advances in technology-delivered testing and grading have also included automated “first-pass” scoring of essays, performance-based testing in which students are graded on their ability to perform a function (such as using a feature of a software program correctly) rather than answering multiple-choice questions, and adaptive testing in which an assessment gets harder or easier based on how well students perform on individual test questions.
On top of these advances in assessment delivery and scoring, educational publishers have been providing teachers access to large banks of test questions, usually associated with a particular textbook.
And teachers, including those moving a class they have taught for years or even decades into a massive online environment, usually have stacks of assessments they have generated during that time to repurpose for use in a MOOC.
Given all of this technology and content to fall back on, it is surprising that (based on many years of experience I’ve had in the professional testing industry) assessment continues to be one of the weakest areas in many MOOCs, including those that have made significant investments in other portions of a course, such as quality video production.
Given all of this technology and content to fall back on, it is surprising that assessment continues to be one of the weakest areas in many MOOCs.
The core testing methodology used in most MOOCs is linear assessment consisting of automatically scored multiple-choice and similar test items.
But while the creation of such test items supports an entire industry of professional test developers who use scientific principles of test planning and item design and analysis to create valid and reliable exams for educational accountability, college entrance, certification, and professional licensure, very few of the assessments associated with MOOCs demonstrate the involvement of professional test designers.
The continued use in MOOC assessments of true/false ques-tions—an item type eschewed by professional exam developers—testifies to the fact that exam creation in a MOOC is primarily based on using what course developers have at hand rather than on the creation of more challenging assessments designed to effectively discriminate between those who have mastered the material and those who have not.
This general observation regarding assessment strength should not imply that every course lacks rigorous measurement of learning.
For instance, courses I completed that covered subjects incorporating numerical information, such as math, science, or statistics, tended to feature stronger assessments simply because they include test questions requiring numerical input—including numbers derived from calculation or even experimentation—that are intrinsically more difficult to guess at than selecting an answer from a multiple-choice list would be.
While the use of professional test design principles, coupled with some creativity, could dramatically improve the effectiveness of machine-scored assessments, MOOC developers have primarily looked at ways to grade subjective material, such as natural language short answers and essays, as a means to make their courses more challenging.
For instance, the edX version of the popular Harvard course Science and Cooking required participants to generate weekly write-ups of lab experiments students performed in their own kitchens with self-grading performed by the students themselves using scoring rubrics provided only after a student’s work has been submitted.
While such self-grading has been applied in other courses, most rubric-scored assessment of subjective material within MOOCs is done via the mechanism of peer grading. This is a process whereby students submit an assigned piece of work, most frequently an essay, that then gets put into a pool and distributed to other students for scoring.
Students submitting their own work are generally required to grade the work of classmates, which usually involves providing numeric scores along multiple rubric criteria as well as qualitative commentary on three to five other student essays.
Those numeric results are then averaged to calculate a final grade, and students can see the scores associated with their own work, as well as student commentary, at the end of a grading period.
Some informal research that indicated a sizable correlation (88%) between how a professor would have graded assignments compared to the result of the peer-grading process described above was used to bolster claims that peer grading is a reasonable option for basing MOOC scores on the evaluation of complex artifacts by the student body rather than a professor.
But even if such gross correlation numbers turn out to hold across a wider variety of courses, the fact remains that creating assignments that need to be human scored by hundreds or thousands of un-trained evaluators inevitably leads to the creation of essay questions and grading rubrics built around ease of scoring rather than complexity of the assignment.
And given the global nature of MOOCs, the language skill of students acting as both writers and evaluators plays an as-yet-unmeasured role in the peer-grading process, especially in cases where writing quality is one of the rubric-based scoring metrics.
As with linear test development, professional test design principles provide insights that could inform the creation of better assignments associated with stronger rubrics as MOOCs continue to develop.
For example, grading of subjective work (such as the essays that are part of SAT and ACT) makes use of “first-pass” automated essay scoring technology as well as methodologies designed to maximize inter-rater reliability (the consistency of scoring between different evaluators) through a combination of design principles and training that could be incorporated into the MOOC peer-grading process.
One advantage of the traditional classroom is that it includes a single arbitrator (the teacher) who has ultimate say in grading decisions, something ultimately lacking in MOOC grading procedures that provide little or no room for appeal.
To a large extent, MOOCs have avoided complaints (at least by students) by making it easy for anyone who puts genuine effort into a course to get a passing grade.
Most MOOCs are pass/fail, for example, with cut scores in the 60 to 70 percent range, sometimes with higher grades of 80 to 95 percent leading to a certificate reflecting special distinction.
And the fact that many courses allow students to take the same test more than once (sometimes as many as 100 times!) means students can guess their way to a passing grade, even if they have learned none of the material.
This highlights another set of reasons why testing seems to be given less attention in a MOOC than it would get in a traditional classroom environment.
First off, there are security concerns based on the fact that, despite honor codes and some anti-cheating experiments by MOOC providers, there is still no way to ensure that the person submitting an assignment is the person who has done the work.
And even if such work does originate from the student enrolled in the course, there is no way of telling what resources they had on hand when they took (or cheated on) an exam or wrote (or plagiarized) a writing assignment. This lack of security leads to the reasonable fear that harder testing might simply lead to more cheating rather than more learning.
And then there is a tendency among many MOOC professors to want to keep as many students as possible from dropping out of a course before the last set of lectures, which may limit their interest in more numerous or challenging assignments that stand the chance of scaring students off.
The fact that no tangible reward is associated with passing a MOOC should mitigate cheating problems (at least until MOOCs start being associated with something of value—such as genuine college credit), and in the absence of such college equivalency, choices of course difficulty have been appropriately left in the hands of the professor.
But by making tests, homework, and other assignments too easy (by design or just by lack of interest in significantly improving them), MOOC courses may be robbing students of the chance to put their learning to work, which can limit a course’s overall effectiveness.
So until challenging assessments designed to verify and reinforce learning become a higher priority, MOOCs may continue to be perceived as a lighter alternative to what currently takes place in the less massively enrolled physical classroom.
Organizing a Course
Like any course, a MOOC cannot be considered simply to be the sum of its parts—such as lectures, reading, discussion, and assignments/assessments—especially given the unique characteristics and requirements these components have in a massive learning environment.
Rather, the way those parts are put together, especially with regard to decisions relating to time and level of rigor, has a significant impact on the nature of the student learning experience.
To take an extreme example, the connective cMOOCs are so different in their organizational structure and expectations compared to xMOOCs (which more resemble traditional college classes) that cMOOCs and xMOOCs are best seen as completely distinct learning experiences, even if both happen to support free education of large numbers of students.
