Next Step for MOOCs: Scaling the Unscalable

You can’t do science experiments online. And one-on-one learning—you don’t get that in a MOOC. Right? Not so fast.

Like pretty much every other reason that has been given for MOOCs being inferior to traditional forms of learning, the ideas that MOOCs are only good for declarative knowledge (i.e., fact-based knowledge that can be tested, albeit poorly, using multiple-choice questions) and that massive always means an instructor-student ratio of 100,000 to 1 are quickly being toppled.

First up, science experiments.

Online labs got their start a few decades ago, but until now the technology was not available to make these labs effective. Today, iLabs are gaining more interest, thanks in part to funding by the National Science Foundation, and remote labs are now available in subjects including physics, biology, chemistry, and math. Other remote labs are being built. For example, Lambertus Hesselink, a Stanford engineering professor, has been working on an optics diffraction experiment that will be publicly available this year.

Okay, that one was easy. Now what about personalized, one-on-one learning?

Here’s another place where technology is making inroads. While it is true that MOOCs will (probably) never be able to match professors to students on a one-on-one basis, that doesn’t mean that personalized tutoring isn’t possible. Marcel Salathe believes that MOOC 2.0 will focus on scaling face-to-face learning through a widely used technology that is already available: video chat. As he writes in an article for Wired, “a quick web search for face-to-face learning paints a clear picture of the status quo: it’s face-to-face learning versus online learning. Is it not obvious that face-to-face learning can occur online as well?” He believes that as far as online learning is concerned, 2015 will be the “year of the TA.”

To make this happen, Salathe has founded a Teeays, a platform that links online students to on-demand TAs. When MOOC students have a question, they can go to this site and request a TA who can help. Anyone can sign up to be a TA for a particular course (the site doesn’t specify if or how TAs are vetted), and it isn’t free (learners are charged, and TAs are paid, by the minute), but it is still certainly one way to approach the scaling problem.

When MOOCs first came out, their critics came up with a long list of things the courses couldn’t do. But one by one, education and technology innovators have been proving them wrong. And you know what they say: “Those who say it can’t be done should get out of the way of those who are doing it.”

Daphne Koller Talks MOOCs

MOOC offerings and enrollments are soaring, MOOC credentials are providing value in the workplace, and teachers are using MOOCs to innovate what happens in the classroom. Watch the fantastic Daphne Koller discuss these issues and more in a panel at TechCrunch Disrupt 2014 SF, happening this week.

What Alternative Credentials Like Nanodegrees Really Mean

MOOCs and other non-traditional educational formats are still getting a bad rap. Just yesterday, Wesleyan President Michael Roth reiterated the standard argument against non-traditional education and alternative credentials, this time taking aim at Udacity’s nanodegrees. The crux of the argument is that strictly vocational learning paths ignore the broader purpose of higher education, which is to produce well-rounded individuals capable of critical thinking, not just reduce them “to being somebody else’s tool.”

Of course, no one wants to be a tool, but Roth’s argument misses two key points.

First, nanodegrees are not trying to “replace liberal arts colleges.” In fact, like with MOOCs, most Udacity students probably already have degrees. In an interview published in April, Udacity CEO Sebastian Thrun told Fortune Magazine: “The vast majority of students we have right now are young professionals. The vast majority are actually in jobs right now….We have about a third U.S., two-thirds international, and they find themselves in situations where they need specific job skills. These are people that just understand learning is important. These are lifelong learners.”

Second, the meaning of a traditional degree is increasingly unclear. The results of a new study by research firm Burning Glass suggest that while more employers want to hire candidates with degrees, they don’t really seem to know why. The study analyzed job advertisements for “middle jobs”—those between entry-level and skilled and managerial positions. The researchers found that more employers are requiring degrees and that there is a “credential gap” between the number of positions now requiring degrees and the number of workers in those positions who actually have a degree.

