What does MOOC stand for? (2019)
MOOC, which stands for the massive open online course, that provides Internet-driven distance-learning programs. MOOC automates the interaction between a school’s students, teachers, and administrators.
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, the 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 this 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 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.
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”, “Total Active Students” (the number of unique students who logged into the site at least once after sign-up), and “Active Students Last Week”.
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 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?
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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 allow students in any of the state’s institutions of higher learning 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 limit 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.
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 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, but 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 and students who can either use that technology to accelerate learning or 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 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.