Within the family of major MOOC providers, the majority of courses from companies such as edX and Coursera share a similar approach to scheduling, with courses put on a calendar in which students engage with the same material each week until a fixed deadline is reached, at which point all work is required to be submitted for final grading.
This is in sharp contrast to “on demand” courses, such as those offered via the MOOC provider Udacity, in which students can start the course whenever they like and work through the lessons at their own pace, with no fixed deadline for completing the material.
Each of these two modes of course timing (scheduled vs. on-demand) has advantages and disadvantages. For instance, putting classes on a calendar tends to create a sense of urgency to complete coursework on time but at the cost of the kind of flexibility, you get from on-demand classes.
And once organizations such as Coursera and edX have more courses “in the can” and ready to repeat, there are no technical reasons for not offering on-demand options for some or all of their materials.
But the choice of timing strategy can dramatically affect the nature of a class, particularly with regard to the discussion, given that scheduled classes can be built on the assumption that students will be interacting with the same material at the same time.
Even with all the previously noted challenges intrinsic to high-volume discussion boards, the bulk of comments posted to forums associated with scheduled courses involve students discussing issues related to the week’s course material.
In contrast, I discovered that discussion for on-demand courses tends to focus on students supporting one another on tests and homework assignments with a limited interchange on more general topics.
Testing is another area affected by whether or not a course is on a fixed schedule.
For even with all the security challenges mentioned in the previous discussion of MOOC assessment, deadlines at least put an end to the relevance of a particular quiz or exam, in contrast to an on-demand course where the same test items might live on for much longer, leading to issues of question overexposure.
Now the security advantage of scheduled courses is diminished if professors overseeing them do not choose to swap out their assessment items each time a course is given. But assessment is one more area where decisions regarding how a MOOC is chronologically structured can dramatically affect important elements of the course.
Another time-related choice MOOC developers get to make that can dramatically influence the nature of the student learning experience is the overall length of a course.
For instance, courses I completed that attempt to cover all of the learning objectives found in an existing full-semester college course tended to mirror the 12- to 16-week length of a semester-long class.
Developers of such courses also generally place more demands on students with regard to required reading, frequency, and difficulty of assessment, assignment of peer-graded work, and/or requirements to participate in online discussion boards.
In contrast, professors who want to focus on a specific set of topics, rather than replicate a full-semester experience, tend to gravitate toward creating shorter courses, with six to eight weeks becoming an increasingly popular format for class length.
Unsurprisingly, classes that go on for one to two months, compared to three to four for full-semester classes, often have higher enrollments and lower attrition rates. But given that level of demand with regard to reading, homework, and assessment tends to be lower for short vs. long courses, MOOCs seem to be stratifying based on differing tiers of overall rigor.
Decisions on the nature of a course (such as length, level of demand, and pass/fail requirements) are ultimately made by professors based on the mission they choose for their courses.
And given the modular nature of MOOC components, experimentation with MOOC courses of varying lengths and demand levels is both natural and liberating, preventing a one-size-fits-all model from gripping this new educational medium.
All this variability needs to be taken into account when entering the fiery debate over whether or not MOOCs should be treated as the equivalent of traditional college courses. For as my year taking courses with widely ranging course timing and strategies suggests, by intention all MOOCs are NOT created equal.
When Sebastian Thrun realized that the free online version of his Stanford Artificial Intelligence course was going to be taken by tens of thousands of students, the biggest challenge he faced was not technical or pedagogical but political: would he be allowed to associate the name of Stanford University with whatever documentation he ended up providing students who completed the class?
Thrun and Stanford eventually came to an agreement that allowed the university’s name to appear on a carefully worded certificate of completion stating explicitly that the online course should not be considered equivalent to an actual paid-for Stanford for-credit course.
And with this compromise, a reward system that tapped the prestige of well-known institutions of higher learning without necessarily putting those institutions’ economic interests at risk was ready to become the norm for MOOC graduates.
The next blog looks at some of the economic issues related to what brick-and-mortar colleges are actually selling in an era when many of their courses can be taken for free.
But as we reach the end of this discussion over what makes a MOOC, the significance of a complete document bearing the imprimatur of a well-known and respected college or university should not be minimized.
Today, students are free to enroll in an online university and spend money on courses that can ultimately turn into credit toward a degree with no ambiguity whatsoever regarding institutional support for a graduate’s final diploma.
And students also have a wide range of learning options to draw from, such as academic lectures from iTunes U or eLearning lessons from commercial entities such as Lynda, that leave them with nothing at the end of a course other than, perhaps, a vendor-specific certificate of mastery that means little or nothing too important audiences like employers.
But MOOCs create an intriguing ambiguity in which colleges and universities are extolling their own contribution to free public learning, implying that earning a MOOC certificate of completion represents genuine academic accomplishment;
while simultaneously not rewarding this accomplishment in the way they reward students who have studied the same material with the same teacher in a classroom or online format that is not a MOOC.
What is a MOOC?
The MOOC acronym provides a tempting framework in which to determine if a course does or does not deserve this title. Is a course massive? Is it open and online? Then it must be a MOOC!
But upon reflection, what is the threshold for a course being “massive” rather than just really big? And what sort of activity constitutes a student being “enrolled” in any sort of large-scale public learning project?
For example, does an iTunes U course that’s been downloaded by a million people count as a massive course compared to an edX class that draws just a fraction of that number? And, if not, what is missing? Do record lectures lack the kind of community that would form around students taking the same course at the same time?
If so, why were courses from companies like Udacity automatically rewarded the title of MOOCs, even though their on-demand nature limits the formation of communities of simultaneous learners?
Perhaps the problem is that recorded lectures lack components such as reading assignments and assessments, which makes them seem less than a MOOC.
But most iTunes U courses are recordings of existing college classes with associated syllabi, which means there is nothing stopping students from locating and following along with a course reading list while they listen to downloaded lectures.
And given that assessment is often one of the weakest elements of a MOOC package, why should an Ohio State University course on Life in the Universe delivered as 44 full-length lectures via iTunes be considered inferior to an eight-week Coursera class on the same subject just because the latter might include a few multiple-choice tests of questionable utility?
As previously mentioned, “open” in the context of massive open online courses tends to be interpreted by the public as “free” (free of costs and free of any other sort of entrance requirement). So perhaps a line can be drawn that says any course with no barriers to entry will be considered a MOOC and everything else just some other variant on eLearning.
But even today, costs and restrictions are not unknown in courses that bear the MOOC label. For instance, while students may not be required to buy a book or piece of equipment to take part in a MOOC, there already exist classes in which making such purchases is necessary to get the maximum value out of the class.
There are also examples of MOOCs coming with prerequisites (albeit mostly unenforced), and at least one of the major MOOC vendors has placed enrollment limits on at least one experimental class.
