Category Archives: online education

Teaching What to Learn and Learning How to Teach

thumbby Hap Aziz

In his article “The Top 5 Faculty Morale Killers” published in The Chronicle of Higher Education online (April 25th, 2016), Rob Jenkins discusses several of the ways in which middle managers at academic institutions might influence faculty members’ experiences, for good or bad. Considering full-time faculty (rather than adjuncts), he discusses topics of micromanagement, trust issues, hogging the spotlight, the blame game, and blatant careerism; and for the most part, I find myself in agreement with his management observations and commentary. However, there is one area on which Jenkins touches that is problematic and often a subject of (sometimes heated) discussion at many of the institutions I’ve encountered over the past couple of decades. Under the heading of “micromanagement,” Jenkins writes,

“If, as an academic middle manager, you wish to destroy morale in your department, you can start by dictating to your faculty members exactly what to teach, how to teach it, which materials to use, and how to evaluate students.”

In this sentence, Jenkins links four related yet separate points, which he earlier categorized as being issues of academic freedom. I don’t believe the blanket application of the concept of academic freedom applies equally to all of these points, specifically as a protection against the potential administrative requirement to meet a certain standard of professional competency regarding learning outcomes. This discussion has only broadened as faculty and students both have become more involved with online and technology-mediated learning models, and some of those online learning concerns and considerations may be instructive in this context. Let’s examine Jenkins’ statement point by point.

  • what to teach

When it comes to making decisions regarding the subject matter being taught, there has been little disagreement with the idea that the full-time faculty member is the ultimate decision-making authority; that is, within generally accepted content parameters established largely through professional consensus, and as agreed upon by academic departments as to what content should be covered within courses. There are some dissenting viewpoints, often related to more politicized or controversial content as highlighted in this Huffington Post article. However, there is not enough cause to argue this point with Jenkins, and I see little downside in letting the subject matter expert (especially in contrast with the opposite approach) determine the subject matter being taught.

  • which materials to use

As with the point of what to teach, the selection of materials may largely be left to the faculty member. Certain decisions regarding text-book adoption, inclusion of supplementary materials, etc. may be subject to moderation by the appropriate academic department, but even so, the departments themselves include the teaching faculty. The remaining two points are where the conversation may be considered contentious.

  • how to teach it

When online courses and programs began to gain traction and popularity as an option for students in the late 1990s and early 2000s,  student outcomes lagged comparatively for the online alternatives. Eventually, it became obvious to institutions that basic faculty teaching and technology skills were not enough to replicate the on-ground classroom experience. In the 2004 study, “Online, On-Ground: What’s the Difference,” Ury and Ury found that “the online  student mean grade (80%) what significantly lower than the mean grade of the students enrolled in traditional sections of the same course (85%).” Drop-out rates continue to be problematic for online programs due to a number of variables, many of which are differentiators between online and on-ground instruction, as observed by Keith Tyler-Smith in his 2006 Journal of Online learning and Teaching article, “Early Attrition among First Time eLearners: A Review of Factors that Contribute to Drop-out, Withdrawal and Non-completion Rates of Adult Learners undertaking eLearning Programmes.”

The preponderance of research has demonstrated that building a successful online course is not simply a matter of selecting the appropriate content (or translating and transferring content from an on-ground format to an online format–whatever that might be). As the pressure for accountability grew (for a number of reasons), the notion also grew that faculty, by virtue of their subject matter expertise were not also necessarily well-qualified to develop effective online courses. Interestingly, this was by no means a new assessment or understanding. The instructional design community has understood this for quite some time, but without the mechanism for providing a comparative illustration–which online courses provided–faculty design of courses and how to teach them–was standard practice.

It does not necessarily follow that having subject matter expertise means that faculty also have teaching methods expertise. This is true for online courses, certainly, but it is also true for on-ground courses. Institutions serious about service to their learning populations must decide how they will equip their faculty for success, whether that is through ongoing professional development, the provision of support resources such as instructional design staff, or any combination of methods. But that will mean some form of “micromanagement” as institutions get a handle on assessing the performance of their academic programs and measuring the success of their students.

