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Time to reassess massive open online courses

Massive open online courses, or MOOCs as they are called — allowing people anywhere with an Internet connection to enrol in a college course — have been “the next big thing” in higher education for the past several years.

The explosion of interest in MOOCs started more than two years ago after Stanford University launched three courses with enrolment of more than 100,000 students from around the world. PHOTO: REUTERS

The explosion of interest in MOOCs started more than two years ago after Stanford University launched three courses with enrolment of more than 100,000 students from around the world. PHOTO: REUTERS

Massive open online courses, or MOOCs as they are called — allowing people anywhere with an Internet connection to enrol in a college course — have been “the next big thing” in higher education for the past several years.

Most of these courses are for free. In some cases, fees are charged and a certificate is awarded. But the awarding of full-fledged degrees is almost non-existent at this time.

The explosion of interest in MOOCs started more than two years ago after Stanford University launched three courses with enrolment of more than 100,000 students from around the world. Stanford faculty members Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller launched Coursera, which has become very popular both with universities and students as a platform for MOOCs. Today, Coursera is the largest provider of MOOCs with 532 courses offered.

HYPE OR GAME-CHANGER?

Two recent developments are noteworthy.

Coursera has just hired Dr Richard Levin, who served as president of Yale University for 20 years, as its CEO, signalling the linkage of Internet learning with the world of elite brick-and-mortar higher education.

Coursera has also partnered with dozens of the world’s leading universities, including not only Duke, Stanford and Michigan, but also the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University.

Second, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University have started another online consortium called edX, which is recruiting similar high-powered institutions such as Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

Could MOOCs become a global source of knowledge dissemination?

The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman believes so and thinks that MOOCs can democratise education around the world. “Nothing has more potential to lift more people out of poverty,” he wrote.

But predictions that MOOCs will change forever the educational scene are premature. MOOC completion rates are usually less than 10 per cent, with some at less than 3 per cent. That, coupled with the fact that students taking MOOCs tend to already have degrees, is prompting a growing chorus of critics to charge that MOOCs are an overhyped technology and not necessarily the game changer for higher education that supporters claim.

WHAT NEXT?

So it is time for a reassessment, as well as a retooling of the next generation of MOOCs.

Because of the massive scale of MOOCs, with thousands of student learners, there is a high student-teacher ratio. So the MOOCs can easily fall into the trap of a one-way instructional paradigm.

They are not the same as a typical lecture in a classroom. They require a lot more preparation and a different approach to engage an audience that is at a distance and variably ready or prepared to engage in the learning. Thus, the faculty has to spend more time in planning and preparing the course.

MOOC learners require a high level of autonomy to function in such a learning environment. This is the strength, and its weakness. It works for the highly motivated and organised student, but not for the ones who need it the most.

MOOCs that depend on community feedback can develop problems of structure, direction and purpose in the smattering of disparate discussions and this can make following a line of discussion or creating meaning challenging. Course completion rates are very low; in a course titled Bioelectricity at Duke University, 12,725 students enrolled, and only 313 passed. Since courses are free and no official credit is given, we need to know more about why people fail to complete courses.

While much of the dropout rate can be attributed to academic window-shoppers, the low completion rates raise questions about how effective the MOOCs are. The common reasons for low completions rates include a mismatch between the learning and the course; poor motivation; the shortcomings of video lectures; and insufficient two-way communication.

Developments in technology have the potential to drive paradigmatic shifts in education. This has happened only in a very limited sense. More needs to happen.

Effective educational technologies improve communication between teacher and students. When communication is related to instruction, the environment in which interactions take place becomes vital. Any new technology must take into account the environment in which teacher-student interaction will take place. The best technologies will adapt to the characteristics of the environment, or change them, in ways that are an improvement over what was possible using prior technologies.

MAKING IT WORK

Distance education is not a new idea — correspondence programmes began in the 19th century and the advent of radio and television allowed for the transmission of university courses and lectures over airwaves — but these suffered from the lack of immediacy and contact. Today, the Internet, Google and social media such as Facebook have helped transform the business and modified some of the inadequacies of earlier technologies.

But media forms are mere vehicles that deliver instruction, similar to pipelines that deliver water or oil, or the truck that delivers our furniture. The delivery by itself only enables, but does not change or cause changes in our learning. It is the instructional methods that foster all learning, including distance.

MOOCs can become more effective and useful in three ways. First, link them to on-site testing and learning. In fact, many schools and universities are beginning to use MOOC content this way, in what is known as a blended curriculum. Second, MOOCs can be effective when targeted towards specific goals for highly motivated individuals such as updating knowledge on a particular topic. Finally, if MOOCs are designed to be used as a refresher course for individuals who already know something about the topic.

MOOC 2.0 is yet to fully appear, but it will probably include online testing after verifying the identity of the learner, automated feedback on progress so that the student knows if or she is learning the material and a social media approach that promotes interaction and learning between participants in the course.

Time will tell how successful this will be. My own sense is that they will add value to the motivated learner and will improve learning for the population as a whole, but the need for classrooms will remain for the foreseeable future.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

K Ranga Krishnan is Dean of the Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School Singapore. A clinician-scientist and psychiatrist, he chaired the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences at Duke University Medical Centre from 1998 to 2009.

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