In theory, we could use that aforementioned line to separate courses with zero restrictions (which we would still call MOOCs) from any course of any size from any institution that includes any barrier to participation.
But if the major MOOC vendors decided to-morrow that their survival depended on charging students a few dollars a month for access to all the same content, does that mean every course taught up that point would immediately transform from a MOOC to something, not a MOOC?
If a definition based on dissecting the MOOC acronym seems to lead too easily to illogical conclusions, perhaps we should simply declare that only courses from Coursera, edX, and Udacity should be considered MOOCs, or that MOOCs can be created only by prestigious colleges and universities.
But such a narrow definition would embalm a hierarchy that may no longer be in place by the time you are reading this blog. And if academic snobbery is going to be our guiding principle over which courses get named “MOOCs,” who gets to decide which colleges and universities deserve to be considered “prestigious”?
Such restrictions seem especially bizarre in a field as dynamic as educational technology, with few barriers preventing new MOOC players emerging and forming partnerships with colleges and universities up and down the academic pecking order.
For example, at the end of 2013, two new international MOOC providers, FutureLearn (an initiative of Britain’s venerable Open University) and Germany’s university, opened their virtual doors to deliver classes from several European universities.
At the same time, learning management system (LMS) providers began to see what would happen if existing courses on their platform were opened up to the world.
And what are we to make of Udemy, a venture-funded company that allows anyone to post a course online and charges whatever he or she likes for it (including nothing)?
While it might seem easy to dismiss a platform in which a handful of relatively low-enrollment academic courses are offered along-side hundreds or thousands of fee-based classes in subjects such as Microsoft Office or yoga;
what would happen if a major university decided to not wait in line to partner with one of the more well-known MOOC providers but instead started releasing quality content through this kind of open platform?
If assignment of the “MOOC” label is to be left to something other than public perception based on hype and whim, we may need to stop thinking about MOOCs in terms of their characteristics (size, cost, features) and instead think about their purpose, which (drawing on the philosophy vocabulary I learned during my One Year BA) switches us from an empirical hunt for definition to a teleological one.
And here is what some of the companies and individuals who created the MOOC movement have to say about what they brought into being:
We are committed to research that will allow us to understand how students learn, how technology can transform learning, and the ways teachers teach on campus and beyond.
[MOOCs have] the potential of giving us a completely unprecedented look into understanding human learning. Because the data we can collect here is unique. You can collect every click, every homework submission, every forum post, from tens of thousands of students.
So you can turn the study of learning from a hypothesis-delivered mode to a data-delivered mode, a transformation that has, for example, revolutionized biology. You can use these data to understand fundamental questions, like what are good learning strategies that are effective versus ones that are not.
—Daphne Koller, co-founder of Coursera
There always has been researching, but the way it developed over the years was in closed learning management systems, accessible only to instructors and students in an individual class which made it very difficult to experiment, very difficult to replicate. …
That changes with open online learning and that really comes to the fore with MOOCs. … And when it’s done in these open environments, it’s no surprise at all that you would see a renaissance in research, in experimentation, in trying new things, and I think that’s a great thing.
So while educational altruism has certainly been an inducement for colleges and universities to participate in one or more MOOC projects, a commitment to educational research and experimentation may end up providing the most important distinction between MOOCs and other forms of online learning.
Using this purpose as a means of discerning what is a MOOC and what is not provides lee-way regarding what constitutes “massive” and “open” (and even a “course”).
For as long as those behind a learning project that includes most (although not necessarily all) of the features described in this blog also demonstrate a commitment to experimentation and evolution, a willingness to try new things, a readiness to reject (while not punishing) failure while building upon success, then they are participating in the spirit that can define the MOOC enterprise.
The transition from a period of exuberance over the potential for MOOCs to a “Trough of Disillusionment” was marked by a series of controversies within the academy driven largely by educators concerned that serious questions regarding academic quality and rigor were being ignored by the engineers, administrators, and policymakers who were excitedly hailing MOOCs as a solution to problems ranging from class overcrowding and college affordability to global underdevelopment.
Such naysaying was first treated as the carping of Luddites, which could be balanced by the enthusiasm of more tech-savvy professors participating in MOOC projects.
As more people started taking actual massive courses and as more data generated from those MOOCs became available, however, it became clear that the concerns of critics could not simply be dismissed as complaints by resentful academics standing in the way of progress shouting “Stop!”.
The seemingly straightforward decision of Amherst College to take a wait-and-see approach to participate in MOOC development in April 2013 served as notice that not all colleges and universities wanted to be part of the mad scramble to join one of the consortia forming around companies like Coursera and edX.
And when members of the philosophy department of San Jose State University revolted against a decision by their administration to license content from edx, their protest set the stage for an academic backlash that continued in both the academic and popular press.
Complaints lodged by educators regarding this new huge-scale form of learning focused on the efficacy of an educational format where information was delivered by video lecture and measurement performed largely through multiple-choice quizzing, with student-to-student inter-action facilitated by overcrowded discussion boards and student-to-teacher interaction virtually nonexistent.
Were MOOC students really being asked to do the same level of work and getting the same level of education as their counterparts taking courses covering comparable material in traditional classroom environments?
How was anyone supposed to know who was doing the work diligently and honestly and who was cheating his or her way to a passing grade?
Who was actually enrolling in these courses and why were they choosing to participate? And, speaking of enrollments and participation, why should anyone have faith in an academic program with drop-out rates topping 90 percent?
Like the claims made by early MOOC enthusiasts, accusations hurled by critics were higher on emotion and third-party anecdotes than on data and first-person experience.
But with more data available and more real-world experience to draw on, we are now in a better position to answer the serious and legitimate questions that continue to hover over the MOOC experiment.
One of the most damning indictments directed at MOOCs has to do with their seemingly huge rates of attrition. “Although they are rarely mentioned by MOOC supporters, drop-out rates in these courses hover at about 90 percent,”
noted Susan Meisenhelder, professor emeritus of English at California State University, San Bernardino, in a harsh critique entitled “MOOC Mania” in the Fall 2013 issue of the NEA higher education journal Thought & Action.
But by the time that piece was published, many of her concerns regarding massive online courses had largely gone main-stream. More important, enough data were available to paint a more accurate and nuanced picture of the life cycle of students participating in MOOC classes.
To set the stage for a more detailed analysis, the calculation used to determine drop-out rates in the range of 90 percent involves putting the number of students who sign up for a MOOC course (the source of those 100,000+ enrollment numbers that earned so much press attention) into the denominator of a fraction with the number of students who earn a certificate by completing a course serving as the numerator.
Such a calculation, which treats every sign-up as the equivalent of a course enrollment decision by students attending a traditional college or university, does indeed translate to an attrition rate topping 90 per-cent for many MOOC courses.