I remember reading an interview with Isaac Asimov in which he talked about his writing. In his life, he authored over 500 books along with countless essays, short stories, and articles. He was asked how he did what he did, and what advice he might give to aspiring authors. With perhaps uncharacteristic humility, Asimov admitted that as much as he wrote, he really had no idea how to explain how to do it. Writing was something he did prolifically, yet that did not qualify him to teach writing to others. Not coincidentally, he also expressed that he would make a poor editor, which brings me to the final point.

  • how to evaluate students

In the past decade, institutions have become quite serious about measuring student success, expending significant resources to determine what is affecting student engagement, retention, and persistence. The Spellings report (2006) emphasized accountability as one of the four key areas requiring attention in U. S. higher education. There are now, at many institutions, a variety of data-mining tools that allow academic leadership as well as faculty to assess student performance across a wide range of metrics. While a faculty member may be the best person to determine the quality of a student essay based on an articulated mastery of the content area, there are a host of other reporting metrics that address student performance issues and success that are not directly related to content mastery. Today’s reality is that student evaluation is most effective as a collaborative activity in which faculty play a key but partial role along with others in the institution.

So, yes, Rob Jenkins has identified several potential morale killers that institutional management might inflict upon teaching faculty. But to no small degree, some of what Jenkins identifies as morale killers is what I’d identify as entrenched attitudes that will lead to pain if they are not willingly let go. Of course I’m not saying that all faculty are in this situation, and I’m not even saying that there are no faculty at all that are able to teach well or effectively evaluate student performance. However, these two points are tied to an older way of thinking of the teaching and learning enterprise, in which the faculty member is the sole connection point to the student learning experience. With all the tools and resources available to faculty members in the technology-mediated classroom environment, it’s that older way of thinking that’s the true morale killer.

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The Quality of Learning

thumbby Hap Aziz

I find that in the never-ceasing stream-of-consciousness that represents my current and evolving thoughts on technology-enabled education, the theme of quality is a constant. In all sectors of the education enterprise, there seems to be a consensus that quality (whatever that might represent) must be an essential component of learning content and experiential process. Even before I thought to quantify the characteristics of quality in education, I had a strong sense that there were indeed characteristics to be measured. But as Hamlet might say, “aye, there’s the rub!” The challenge is in determining what those characteristics are before we can begin to consider how to measure them.

Which brings me to my second Shakespearean reference in as many paragraphs. In Act IV, Scene 1 of his play The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare wrote the following lines:

“The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes”

Yes, there are two definitions to the term quality. The first, which I used in the context of learning, is the idea that quality is a measure of how good or bad something is. The second definition as used in The Merchant of Venice is that quality is an attribute of something, and in this case, Bill is describing an attribute of mercy. Reread the passage above, substituting the one instance of the word “mercy” with the word “learning.” Now consider the line “it blesseth him that gives and him that takes.” It doesn’t take a great shift in mental perspective to think of quality not as a measure of the learning experience, but rather as an intrinsic attribute that blesses both the teacher and student alike. All we need to do is optimize conditions for this attribute to be revealed.

There are several components to learning that may function as a blessing–or as a curse if poorly executed, and the following are just a few:

  • The facilitation of the relationship between teacher and student
  • The manner in which content is organized and made available
  • The kind of support provided to teacher or student when technical difficulties arise
  • The ability to leverage additional tools that may enhance the learning experience

What level of resources or commitment of effort does it take to optimize these conditions in any particular learning environment? I probably needn’t point out that there has been much relevant research performed. But it is important to remember that we can lose sight of the big picture when we dive into the weeds of data, and that it is always a good idea to revisit key principles on a regular basis. Probably the biggest of the big picture views is the concept that the entire institution must be aligned from top to bottom and side to side on the core mission of learning. In fact, the institution should commit itself to the ideal of being learning-centered. (While I won’t explore the implications of terminology here, I will point out that there is a significant different between being learning centered as opposed to being learner or student centered. See the work of Terry O’Banion with the League for Innovation in the Community College.)

