MOOC t-shirtIn the past week, some spirited discussions have arisen among IST faculty concerning Massive Online Open Source Courses (MOOCs). As I pointed out in my first “Hall Pass” on the subject of MOOCs and Personal Trainers, MOOCs became noticed when Stanford offered a course in Artificial Intelligence (AI), Databases, and Machine Learning in the fall of 2011. In its first offering, the course was taken by more than 135,000 participants. Since then, a number of universities have sought to develop and participate in the MOOC phenomena via projects such as Coursera, Udacity, and edX.

This spring, Penn State joined Coursera and announced an effort to develop five initial MOOCs. Penn State also created a new research center, the Center for Online Innovation in Learning (COIL), co-led by IST, the College of Education, and World Campus. COIL seeks to conduct research in aspects of learning technologies, pedagogy, learning assessment, hybrid classrooms, and other key aspects related to hybrid and distance education.

On Wikipedia, you can find an interesting history of MOOCs and related phenomena, which points toward a number of historical precursors to MOOCs including mail-based correspondence courses, radio-based courses, television courses, CDs, and other delivery mechanisms. A list of MOOC courses is available at http://www.mooc-list.com/.

With each “new” delivery mechanism, there is excitement about the prospects for universal education, comments about the impact on traditional education, and subsequent absorption of the new methods into an ever-broadening portfolio of education delivery mechanisms. In the same vein, the hype continues for MOOCs. The New York Times called 2012 “the year of the MOOC,” and articles continue to appear in the Chronicle of Higher Education, popular magazines such as Newsweek and Time, and television talk shows. At the risk of merely adding noise to the discussion, the following are my thoughts regarding the MOOC phenomena.

First, I suspect that MOOCs, as with any educational delivery mechanism, are especially useful for highly motivated students who seriously want to learn the material as opposed to simply getting “credit.”  The high dropout rate for MOOCs is telling. Typically, less than 10 per cent of people who sign up for a MOOC ever actually finish. Even more telling would be pre- and post-MOOC knowledge evaluation. Do we know how much students really learn if they successfully complete a course? How is, or would, that knowledge be evaluated? A special challenge with distance delivery mechanisms is verifying that the person who signed up for a course is the one actually taking it. Dr. Steve Schaffer in our college is conducting an online evaluation of programming and related skills.

As the MOOC phenomenon evolves, there will almost certainly be creation of “sub-genres.”  For example, there may be full-course MOOCs for specialized topics (programming, AI, database, etc.), and other courses that range from “refresher-type” mini-courses, to “introductory” or “a taste of …” courses, and finally courses aimed primarily at entertainment.

To be effective, MOOCs will require significant development effort to be good (much more than “regular” resident courses). Recently, I purchased a “Great Courses” set of videos on the history of the United States. It promised to be a very good course with a highly experienced instructor. Imagine my disappointment to find it was basically a set of recorded lectures that, while mildly entertaining, did not employ any enhanced materials such as PowerPoint, animations, etc. It was basically a talking head.

In IST, our instructional systems designers work very hard to develop effective online materials for our World Campus courses. Their efforts include careful design of presentation materials, creation of online laboratory and simulations, use of multiple methods to enhance interaction among students and between an instructor and the students, and frequent monitoring and evolution to improve instructional delivery.

Dr. Joe Lambert, emeritus senior associate dean, has pointed out that emergence of MOOCS will likely induce a “settling out” of faculty into areas such as “primary research faculty,” “star master teachers,” “instructional trainers” (analogous to individual physical trainers  who motivate and support individual or small sets of students), etc.

As MOOCs, inverted classrooms, hybrid learning, and distance learning continue to grow, there are many other implications regarding:

  • Space  (classroom, office and lab space)
  • Evaluation of faculty, tenure/tenure-track for faculty who teach primarily on-line
  • Establishment of virtual faculty groups and how to ensure a sense of collaboration rather than simply a distributed “stable” of individual faculty
  • Evaluation of student performance
  • Evaluation of faculty performance
  • “Ownership” of teaching material
  • “Branding” of a course related to a university or faculty member
  • Tradeoff of “resident” or “hybrid” course versus and completely online, and a business model for universities, etc.

New thinking will be required to determine the “value added” for a university and faculty regarding teaching, learning, and education. For example, one of the historical benefits of large universities was (and still is) the library system (that’s where the books were). With the advent of online access to virtually any book or journal, what is the role of the academic library system and librarians? I assert that one role of libraries and librarians will be the generation of “meta-data” and knowledge: what search engines are applicable in an area, what is the evolving terminology across multiple fields, what materials and sources can a research trust, what are the standards for research and resources in different fields, etc. The role of libraries and librarians will evolve and include data, meta-data, modeling, and many other areas. Similarly, the role of faculty members will evolve to focus on the development of new instructional materials, linking new materials to rapidly evolving research results, mentoring individual and groups of students, and meta-instruction – working at a higher level of abstraction rather than focusing simply on the delivery of instructional materials.

While potentially disconcerting, this area is an excellent opportunity for IST to explore and provide guidance to this evolving situation. I encourage continued discussion in this area.


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