But this opens up important questions about whether or not online sign-ups should be treated as representing the same level of commitment as enrolling in a traditional college course.
Using an analogy from brick-and-mortar colleges and universities, many such schools feature “shop-around periods,” which allow students to visit a few lectures early in the semester before committing to a schedule.
And such shoppers, as well as auditors who sit in on lectures without taking the course for a grade, are reasonably excluded from any calculations regarding average grades and drop-out rates.
But if a potential MOOC student curious about a course clicks on the Enroll button to get a closer look at the syllabus and course requirements or to size up the teacher they will be spending several weeks learning from, should this be considered the equivalent of formal enrollment in the class or would it be more comparable to “shopping” classes or even just browsing through a college catalog?
The online nature of MOOCs increases the likelihood that someone will hit an Enroll button before making a commitment to taking the course.
MOOCs are free, after all, and the process for signing up for one involves little more than providing an e-mail address and password. And like sign-ups for social network sites such as Facebook or Google+, account creation does not translate into active participation.
The fact that MOOCs are offering something of value (a college course) for free with no consequences for nonparticipation creates even more incentive to sign up for a class, regardless of whether or not students have thought through their plans regarding the course.
With that in mind, does the huge denominator of the drop-out fraction mentioned above translate to large numbers of disillusioned students, or is it just an unsurprising big number that reflects people’s willingness to fill out a brief online form in order to get something for nothing?
But if the number of people hitting the Enroll button is not the best statistic to calculate actual participants in a MOOC class, what is?
Several studies performed by colleges and universities that have participated in MOOC projects provide a better understanding of what students are doing in a class beyond enrolling and either completing or not completing it.
For example, the University of Edinburgh analyzed the results of six MOOCs they had delivered via Coursera starting in January 2013 on subjects in both the sciences and humanities.
And Professor Jeffrey Pomerantz, director of undergraduate studies at the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, who taught the course Metadata:
Organizing and Discovering Information (also delivered through Coursera), shared statistics related to participation with students in his class as well as publically documenting his analysis of activity, including completion rates, at the end of the course.
Coursera’s learning management system breaks student enrollment lists into “Total Registered Students” (the number of people who hit the Enroll button in order to sign up for a class who don’t subsequently unenroll), “Total Active Students” (the number of unique students who logged into the site at least once after sign-up), and “Active Students Last Week” (the number of unique students who log into the system on a week-by-week basis).
In Pomerantz’s Metadata course, for example, 27,623 people enrolled in the class (with that total enrollment number dropping to 25,867 as people unenrolled before the end of the eight-week class).
The number of Total Active Students grew from 10,476 to 14,130 during this same period, while the number of weekly unique participants fell from 10,470 to 3,334.
These data, as well as other details about student participation in video lectures, discussion boards, and assignments, allowed Professor Pomerantz to calculate attrition rates based on different ways of defining an active student.
For example, with 1,418 actual graduates (i.e., students who completed all the work and earned a certificate of completion), using total enrollment as the denominator for calculating a completion rate generates a completion percentage of 5 percent.
And while using Total Active Students doubles that completion percentage, both calculations lead to the more than 90 percent drop-out rate highlighted by MOOC critics.
But if you assume that only students who actually do something on a course site rather than just log into it once are actually participating in the class, the numbers tell a different story.
For example, the completion percentage for students who watch at least one lecture video was 15 percent in Pomerantz’s Metadata class, while the percentage of students who had done the first homework exercise and then went on to finish the course was 48 percent.
The most systematic research on student behavior within MOOC classes comes from Harvard and MIT who released detailed analyses of student activity in 16 edX courses in January 2014. While this research, data from these studies also indicate that residential college enrollment and class participation may be the wrong metaphor to describe student behavior with regard to MOOCs.
The fact that daily enrollments tripled the day edX president Anant Agarwal appeared on the popular TV comedy news program The Colbert Report indicates that many students are signing up for a MOOC out of curiosity, rather than a commitment to complete the course.
And, as with other studies, the Harvard–MIT research confirms that students who demonstrate a desire to participate in class above and beyond auditing lecture videos (by taking the first assessment or completing the first writing assignment or problem set, for instance) pass at a much higher rate than the 5 to 10 percent of total enrollees who earn a certificate.
So if we consider people who engage in any activity beyond watching a video (such as turning in a homework exercise or taking a quiz) as demonstrating a genuine interest in taking a MOOC course to completion, then attrition rates begin to look reasonable, especially when compared to behaviors associated with other free online activities. More important such calculations better reflect what students are actually doing in a course beyond just signing up for it.
While this might seem like good news for MOOC boosters, keep in mind that these statistics also demonstrate that the huge enrollment figures used by MOOC supporters to impress the press and public (not to mention investors) need to receive the same reality check used to calculate drop-out percentages.
But we should also consider another academic reality that can be drawn from the numbers, one best summarized by Professor Pomerantz, whose UNC course analysis we just looked at:
Before my MOOC launched, I did a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation of how many students I’ve ever had in the classroom, since I started teaching in grad school.
And the number I came up with was, approximately 1,400. The number of students who completed my MOOC is approximately equal to the number of students I’ve had in the classroom during my entire career.
The number of students who were active in the MOOC (Total Active Students) turned out to be approximately an order of magnitude more than the number of students I’ve had in the classroom in my entire career. Contemplate that.
Who Are MOOCs Educating?
Claims that MOOCs will utterly remake higher education imply that students who would have once applied to traditional (and expensive) colleges and universities will instead flock to free and flexible MOOCs.
But as demographic information related to who is taking MOOC classes becomes available, it turns out that the traditional college-level cohort of 18- to 22-year-olds represents just a small fraction of MOOC enrollees.
In a survey distributed at the end of MITx’s popular Circuits and Electronics course (taught by edX president Agarwal), 7,161 students provided demographic information, including their age and level of education.
And while a little more than a quarter of students identified themselves as high-school graduates, 65 percent claimed BAs or advanced degrees as their highest level of education attained before taking the course.
Now this survey was answered by less than 10 percent of total enrollees in the class, but close to 90 percent of those who filled out the survey also completed the course, indicating that descriptive statistics derived from the survey—including ages concentrated in the 20- to 40-year-old range—are good descriptors for those who signed up for the class intending to finish it.
In that aforementioned Edinburgh study, a personal information survey was also sent to 217,512 students who had enrolled in one or more of the six Coursera courses taught by the Scottish University.
The survey generated 45,182 responses and also showed participation rates highest among people who were older and more educated than the demographics normally associated with college-age students (76% of respondents were over the age of 25 and 80% already had a BA or advanced degree).