Quality as an attribute provides a basis for agreement on a common philosophy regarding the learning experience; “it blesseth him that gives and him that takes.” Once this is understood and adopted as a foundation construct, then we may begin to articulate the idea of quality as a measure of the learning experience. This is where we enter the world or metrics and assessments with the intent to execute an effective feedback and improvement cycle. Fortunately there are tools that may assist us in this process:

While these tools are extremely valuable on their own, I would never recommend adoption as an excuse to breathe a sigh of relief as though the quality question has been answered. These tools may be integrated in whole or in part into the overall governance and strategic planning process that subsequently drives day-to-day decisions regarding how learning activities are conducted. Human intelligence in the learning enterprise is still the prerequisite to data-driven decision making. Or at least it should be.

One of the reasons that it’s difficult to answer the “quality question” is that quality can be categorized in multiple ways, each with multiple considerations. The following diagram depicts a possible model.

Quality of Online (or Technology-mediated) Learning

diagram Copyright (c) 2016 by Hap Aziz

The four columns represent the categories in which we might assess quality attributes.

  • Framework – Here we consider the quality of technology infrastructure and support across an institution. How well equipped, for example, is the academic technology group in order to provide exemplary levels of service to the various end users?
  • Content – The quality of course design process has a direct impact on the actual materials and media that both educators and learners will interact with during the duration of a particular course. You might think of the difference between a well-curated academic journal and a tabloid pseudo-news publication.
  • Experience – When we think of the quality of faculty and student end-user experience, we need to consider both the end-to-end experience as a service as well as a product. What will students say after they have taken the course? The answer often comes back to how they felt about what they experienced throughout.
  • Design – Program design quality includes components of the three other quality measures, but it is also an overarching theme that spans an entire program of study rather than individual courses. This means that individual course quality measures “interact” in the learner’s mind–so a single poor experience might negatively impact the whole program experience.

The horizontal themes are representative of characteristics that are common across all the quality attributes.

  • Ethics involves topics from intellectual property policies and considerations to online harassment and bullying.
  • Resources addresses the way in which institutions provision their online operations, hopefully positioning themselves for success.
  • Constituents is all about audience: who is participating, and what is important to them.
  • Measurement is the ever-present need to understand how well we are executing to our goals at every level of the institution from leadership to department to individual instructor.

It’s at the intersection of each column and row that we might explore some questions regarding quality, such as what the ethical issues around the use of particular course content might be, or how we might go about measuring the user experience. Some of the questions might point to best practices that could be applied to most institutions under most circumstances, while others might be very specific to individual institutions, programs, or courses. I’ll be facilitating this discussion, in fact, at the Online Learning Consortium Collaborate regional conference in Las Vegas on June 10th this year, and the result should be a list of questions and considerations around those points of intersection in the diagram. I’ll follow up with a subsequent blog entry, so watch this space!

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Society or Student: What Should Education Serve?

Hap Azizby Hap Aziz

As educators, politicians, employers, technology futurists, and others debate the challenges facing education in the United States, the very basic question of what an education should provide is not often a key component of that debate. When the discussion turns to “common core” or “competency-based learning,” the terminology exposes the bias that there are subject areas or skill sets that are important for our students to master… and that, of course, implies that there are facets of human endeavor that are less important, at least from a public policy and funding standpoint.

At the Learning Impact 2013 conference in San Diego, this was one of the themes woven throughout Dr. Yong Zhao’s keynote address. His comments were provocative but very compelling along this line of reasoning: The greater specificity in education content (exercised through design control from some central, external entity accountable to societal demands), the less likely that students will be able to navigate a creative, entrepreneurial path in life. It is this premise that Dr. Zhao used to buttress his premise that the United States, despite having students that often score near the bottom in world-wide academic performance, produces inventors and innovators and entrepreneurs in much greater proportion than do countries with top test-performing students such as China, for example. While many people in the U.S. have high regard for the Chinese education system, it is instructive to know how non-Americans assess China:

“China must have entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs.”
– Wen Jiabao, Former State Premier

and

“The next Apple or Google will appear, but not in China unless it abolishes its education.”
– Kai-fu Lee, Founding President of Google China

Part of this is a cultural mindset, and in October of 2010, a Gallup poll found the entrepreneurial mindset to be much more prevalent in the U.S. than in China (or even the European Union).

