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MOOCs Impact Universities, but Need Better Engagement says Adam Brimo

Charlie Chung from Class Central spoke with Adam Brimo, co-founder of Australia-based MOOC platform OpenLearning.

Charlie Chung from Class Central spoke with Adam Brimo, co-founder of Australia-based MOOC platform OpenLearning, to discuss the impact of MOOCs, challenges in fostering engagement in an online environment, and OpenLearning’s unique approach to this area. This article is based on the interview.

Adam co-founded OpenLearning with David Collien and Dr. Richard Buckland in 2012. Dr. Buckland, a popular Computer Science instructor at the University of New South Wales (NSW) in Australia, had lecture videos on YouTube accumulating over 2 million views. However, this was not fully satisfying as he was not able to interact with those viewers in a meaningful way—and this was the impetus to launch of OpenLearning.

A tangible impact on the university

In 2012, the advent of the large MOOC providers initiated a hype cycle, with predictions of educational access for all and the disruption of universities. But this didn’t last long. Within a year, critics had cut down the hype, armed with incontrovertible facts: fewer than 15% of people who sign up for a MOOC complete them, and the majority of students already have degrees. Now the current consensus appears to be that MOOCs may eventually have some moderate impact on higher education. Adam is starting to see some impact of MOOCs on schools already, but not by replacing classes. Schools are usually attracted to MOOCs for their potential to enhance their reputation or to reduce costs by creating content that can be re-used. But as a result of some of the teaching being more visible, current and prospective students are getting a view of how schools teach. As a response, universities are starting to give more attention on teaching quality. As Adam says:

“MOOCs make teaching practice and the quality of teaching at universities public. So no longer you just choose one based on the rankings of the university or the prestige in your mind. You can actually experience courses from the university…it makes university focus more on the quality of teaching.” 

Universities focusing more on teaching? This is surely a positive trend, for both those within the university and outside it, looking in through MOOCs.

Adam on MOOCs impacting university teaching quality and business models

Puzzling with MOOC engagement

The major issue that MOOC providers and instructors struggle with is that less than 15% completion figure mentioned above. Some have pointed out that the denominator is inflated, as signing up is pretty easy to do. However, nearly all feel that somehow increasing engagement will help more students stay with the MOOC and derive more value from it. Adam makes the case that engagement is harder to foster in an online environment: “You do need to consider a lot more things when running online courses or MOOCs than you would ordinarily when teaching a real-world class.”

If the goal is to increase student engagement, first we need to ask how engagement should be defined and measured. Some MOOC providers measure it based on percentages of students who watch videos or take quizzes. Others would argue that it should be based on what students pre-identify as their goals at the start of the course. Adam takes a social view of engagement and defines it as the extent to which people interact with each other:

We want to foster connections between students in the course, encourage them to communicate with each other, peer review each others’ work, and share their own experiences. That is the real value we see in MOOCs, not necessarily the lecture, but the students actually working together. 

Adam thus measures engagement by looking at the number of interactions a student makes in a course: completing exercises, posting comments, liking/sharing posts, or chatting with others. On OpenLearning, they find students engage in an average of 18 actions per course.

As they have been focused on tracking engagement, they have collected and analyzed tons of data, trying to figure out what works best. Here are four key principles Adam shared for maximizing MOOC engagement:

1. Keep the course duration short. Any chart of the number of MOOC students by week will show a steady drop-off each week. It is tempting to think that this can be avoided somehow (“if only the course were designed better!”). However, Adam explains, peoples lives “just get in the way”, with work, family, or health issues. And once someone falls behind, it is very dispiriting to try to catch up. Thus, the fewer the number of weeks, the better.

2. Make sure the exercises diverse. People enjoy exercises that can be done quickly, but having different types of exercises (e.g. fill-in-the-blank, submitting pictures, etc.) helps to create a small sense of challenge, in addition to actual content. Thus, try different exercises.

3. Avoid long quizzes. On OpenLearning, there are dramatically lower participation rates for longer quizzes. When students are stuck on a question, if they see that there are many more ahead of them, will lose motivation to figure it out and abandon the quiz. Others will not even start if they see a large number of questions. Thus, it is probably better to quiz only the key content, and have more frequent, rather than longer quizzes.

4. Forming teams can help. Students who work in teams are generally more committed to complete group work. However, the caveat is that if students are unable to find a team to join, their engagement rate plummets. Thus, if you have teams, make sure to help everyone who wants to join a team find one.

OpenLearning also incorporates its own approach to encouraging more engagement with the concept of Karma Points. These are points associated with your profile that you earn when people like or favorite your comments. Thus, it is not just a measure of your activity, but includes some social proof of the usefulness of your contributions.

OpenLearning’s approach & future directions

There is a real-time chat, where you can see other students who are online at the same time and initiate a conversation. 

So some may ask what makes OpenLearning unique in a world that has Coursera, edX, and Futurelearn? Two things, primarily: a social focus, and a unique international perspective. First, it was with the student in mind: “Initially, we focused heavily on the student experience, what’s best for students, other things we can do to make the students’ life easy.” You can comment on every page of content, rather than having to go to a designated discussion forum. There is a real-time chat, where you can see other students who are online at the same time and initiate a conversation. Each person’s comments are accompanied with the user’s thumbnail picture, and seeing these along with people’s comments makes the platform feel much more social—much like Facebook or Twitter. Why don’t the other large MOOC platforms do this? One can only presume that they started off initially with the instructor in mind, and so did not prioritize the social aspects.

Another unique aspect is OpenLearning’s appeal in Oceana and Asia, which helps balance the Western focus of other platforms. Although based out of Australia, only 30% of students come from there, with the next largest countries being the U.S., China, and India. OpenLearning also has a large presence in Malaysia, where it started the first MOOC with Prof. Mushtak Al-Atabi and the precursor to his popular Global Entrepreneurship MOOC. Adam describes part of the vision:

“One thing that’s really important for us is that online courses aren’t the domain of the U.S., Australians, European universities, but that people in every country have courses that they are proud of, from people and lecturers in that country and universities in that country.” 

While OpenLearning has perhaps figured some things out, there is a long ways to go. “It’s still early days for MOOCs”, says Adam. The big push at OpenLearning now is to start to focus on streamlining the experience for teachers, and enabling anyone to easily create a course on the platform. For those inspired to offer a free MOOC to the public, use of the platform is completely free, whereas if course authors want to charge for their MOOCs, OpenLearning will charge them a fee. This vision of opening up course authorship beyond instructors is also shared by Udemy, except that they focus on self-paced courses.

But who should be teaching MOOCs? There are obvious cases where someone is clearly an expert in a field and has a passion to teach others. But surely many of us either feel unqualified to teach some subject, or have over-inflated views as to the extent of our expertise. This is a challenge that Adam acknowledges, analogous perhaps to the uneven quality of the flood of new self-published e-books. To some extent, ratings of the class and the instructor’s reputation may help, but there will still be a lot more noise in the system. Adam thinks that a good criterion is whether someone would be willing to create a course out of passion, without knowing whether they would earn much money from doing it.

As Adam says, these are still “early days”, and we are glad that OpenLearning is a successful, growing MOOC provider with a unique perspective. We hope that others learn from their embrace of social elements and international focus, and would suggest that learners check out some their courses.

Adam on who should teach MOOCs, and how to determine the topic


(If you are interested, you can watch the full video interview with Adam Brimo).

Comments 1

  1. Aakash Goel

    I could not agree more and that is why Business Simulations like LearnBiz Simulations (www.learnbizsimulations.com) needs to be introduced. Although I am sceptical about group formation as a means of increasing online engagement.


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