Data available from the Harvard–MIT research studies mentioned earlier also demonstrate that at least 70 to 75. It turns out that the traditional college-level cohort of 18- to 22-year-olds represents just a small fraction of MOOC enrollees. percent of edX enrollees are beyond college age.
But given the large total numbers of MOOC enrollees, the fact that 20 to 25 percent of students signing up for a massive course are high school or college age translates to a significant number of learners.
However, many of these younger students participate in MOOCs as part of a classroom-based educational experience (such as a flipped classroom version of edX’s Circuits taught at San Jose State University or high-school and college programs in developing countries that use MOOC content for lecture material);
which means the number of students looking at MOOCs as an independent-study alternative to traditional higher education may actually be smaller than overall statistics suggest.
These initial demographics seem to indicate that MOOCs are attracting an audience more likely to enroll in adult education or extension school programs or to participate in recreational learning, rather than the type of students who would be most affected if MOOCs provided a formal alternative to a traditional two- or four-year undergraduate program.
The age and educational experience of so many MOOC students also invites questions regarding whether the training in how to learn one receives while enrolled in a higher education program is required in order to succeed in a MOOC, a serious issue if MOOCs are going to be asked to serve as a substitute for that traditional college experience.
Additional data derived from these and other surveys indicate that variables such as gender can vary based on course topic (88% of those who identified gender in the edX Circuits survey were male compared to the nontechnology Edinburgh courses that were either evenly split by gender or skewed higher for women).
And while participation by nation continues to be a topic of interest, country-by-country trends need to be looked at with an understanding that much of this international activity is institutional and driven by relationships that have been built by the MOOC providers or partner universities.
So while providing younger students access to inexpensive, high-quality education remains an important goal for MOOC creators and advocates, the natural audience for MOOCs seems to be an older and more educated cohort interested in advancing their learning, regardless of whether or not the work put into a MOOC leads to some type of officially recognized credential.
But perhaps it is this lack of official recognition that is the cause of the trends just described—in which case, might these numbers change dramatically if students could obtain something with genuine “cash value” in the educational marketplace for completing a MOOC class, such as formally recognized college credit?
Credit for MOOCs
While the introduction of MOOCs and claims by some boosters of their equivalency to traditional college courses raised eyebrows and questions among educators, it was the attempt to turn those claims into the actual awarding of college credit that turned MOOCs from a curiosity to a subject of heated debate.
In March 2013, California state senator Darrell Stein-berg introduced Senate Bill 520, which proposed creating a process that would be allow students in any of the state’s institutions of higher learning (including California’s University of California, California State University, and community college system) to use MOOCs as a substitute for classes that students could not get into because of over-crowding problems throughout the state college system.
Around that same time, legislators in Florida proposed a new system for accrediting online courses (including MOOCs) that could be used as substitutes for traditional classes at both the K–12 and college levels.
Although these proposed bills were designed to help states deal with important local issues, the proposals triggered a national debate over whether free massive online courses from world-famous universities should be considered on a par with the residential and online programs offered by other (i.e., less prestigious) institutions of higher learning.
The association of MOOCs with organizations barely a year or two old (including for-profit companies such as Udacity and Coursera) made them an easy target, much like the way that for-profit textbook publishers often serve as a surrogate for attacks on the broader problem of increasing costs in higher education.
But beyond economics and politics, the severity of the backlash against awarding MOOCs with college credit may have also derived from attempts to award them too much credit too quickly.
After all, the advanced placement (AP) program, which dates to the 1950s, has been offering students a way to place out of intro-level college courses and even obtain actual college credit by passing expert-designed and graded rigorous exams.
Mechanisms have long been in place allowing colleges to transfer credit, and programs that award college credit for independent study or life experience have been taking hold at many institutions, especially those trying to attract nontraditional learners such as veterans or returning older students.
And for many newer fields, especially in information technology, the ability to pass high-stakes certification exams has more cachet with employers than does where one went to school, just as professional licensure is more important in some fields that is a college degree.
There are also programs in place that allow organizations and institutions to accredit their courses for college-level equivalency, most notably the CREDIT program offered through the American Council of Education (ACE).
The ACE accreditation process, which parallels state-level accreditation programs in terms of thoroughness and rigor, involves an analysis of course materials by a team of experts, often working on site for several days with teachers and course developers.
And if a product is deemed creditworthy, the ACE team generates a recommendation of how many credit hours students should be awarded for completing the course, which is then published in a guide made available to member schools.
As this description implies, ACE awards recommendations rather than actual college credit, recommendations that the colleges and universities making up the membership of ACE are free to accept, reject or modify (by rewarding more or fewer than the recommended number of credit hours).
In addition to ACE credit recommendations, credit-by-exam programs such as the College Board’s College Level Examination Program (CLEP) or exam services from Excelsior College allow students to take exams in subjects ranging from introductory language and math to discipline-specific tests in subjects like nursing and philosophy.
As with ACE credit recommendations, colleges and universities are free to decide whether they will count such awards toward a degree, and may limits the number of external credits one can apply to obtain a diploma. increasingly popular, the effort required to turn success in one of these alternative learning experiences into credit at an institution is neither trivial nor free.
Students who have completed an ACE accredited course, for example, need to pay ACE for a transcript that must then be presented to an institution that can choose whether to accept or reject that recommendation.
Because many schools may not be familiar with the variety of credit-potential alternatives, students often have to sell their requests for credit to a skeptical administration or academic department.
And even if they succeed, many colleges charge fees to apply alternative credentials toward a degree and limit the number of third-party credits that can count toward graduation.
With so many hoops to jump through, only the most enterprising and entrepreneurial students—including those dedicated to cutting down time spent and thus the cost of college—tend to have the wherewithal to master both the course material learned through alternative study options and the bureaucratic procedures required to make that effort count toward a diploma.
Even as states like Florida and California were considering ways to give MOOCs an accelerated on-ramp into the increasingly crowded field of credit equivalency, vendors such as Udacity and Coursera were doing the spadework necessary to gain recognition for some of their more popular courses, working with their academic partners to put several MOOCs through ACE accreditation and forming partnerships with individual universities interested in giving students online alternatives for for-credit classes.
But even in cases where a MOOC had been anointed with independent accreditation, the question remained as to whether or not any of those hundreds of thousands of MOOC enrollees had interest in turning their massive online learning experience into a formal college credit.
By the summer of 2013, the number of students requesting an ACE transcript containing a record of their completion of one or more MOOCs stood at zero.
And when Udacity formed a partnership with Colorado State University-Global Campus to offer students the chance to earn credit by passing a Udacity computer programming course and paying a processing fee of $89 (versus the $1,000+ the school charged for an equivalent classroom course), again there were no takers.