The question on entrepreneurship and culture, Zhao argues, is very much related to the success-or failure-of an education system to squash creativity and independent thought. The reason our workforce is more entrepreneurial is due, at least in part, to the fact that the American education system does such a poor job of educating students in those categories that our society most values.

This is what Steve Wozniak comments about the top-ranked Singapore education system:

“Apple couldn’t emerge in societies like Singapore where ‘bad behavior is not tolerated’ and people are not taught to think for themselves.”

Author and CNN Travel contributor Alexis Ong remarks:

“Wozniak’s comments are really a scathing indictment of the Singapore education system, its strictly regimented curriculum and by-rote study techniques that sustain the city’s “formal culture.”

Consider that Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Michael Dell, and Larry Ellison all dropped out of college. If we accept the metric that college completion equals education success, then these tech giants are failures by the established education standard. Certainly I’m not arguing that students cast off the repressive chains of education to have a successful and fulfilling life. However, it is extremely important that we as a society understand what we want our education system to accomplish, and if we consider the system to be broken that we understand the actual problem in order to fix the system rather than further remove the ability of creative thought from our students.

I’m not confident that we are paying adequate attention to actual challenge in our seemingly singular pursuit to improve learning outcomes at all levels of the education process. In an article titled “Laptop U” published in The New Yorker, Nathan Heller writes extensively on the topic of MOOCs (massive open online courses), and how many educators as well as legislators see MOOCs as a solution to several types of education challenges. While he acknowledges there is controversy surrounding the use of MOOCs, Heller provides the reasoning of supporters that MOOCs “are designed to insure that students are keeping up, by peppering them with comprehension and discussion tasks,” and they will have high production values (apparently to better engage students).

Yet there is discouraging data. A study cited by Inside Higher Ed concludes that the “average completion rate for massive open online courses is less than seven percent” (strongly suggesting that students are not, in fact keeping up). Early data from Coursera indicates an overall completion rate of seven to nine percent (although Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller argues that this is misleading, as most students enrolled in MOOCs have no intent to complete). Regardless of statistics, it appears that the MOOC strategy is to funnel more students through massively standardized model (whether through implementing common core curriculum or creating large-scale technology-mediated courses). Voices for customizing the education experience to fit individual students and cultivate unique talents and characteristics is a very faint part of the discussion.

The current “crisis” in American education shouldn’t come as a surprise, as Zhao points out that students in the U.S. have scored below the students of other countries over decades. This is not a new phenomenon. However, government spending on education has increased dramatically year over year since the 1960s (some data charts here), and people are demanding accountability for these expenditures. He who pays the piper calls the tune, after all. It is likely that as long as funding dollars continue to be poured into education with little evident or immediate improvement, those in charge of administering the funds will determine what the funds will buy in terms of technology, policy, and curriculum design.

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And Now for Something Completely Different

Online Learning Haiku
by Hap Aziz

Communication
Allows knowledge to blossom
Online as in life

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The MOOC that fits – Will be the MOOC that Survives.

JT Hudnut headshotby Jason T. Hudnut
Chief Coordinating Consultant:  www.theturnpiketeacher.com

The world of the Massive Open Online Course, better known by the catchy and humorous acronym: MOOC, both fascinates and intrigues me.  With 20 plus years as an educator under my belt, I have seen many versions of teaching as it translates from pre-school to higher education and then again  from public, charter, private, and even to parochial settings.  So the future of how we as educators reach our students has been a thought that wanders in and out of my curious mind on many occasions. I am struck by a comment suggested by Hap Aziz in his article: “Rethinking the Class Paradigm:  The Rise and Potential Fall of MOOCs”, posted on February 28, 2012 on this blog.  Mr. Aziz states, “Very few educators would argue that there is no difference between teaching cohorts of 20 students or cohorts of 200, 2,000, or even 20,000 students.” I obviously agree with this, but I wonder if we could, as educators, adapt…or better yet…evolve into an instructor capable of reaching and teaching any number of students under our guidance.