However, they also found that for fields in which more degrees are not being required, such as healthcare, employers are more likely to ask for credentials including state licensing requirements, industry certifications, and measureable skills. According to the report: “Employers [in these fields] have specific criteria to use as a yardstick when hiring, so there’s not as much incentive to apply the less-specific screen of a bachelor’s degree.” In other words, employers are demanding more degrees as a filter because, well, they need something to shrink the applicant pool, and degrees are the best they’ve got. But only for now.

Nanodegrees, MOOC course sequences, digital badges, competency-based education—these all have the ability to provide more specific screens. They may not replace the “well-roundedness” value of traditional liberal arts education, but that isn’t their goal. Today what many people need and want are demonstrable skills that will help them get a job, and this is where alternative credentials will find their place.

Ten years ago, going back to school was exactly that—going to a community college or a university a couple of times a week to take courses that in large part resembled those you took the first time around. But technology has been a major driver of de-compartmentalization in our modern lives. For example, the boundary between work and the rest of one’s time is practically non-existent today as flexible schedules and remote working are becoming the norm.

MOOCs are contributing to this movement by blurring the lines between school, work, and the rest of life. This is taking place in several ways:

•  MOOCs are being offered by both academic institutions and companies, sometimes in partnership, and learners often take both types of courses on their own time to enhance their job skills.

•  Other organizations, like professional associations, are also offering MOOCs (here’s one example), providing additional education opportunities for their members.

•  Companies offer MOOCs to educate both their employees and their customers at the same time.

•  Learners take professional development and personal interest MOOCs at the same time and on the same platform (e.g., Coursera).

•  With the rising BYOD movement, learners are using the same laptops and mobile devices to take courses, to communicate with friends and family, for entertainment, and for work.

The combination of these trends means that learning is every day becoming more and more integrated into “just regular life.” There are no class hours or other defined start and stop points limiting where, when, and how learning takes place. “Lifelong learning” is not just learning that happens throughout our lifespan, but every single day within it. This is a good thing! It provides a way for us to keep both our skills and our brains sharp.

What are some other ways MOOCs and other educational technologies are meshing learning, work, and all other aspects of life?

Are Pre-Packaged Online Courses Just Paid MOOCs?

Textbooks have changed so much in the past few years that it’s difficult to even say what one is anymore. As higher education publishers have moved more into the digital space, textbooks are starting to look a lot less like course resources and a lot more like entire online courses. In fact, they are starting to look quite a bit like MOOCs.

A recent Slate article explored these pre-packaged courses and how they are being used in higher education. The courses provide the entire learning experience, with content mostly in the form of videos, interactive simulations, tests and quizzes, and sometimes even computer-graded essay assignments. The courses can be used just as textbooks, customized to supplement instructor-guided learning, but more often it seems like they are being used as full courses. According to McGraw-Hill chief digital officer Stephen Laster, 99% of professors who use the courses don’t customize them at all—they “take it right out of the box.”

The students profiled in the Slate article reported differing levels of instructor contact, mostly ranging from little to none. In fact, in a couple of examples, the student-instructor interaction didn’t seem to be significantly different from what is typically found in a MOOC.

The article is explicit in differentiating the courses from MOOCs, but it seems like the major differences are really only twofold. First, they aren’t free—students at universities pay not only for the courses, but an additional amount for access to the online platform. Second, they are credit-bearing—which is only true because they are being offered through accredited universities.

But in terms of content and learning experience, these courses don’t seem significantly different from many MOOCs that are available for free. One area where they may have an advantage is in activities like lab simulations, but open educational resources are improving all of the time, and this advantage may not last long.

This trend toward out-of-the-box, minimal-engagement online courses raises questions about why more institutions aren’t adopting the MOOC-as-textbook model and why so few MOOCs are still accredited. What do you think about this? Is there something fundamentally different about these pre-packaged courses? If not, why are MOOCs still seen as offering inferior learning experiences?

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