It may be that any new academic program takes time to gain traction, but it is also possible that using alternative credits to trim just one (or even a handful) of courses from a two- or four-year-college lineup does not have enough of an impact on the total cost of an education to warrant taking the initiative to earn and apply MOOCs or other third-party programs to a degree.
As noted earlier, truly enterprising students can potentially use credit equivalency to earn a degree in less time, which translates to less cost.
But students who demonstrate this level of the entrepreneurial drive are increasingly choosing to skip college altogether, taking advantage of initiatives like the Thiel Fellowship, which offers students $100,000 grants for independent study projects that require they not go to college, or the Uncollege program, started by Thiel Fellow Dale Stephens, which trains students for lifelong learning through self-study, mentoring, and entrepreneurship.
While such radical anticollege initiatives might capture headlines (as well as the interest of students who, like Stephens, learned academic independence as part of the home-schooling movement), the bulk of college-bound high-schoolers still gravitate toward traditional degree programs, either residential or online.
So even if MOOCs had managed to be immediately granted wholesale college equivalency through legislation proposed (and ultimately shelved or watered down) in places like California and Florida, they may just end up part of a matrix of college and college-credit alternatives within an evolving academic marketplace.
And as parents and politicians continue to express anxiety over the inflationary spiral and accompanying debt associated with conventional higher education, MOOCs may play a role alongside other independent-learning alternatives with regard to more wide-spread educational reform.
For example, Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan University, has written about allowing students to graduate with a BA in three years versus four, or use four years at an institution to both obtain a BA and earn credit toward an advanced degree with independent study and other programs used to secure the credit needed to complete degree requirements.
While such a scheme would change the timeline traditionally associated with the college experience by creating cohorts of standard and accelerated learners within the same graduating class, such a change has the benefit of being revenue neutral for institutions.
“I’m not sure exactly what the difference is between learning from a MOOC and learning from a 400 person lecture hall course at an expensive university,” said Roth in an interview about his experience teaching a Coursera MOOC based on his popular Wesleyan course The Modern and the Postmodern.
But if wider educational reform might create a MOOCs-for-credit market that currently does not exist, the question remains whether MOOCs have the academic rigor to be considered worthy enough to play a role in such a project.
Level of Demand
Before looking at how course rigor might be measured, it’s important to keep in mind that questions regarding the full equivalency between a MOOC and a traditional college course are most relevant in the context of the MOOC-for-credit issues just discussed.
Given that the vast majority of MOOC students are not interested in earning college credit, however, most MOOC participants look at the level of demand in the context of determining whether or not a course can be completed within a required timeframe when class work must be juggled alongside other life responsibilities.
MOOCs of any length are always open to auditors (i.e., students interested solely in watching or listening to video lectures and who have no interest in earning a certificate of completion).
But what separate MOOCs from various lecture-only alternative educational resources such as iTunes U are requirements beyond the lecture leading to some type of certificate. And when assessing MOOC rigor, keep in mind the observation that all MOOCs are not created to serve the same academic function.
Some are built to mimic semester-long classes taught at established universities as much as possible, while others have the goal of teaching a subset of what might be included in a traditional semester-long class within a shorter (frequently 6- to 8-week) timeframe.
Professors trying to replicate an existing residential course are more likely to try to fit into a MOOC as much syllabus content and as many assignments from the original course as the technology allows.
In contrast, a professor interested in exposing a subject of passionate interest to large numbers of students might choose to limit workload in order to keep as many people in the class as possible.
This type of variability sets MOOCs apart from traditional college courses, where the semester system tends to impose standards regarding course length and credits, or credit hours are used to calibrate the amount of time and work associated with particular classes.
Most of us attended colleges or universities featuring “gut” courses that were not particularly demanding and “grind” courses that asked far more from students than did more typical courses in a school’s catalog.
But as the negative connotation associated with both those terms implies, educational norms both within an institution and within the academy as a whole tend to create enough standardization to allow students to predict and balance the workload associated with the multiple courses they might be taken during a semester.
For MOOCs, course length tends to be an indicator of level of demand with courses running ten or more weeks (i.e., closer to the length of a full semester) often including more required reading, more frequent and difficult assessments, and more frequent use of creative assignments such as peer-graded essays or required contribution to online discussion boards.
While even the shortest MOOC will ask students to fulfill obligations beyond watching video lectures, these are the courses where reading is more frequently optional and grading more likely to be based solely on passing a set of relatively easy weekly quizzes.
Engineering, science, and technology courses from MIT have traditionally been among the most demanding MOOCs. When Professors Eric Grimson and John Guttag offered their Introduction to Computer Science and Programming MOOC for edX, for example, they based the course on the same syllabus used in the residential version of that class.
Lectures and assignments were largely identical between the two versions of the course, although adjustments needed to be made to allow programming assignments to be graded automatically.
And many students who signed up for the course realized the 12 to 15 hours they were told to set aside each week for the class was a floor rather than a ceiling.
In contrast, some of the social science and humanities courses I took for my Degree of Freedom One Year BA project ran for just 6 to 8 weeks, with each week’s workload consisting of watching 1 to 2 hours of video lectures followed by a multiple-choice quiz, some of which contained fewer than ten questions.
As more MOOCs enter the marketplace, they seem to be spreading out across a continuum with regard to level of demand, with professors dramatically varying required versus optional reading, frequency and difficulty level of assessments;
and the use of peer-graded essays and other creative assignments based on the goals of a course, the nature of the material, and professors’ comfort level with options available to them through a chosen MOOC technology platform.
This wide variation in the level of demand highlights the importance of independent accreditation through organizations like the American Council on Education when determining formal college course equivalence for a MOOC.
And the majority of students who are not taking a MOOC for credit still need to be able to evaluate what will be asked of them when they choose to participate in a MOOC class if they want to avoid becoming one of those drop-out statistics discussed earlier in this blog.
Regardless of their level of rigor, any course that is delivered remotely presents challenges regarding how to determine if a student is actually doing the required work. Confirming whether or not a student is reading assigned material is a challenge regardless of learning modality.
But ensuring that students are not cheating on exams or plagiarizing on written assignments presents general challenges with all forms of online learning and special problems when those online courses are being taken by tens of thousands.
Security—Cheating on MOOCs
In theory, one of the things that should make MOOCs less subject to cheating than traditional classroom or online courses is their lack of educational “cash value,” at least during a period when obtaining recognized college credit for completing a MOOC is not a mainstream option.
The old adage that cheaters hurt only themselves is actually not true in an environment where something of value, such as credit toward a diploma, is at stake since cheaters in those cases are actually helping themselves get to an end goal (graduation) while also hurting others by devaluing a grading system based on assumptions of integrity.