Mr. Aziz references Joshua Kim, Director of Learning and Technology for the Master of Health Care Delivery Science program at Dartmouth College, in his article : ”Open Online Courses Are No Substitutes for Classroom Learning” for The U.S. New & World Report.  Mr. Kim states, “Authentic learning requires a two-way dialogue between student and instructor. College teaching at its best is much more than the delivery of content: It’s about the co-construction of knowledge with students and faculty…” Kim continues, “Education is one of those things in life (like friendship) that is based on the relationships between individuals, and therefore is limited in how far it can scale.”  These concepts absolutely nail it for me.  The dialogue between student and instructor and the relationships between the individuals involved in the academic setting has been supporting keystone as I continue to stack the building blocks of my philosophy of education.  It is my desire to reach the student, not only through the curriculum, but within and beyond the strength of the relationship we have developed in the realm of a mutual respect and trust.

The respect that should flow between teacher and student allows us to accept that a learned knowledge from the instructor is being properly evaluated, translated and presented to a willing pupil.  The trust that must be built in this bond lays on a foundation that should already determine the fact that each participant firmly believes in the ability of the other.  The student trusts and respects the knowledge and ability of the instructor.  The instructor, in return, should trust and respect the willingness and ability of the student to learn.  Now…can we, as instructors, translate this relationship with one student to a larger group?  We certainly do this for a class of 20 students, and maybe for a case load of 200 individuals.  We do it over a period of time for 2,000 pupils.  I believe, that we can build up our academic muscles and reach 20,000 students with the same principals of trust and respect, or by whatever means may work for the individuality of each instructor.

Mr. Aziz is absolutely correct though.  To do this, the paradigm needs to shift.  I really was sold on his assertion that suggests, “MOOCs are not courses as much as they are communities.” But I fell in love with his concept of,

“…entering into the scale of a small city.  And when it comes to a city, we understand that no single person (or even small group of people) is responsible for running the whole city. It’s not just the mayor or the city council members. There are hundreds, and even thousands of other official and semi-official roles to be played in the smooth running of a city: police, firefighters, garbage collectors, teachers, and more with whom I interact as a citizen (student) of my city (MOOC) depending on what kind of assistance I need or interaction I seek.”

YES!!!  That is the ticket; a MOOC should be run like a city.  All of the individuals involved have roles to play.  Aziz paints a world where he speaks of meaningful services meet the needs of the community.  He proclaims, “This is where the education community needs to rethink how MOOCs are built and administered, and ultimately what the role of the instructor is to be.”  I believe, this proclamation, as illustrated by similar conversations within the academic community, prove that this shift has already been ushered in.  We, as the educators of today, and even as the former students of yesterday, have given birth to the needs of the future and the evolving of academia.

Doug Holton, of the Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Daytona Beach, FL., makes a poignant claim in his article: “What’s the “Problem” with MOOCs?” published for EdTechDev: developing educational technology on May 4, 2012. Holten asserts,

“Especially disturbing is that none of the major MOOC providers have hired anyone trained in Instructional design, the learning sciences, educational technology, course design, or other educational specialties to help with the design of their courses.  They are hiring a lot of programmers and recruiting a lot of faculty, who may have various motivations for participating in these open education experiments.”

If the shift we are seeing is to make any noise at all, here are the first rumblings to echo throughout the halls of our universities, colleges, school yards and all the way down to the dark corners of the software developer’s office cubicles. Now is the time to look at a blending of our talents.  The masses can be reached.  We must bring the talents of those in the classrooms, who are designing, implementing and delivering curriculum, together with the genius of those in the Information Technology field who are able to design, implement and deliver the software that will build the “Massively Open Online Communities” that Hap Aziz has envisioned.

