Class Central was at SXSW edu, the premier conference in the U.S. on education. There were a lot of people, tons of energy, and a lot of great ideas for improving education, from K-12, to Higher Education and lifelong learning.
We attended most of the half-dozen or so sessions related to MOOCs. The hype over MOOCs has definitely settled down–in fact, in several speakers mentioned (in an I-told-you-so kind of way) that MOOCs were not the immediate disrupter of higher education that some had predicted. The sessions on MOOCs focused more reasonably on best practices around MOOCs, and how to leverage them well.
Here are some high level themes that stood out to us concerning MOOCs:
- Teaching MOOCs require a great deal of work – Unanimously, professors who have taught MOOCs have talked about the enormous amount of work required to develop and produce the content for a MOOC. It also requires additional resources such as technical staff to record lectures and work with the platform, as well as TAs, in some cases. There are additional problems: 1) In nearly all cases, professors are not compensated for teaching MOOCs, thus they are taking on extra workload for little reward other than personal satisfaction, and 2) Most prestigious universities reward research productivity over teaching skills, and some professors are even counseling their non-tenured peers that it might not be in their best professional interest to be involved in a MOOC, as it will decrease their focus on research. Thus, interest from professors may start to decline unless these issues are addressed.
- Professors are using MOOCs to improve their campus teaching – Professors said that restructuring their teaching approach to run a MOOC (using a series of short lecture videos) has caused them to think through how they teach the content–something that perhaps has not changed for a long time for introductory content. In addition, they can leverage the MOOC content they create to implement blended learning (combining in-person + online elements) in their on-campus courses. An example is Steve Joordens at the University of Toronto, who incorporated some blended learning into his Intro to Psychology class. Another is the University System of Maryland, which received a grant from the Gates Foundation to incorporate previously published MOOC content (with the assistance of Coursera and permission from the course authors)
- People are moving away from metrics that are simple to measure – Everyone mentioned the low completion rates of MOOCs–but some speakers used this to dismiss the overblown promise of MOOCs, while others simply stated it is not the right metric to use. In the sessions we heard more from those who were running MOOCs themselves. Dawn Zimmaro, of the Stanford Open Learning Initiative talked about assessment and was hopeful about the rich level of data that can be collected through online courses. For too long we’ve focused on what can easily be measured (completion rates, time spent, etc.) but now the focus is on figuring out how to measure learning outcomes. This also matches well with one of the larger trends discussed at the SXSW conference, adaptive learning, where utilizing algorithms allows for the potential for personalized learning content. This type of discussion is a welcome advance over the simple debate on completion figures.
- MOOCs are being leveraged to run in a campus environment – Besides borrowing from MOOCs to incorporate blended learning, there seems to be a trend for universities to offer “MOOC-type” online courses to their university students, as for-credit courses. Strictly speaking, this is a misnomer (they are not open to all), so universities often give this a different name. But the important point is that schools think there are benefits of using the MOOC format rather than in-person in some situations. A case study is Professor James Pennebaker’s Intro to Psychology Course at the University of Texas at Austin, co-taught with colleague Samuel D. Gosling, where they utilize a high-quality studio environment to produce a talk-show format, with a host behind a desk (cracking jokes) and having guests come on to discuss the basic concepts. This has generated a lot of excitement, and professor Pennebaker says that he regularly approached on campus by students like a rock star. More importantly, he indicated that preliminary data indicate that students achieved a half letter grade higher than prior classes, and also did better in future classes than their cohorts. Class Central reported in a prior instructor interview that the same type of “campus MOOC” was being made available at the University of Minnesota, and is being discussed at the University of Michigan.
In sum, the discussion around MOOCs has matured. There are some who are no longer excited by them, and they are probably looking for some new “savior” of education (perhaps the leading candidate is adaptive learning). But the rest see a large value in MOOCs, but also recognize the issues: the large time commitment, lack of instructor incentives, and the need for new measurements. On the positive side, MOOCs are helping professors implement blended learning better and are helping to give teachers more perspective on what makes for effective teaching and learning.