But given that the vast majority of people who participate in a MOOC do so for their own edification, cheating in such an environment translates to behaving dishonestly in order to ensure one’s own ignorance, all to obtain a certificate of completion that means very little to external audiences such as employers.
It is all the more surprising, then, that cheating is perceived as rampant within MOOC courses. But is that perception accurate? And even if cheating is infrequent, what could possibly motivate someone to cut corners in what is meant to be a self-directed personal learning experience with personal satisfaction the primary reward?
The sense that MOOCs invite cheating more than traditional classroom-based courses is built on the public perception that assumes cheating is generally more widespread in online learning environments.
But Bernard Bull, assistant vice president of academics and associate professor of educational design and technology at Concordia University, taught otherwise in a MOOC he created on the subject of cheating in online courses.
As I learned by taking that class, the professor’s own research (based on survey data generated from the anonymous confessions of successful cheaters) indicates that self-reported cheating rates are no higher for online students than for students taking brick-and-mortar classes.
This may be due to the fact that cheating rates are too high everywhere. Professor Donald McCabe’s 2001 study of 4,500 high school and 1,800 college students found self-admitted cheating rates of 70 percent and similar survey research found cheating to be even more prevalent among high-achieving students.
And while other scholars have challenged sweeping claims based on numbers that might mix regretful once-in-a-life-time plagiarists with serial cheaters, academic integrity seems to be a problem that transcends the role of technology in instruction.
Given that online learning, technology has allowed students to take tests remotely, even in courses taken at residential colleges, the distinction between classroom-based and online education is becoming increasingly blurry (hence the popularity of the term “blended learning” to describe various hybrid teaching approaches that mix “live” and online course components).
This means that graded tests that might have traditionally taken place inside a proctored classroom are frequently assigned as take-home exams that give students the opportunity to cheat unobserved, just as they have always been free to plagiarize in privacy.
And speaking of plagiarism, this form of academic dishonesty not only makes up a huge percentage of cases of academic integrity code violations, it also represents a form of cheating that is most difficult to protect against.
Technology has generated an arms race between teachers trying to incorporate technology components into classroom instruction (or just give assignments in a world where the Internet is omnipresent) and students who can either use that technology to accelerate learning or to enable dishonest behavior such as buying completed assignments from so-called “paper mills” or simply cutting and pasting from third-party sources without attribution.
But even as it enables various forms of dishonest behavior, technology also promises a solution in the form of plagiarism-detection software such as TurnItIn, which, when integrated into the teaching process, means professors get to review student work only after it has been given a clean bill of health from such third-party dishonesty-detection tools.
While anti-cheating products can save teachers the hours of work needed to sniff out plagiarized or purchased material in student assignments, such systems have the damaging effect of turning professors (who must confront students with the result of automated plagiarism evaluations) into policemen and students into suspects assumed to be guilty until TurnItIn declares them innocent.
And the costs related to creating a culture of suspicion go beyond the risk of false accusations.
For as Professor Bull related in class, his research indicates that the three major factors students take into account when deciding whether or not to cheat include laziness, risk, and student perception of lack of teacher engagement.
While the first two factors are intuitive (students are tempted to cut corners if they can get the same grade by cheating rather than doing the actual work, and low chances of being caught correlate with the higher likelihood of cheating).
The third reason points out that when students feel a teacher is not respecting them (by just going through the motions in class or treating the student body as little more than grade-grubbing plagiarists), they are likely to return the favor by doing as little as possible to achieve the desired grade.
Some MOOCs get around these issues by taking advantage of the first of Bull’s factors: laziness. If your entire grade on a massive online course is based on a set of short quizzes with an unlimited number of chances to get the right answers;
or if exams provide immediate feedback regarding whether you answered a question incorrectly (and more chances to make the correct choice), scouring the Internet for posted answers to the test would actually involve more work than just guessing your way to a 100 percent score.
And for test questions that might require additional help, forums are often full of hints that point students in the right direction (if not spelling out the answers out-right).
While such activity could be described as collaborative, given that it facilitates some of the student-to-student teaching envisioned by the original MOOC pioneers, basing grades on assessments that can be easily gamed fits a time-tested teaching truism that says students are least likely to complain about a course is too easy.
As mentioned earlier, professors looking to increase the challenge level of a MOOC will soften up their use of subjective assignments, such as peer-graded essays.
But in addition to all of the issues regarding peer evaluation (such as quality of scoring rubrics and variability of language skill among students), peer grading provides no method for detecting plagiarism beyond what-ever effort the occasional experienced and/or paranoid peer grader might want to put into the task.
This means that overt plagiarism, such as the copying and pasting of whole Wikipedia articles (something that would be caught immediately by a professor with or without a system like TurnItIn), might easily slip by students evaluating the work of other students.
Other than hoping self-motivation translates into academic integrity, MOOC providers are left relying on options like honor codes, which have shown limited utility in traditional classrooms;
or technical Band-Aids such as Coursera’s Signature Track program, which attempts to confirm that a student is submitting his or her own work, even if it cannot determine how many corners he or she may have cut to complete it.
Other emerging solutions to security issues have grown out of the response of professors throughout the academy to the plague of Internet-enabled plagiarism, solutions that involve creating new methods of evaluation that defy cutting and pasting.
For instance, students who might have once been asked to turn in individual history assignments might work together to create an online version of a fictitious newspaper from the period being studied.
Classroom presentations and digital video also offer ways for students to present what they have learned in public, providing a means for livening up a class through assignments that cannot be easily gamed.
This is actually an area where MOOCs have considerable promise, some professors involved with MOOC development have been looking at creative projects—some of which leverage the crowds of people taking the course—as a means to turn their online courses into unique and interesting assignments.
In addition to limiting opportunities to cut corners, such creativity also helps demonstrate a professor’s commitment to providing a meaningful learning experience with the hope that this will encourage honest work from an engaged student body.
Intellectual Property academic libraries frequently license databases of academic content for use within an institution.
And reserve reading programs that allow libraries to lend out copyrighted material on a short-term basis are protected by legislation and regulation such as First-Sale Doctrine, the same doctrine that allows individuals to give away or sell legally purchased books or CDs to others without first seeking permission of copyright holders.
But licensing arrangements and intellectual property rules put in place to allow schools flexibility with regard to sharing copyrighted material with enrolled students are not necessarily applicable to the student body of a MOOC, where most participants have no association with the institution that has created a course.
Another intellectual property issue related to MOOCs has to do with the third-party material professors might use in their lecture videos. Technically, any exhibit a professor includes in a classroom presentation, such as a photograph in a slide or music played in the classroom, is subject to copyright restrictions.
Even before the advent of MOOCs, institutions have asked professors to secure rights for images, video and audio clips, and other materials used in a classroom, or make an effort to ensure the use of such content can be justified through legal principles such as fair use doctrine.