Martin LaGrow gives us a wonderful reflection of Mr. Aziz’s thoughts in his response article: “Rethinking the Class Paradigm: MOOCs as a Community,” also for this blog, on March 13, 2013.  Mr. LaGrow’s words, “In a sense, the MOOC is a product of evolution.” Jump right up and off of the page and fall straight into my wheelhouse.  Yes sir, the MOOC is an evolution.  And the MOOC is not finished developing and adapting to the environment that we have built to house it.  LaGrow continues to ask, “…how can higher education leverage the strengths of the MOOC without also applying the limitations of the classroom?” I also wonder how this will play out.  I already pontificated on my philosophies of respect and trust.  Perhaps we should not limit our inquiries to the world of higher education.  The proving grounds of today’s collegians fall to the high schools and lower schools that first planted the seeds for the desire to acquire knowledge.  These institutions are changing more and more with the explosion of alternative education and the race between public, private, charter, and parochial schools to outdo each other and keep their enrollments up and funding flowing.

In any case, we all must agree, it is a changing world.  The way we teach and the way we learn is evolving.  MOOCs were only a distant concept just decades ago.  They were simply a dream of the Silicon Valley prophets of yesteryear.  Today, MOOCs are a reality.  Tomorrow, they will be a necessary ingredient in the delivery of a significant variety of knowledge on this planet.  It is a testament to Charles Darwin’s “survival of the fittest”.  The MOOC that fits- will be the MOOC that survives.  Whether it is as a course or a community, that is the question.

Sources:

Aziz, H. (2013).  Rethinking the Class Paradigm:  The Rise and Potential Fall of MOOCs. Retrieved from https://hapaziz.wordpress.com/2013/02/28/rethinking-the-class-paradigm-the-rise-and-potential-fall-of-moocs/

Holton, D. (2012). What’s the Problem with MOOCs?. Retrieved from http://edtechdev.wordpress.com/2012/05/04/whats-the-problem-with-moocs/

Kim, J. (2012). Open Online Courses Are No Substitutes for Classroom Learning. Retrieved from http://www.usnews.com/opinion/blogs/economic-intelligence/2012/06/29/open-online-courses-are-not-subsitutes-for-classroom-learning

LaGrow, M. (2013).  Rethinking the Class Paradigm: MOOC’s as a Community. Retrieved from https://hapaziz.wordpress.com/2013/03/13/rethinking-the-class-paradigm-moocs-as-a-community/

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Rethinking the Class Paradigm: The Rise and Potential Fall of MOOCs

HapBlogThumbnailby Hap Aziz

There has been quite a bit of attention paid to MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses) in the past year; most of it positive, though the criticisms have been getting more exposure recently (check out “When MOOCs melt down” in The Chronicle of Higher Education). The momentum for MOOCs appears to be positive still, with the Horizon Report > 2013 listing MOOCs as one of the game-changing technologies in higher education just around the corner. The chorus of doubts is growing, though, and without some fundamental rethinking of how MOOCs should operate, I might consider myself in that camp of uncertainty. Some of my concerns are regarding the practicality of running MOOCs in the way most likely to yield worthwhile results for the enrolled students–as well as for the organizations or individuals responsible for running them. This entry I posted in December of last year touches on that theme.

The concerns I have, though, aren’t all about practicality; they are also about sustainability and viability of the model. This article from U.S. News published a little over half a year ago leads the reader into the premise that there are differences between traditional online courses and MOOCs (primarily scalability), and it is in these differences that the weaknesses of MOOCs are revealed. The truth is a bit more difficult discern in this case.

Scalability is certainly an issue, even in the traditional classroom teaching and learning environment. Very few educators would argue that there is no difference between teaching  cohorts of 20 students or cohorts of 200, 2000, or even 20,000 students. The author of the article (Joshua Kim, Director of Learning and Technology for the Master of Health Care Delivery Science program at Dartmouth College) asserts:

Authentic learning requires a two-way dialogue between student and instructor. College teaching at its best is much more than the delivery of content: It’s about the co-construction of knowledge with students and faculty…

Education is one of those things in life (like friendship) that is based on the relationships between individuals, and therefore is limited in how far it can scale.