This requirement has taken on additional urgency as MOOCs teaching tens of thousands up the level of risk for colleges and universities with regard to legal action related to intellectual property violations.
“Everything that is educational is not automatically fair use,” says Kyle Courtney, copyright advisor to Harvard University, who has been advising HarvardX on the safe and legal use of copyrighted material within MOOC courses.
“It’s the purpose and the character of your use, the nature of the content, the amount and substantiality of the portion taken, and the effect of the use on the market,” he continues, describing the four factors used to ascertain coverage under a fair use doctrine—a doctrine often mistakenly believed to allow free reuse of content in any academic situation.
“We use the term ‘window dressing’ to describe something like a cartoon included in a slideshow for a laugh which is aesthetic in principle, but not necessary to make your pedagogical point,” continues Courtney, making a distinction between an exhibit like a photo used to highlight a point in literature and the use of that same picture to demonstrate an important principle relevant in a photography class.
“When you’re using a photo in a photography class, the photo takes on the point of the lesson.”
Challenges arise, however, when the point of a lesson is subject to interpretation. For example, when Harvard’s Greg Nagy, a professor of classics and an avid film buff, wanted to include scenes from Blade Runner in his edX MOOC.
The Ancient Greek Hero to illustrate a point about the timelessness of heroic mythology, an assessment of relevance that was clear to Nagy and his team needed confirmation through Harvard’s copyright experts.
This is why an assessment based on the four factors Courtney lists is a safer route than assuming educational relevance and hoping that a course broadcast to tens of thousands won’t run afoul of a copyright holder’s opinion on the matter.
Schools looking to use copyrighted works, either in video lectures or through syllabus reading, have a number of options they can pursue. “First, you can get permission from the copyright owner,” says Courtney.
“This usually takes time and might come with a number of restrictions. Publishers might ask ‘What’s a MOOC?’ And most of these rights holders want to be paid for use of their material.”
Given that permission is not always attainable (or afford-able for free MOOC classes), other alternatives include use of open access content or content owned by the institution developing the course, linking to external content, or asking those taking a course to obtain reading material on their own—an option that puts the burden of finding legal copies on the student rather than the university or MOOC provider.
Beyond questions of who owns material used within a MOOC are questions regarding who “owns” the MOOC itself, a product that includes content developed by a professor (who may be using selected third-party material) and produced by an institution for distribution through a third party such as edX or Coursera.
While little is at stake financially when massive online courses are being given away to the public for free, as MOOC providers explore business models such as content licensing, questions are being asked regarding whether or not contracting arrangements between course providers and universities take into account ownership issues of all stakeholders, including those of the professors teaching the class.
If a professor leaves a university, can he or she take the MOOCs they have created with them, or do recordings of his or her lectures remain the property of their former employer?
Who is liable in the case of an intellectual property lawsuit: the professor, the school, or the MOOC provider? And if student-created content or data generated by or about a student builds value into a course or company, who owns the rights to these materials and data?
Perhaps some of these matters could be resolved if MOOCs fell into the category of truly open educational resources. But as with so much new terminology associated with MOOCs, the word “open” is open to interpretation.
While “open” may be one of MOOCs middle names, when this term is used in the context of massive open learning it usually describes a course with no barriers to participation with regard to costs, prerequisites, or any other requirements other than a desire to sign up.
When other technology-driven trends, such as open source software, open access journals, or open educational resources use the term “open,” however, they are describing more formalized legal arrangements that support alternatives to market-based systems for distributing and using intellectual property. The open source movement.
For example, was created to combat the increasing power of corporations producing and selling proprietary software.
The Linux and Android operating systems, which are licensed to developers in ways that allow them to both use and modify the source code, are examples of open source products that have become competitive with proprietary software from companies such as Microsoft and Apple.
And in many industries, including education, open source solutions such as the Moodle learning management system have become major competitors to market-leading proprietary software products such as Blackboard.
If open source was created to break the monopoly of software giants, open access is a movement meant to offer an alternative to traditional publishers of academic journals who are perceived as having become too rapacious and restrictive in the absence of genuine competition.
Under open access rules, researchers can place their work in university-managed institutional repositories for free distribution, even as they also publish that same work in established journals.
And a system of free open access journals that sometimes charge those submitting articles for services such as peer review and distribution rather than charging subscribers is gaining traction as an alternative to traditional academic and professional publishing business models.
Open educational resources (OER) is another system designed to allow educators to share materials based on flexible user licensing that allows resources to be used, modified, and distributed at no cost.
MIT’s Open Course-Ware initiative, which publishes syllabi, reading lists, homework assignments, tests, lecture notes, and (for some courses) video lectures, is probably the most well-known open education project, but repositories are growing that contain thousands of documents, data sources, problem sets, and other educational material for sharing, reuse, and repurposing.
While some OER leaders see textbook publishers as playing the role monopoly software vendors and conventional journal publishers play for the open source and open access movements, it is not clear whether the open education branch of the open resource movement is meant to support or upend the traditional academy. This is why opinions regarding the genuine level of openness within MOOCs are mixed.
As was already pointed out, MOOC developers are already looking at open access content as a way to support putting required reading materials into the hands of students at no cost, demonstrating one intersection between MOOCs and the various open initiatives just described.
And while some of the components of the software used to deploy MOOCs are proprietary, a trained eye can spot a number of free services (such as YouTube used to store and distribute many MOOC video lectures) that have been “mashed up” to create the MOOC experience.
And in June 2013, edX announced that its complete learning management system would be made available under open source licensing, allowing third parties interested in building their own online learning libraries to leverage course-management tools and other resources already built into a system that has been proven out by Harvard and MIT.
One of the first initiatives announced that would leverage the now-open edX LMS was mooc.org a partnership between edX and Google that is promising to allow anyone to create a course that can be deployed through edX software running on Google servers.
Such a service would compete with companies such as Udemy that also allow anyone to create and deploy a course, although it remains to be seen if the free mooc.org An edX Site service will attract developers of academic courses rather than the type of commercial training developers that make up the bulk of Udemy content providers.
Despite their overlaps with various open movements, MOOCs themselves are not made available under OER licensing arrangements that would allow third parties to modify and deploy them without restriction.
While MOOC providers are encouraging the use of their content informal learning environments through initiatives like Coursera’s Learning Hub program, they are also negotiating paid licensing arrangements with colleges and universities interested in utilizing MOOC content in whole or in part.
Of all the controversies noted in this blog, arguments regarding MOOC levels of openness mostly take place within more rarified educational circles. But even those most eager to see open education disrupt an educational economy characterized by out-of-control costs and runaway educational debt must start their mission by first asking what it is that colleges and universities actually sell.