The line of reasoning here is that changing the scale of online courses exponentially does not require some fundamental change(s) to the underlying structure of the courses and the relationships within the courses. This isn’t isolated thinking, however. When I attended the ELI Conference in Denver earlier this year, I was quite interested in seeing what other educators were doing in the field of MOOCs so I attended several sessions. Invariably, the sentiment among the presenters was that MOOCs were like super-sized online courses. One phrase that stuck out in my mind was the statement, “when teaching a class of 30,000 students….”

Is there truly a way for a single instructor to teach a class with 30,000 students? Especially if education is based on relationships between individuals?

No, the paradigm needs to shift. MOOCs are not courses so much as they are communities. In fact, if we think of 30,000 or 50,000 or 100,000 students all interacting in a single online community, we realize we are entering into the scale of a small city. And when it comes to a city, we understand that no single person (or even small group of people) is responsible for running the whole city. It’s not just the mayor or the city council members. There are hundreds, and even thousands of other official and semi-official roles to be played in the smooth running of a city: police, firefighters, garbage collectors, teachers, and more with whom I interact as a citizen (student) of my city (MOOC) depending on what kind of assistance I need or interaction I seek.

Running a MOOC should be much more like running a city than running a course. And the citizens of the MOOC all have roles to play in keeping the MOOC running smoothly while providing meaningful and timely services to the other citizens. This is where the education community needs to rethink how MOOCs are built and administered, and ultimately what the role of the instructor is to be. If we develop MOOCs the same way in which we develop smaller online courses with merely a few dozen students, we’ll find that the whole MOOC movement will come crashing down by not being able to meet some very important learner needs.

 

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The Practicality of the Massive Open Online Courses Model

HapBlogThumbnailby Hap Aziz

Earlier this year, Dr. Joshua Kim (Director of Learning and Technology for the Master of Health Care Delivery Science program at Dartmouth College) wrote an article for Inside Higher Ed titled, “Why Every University Does Not Need A MOOC” in which he examined the question of whether or not all higher education institutions should develop MOOCs as part of their teaching and learning portfolio of offerings. The core point of his article is that institutions should not necessarily try to follow the MOOC model as developed by a handful of pioneers. This is a risky endeavor, he reasons, and the key to success is in looking at other models of educational program development. Specifically, Dr. Kim recommends that institutions exercise introspection and examine what unique program offerings they might bring to market in order to appeal to a highly diverse learning community.

The argument has some merit, and indeed we see examples of institutions creating programs that have a “twist” to attract students: Lone Star College’s partnership with the oil and gas industry and the Mississippi Corridor Consortium’s partnership with Toyota for an education-to-work program are just two examples. Certainly, the idea of finding opportunities to engage students in learning that leverages an institution’s own collective expertise and “DNA” is not a new idea… and it is not an idea mutually exclusive to MOOCs, to be offered up in their place. In fact, it isn’t difficult to imagine these innovative programs being offered, at least to some degree, in MOOC format. Where I think Dr. Kim’s argument fails is that he blurs the distinction between program viability and demand as opposed to engaging delivery mechanisms and opportunities. Ideally, institutions should be looking to combine both of these elements.

That is not to say that the use of MOOCs will guarantee any measure of success. This is hardly the case–given the current levels of student preparedness, the revenue models under which different institutions operate, and lack of experience that many (if not most) institutions have in implementing non-traditional modes of online education, developing MOOCs can drain an institution’s resources while driving no change in the status quo of enrollments, retention, and student success.

The question of whether or not to implement MOOCs is preceded by the more basic question: “Under what circumstances can MOOCs thrive at my institution?” This is much more difficult to answer. What are the programs to be considered at MOOC candidates? How do we assess students for enrollment? And perhaps the elephant in the room for many institutions, especially those that are tuition-driven: how do we sustain the model without negatively impacting our revenue? While I cannot offer comprehensive answers (that discussion is just beginning in higher education), I can see some potential pathways for exploration:

  1. We should be looking at MOOCs as a delivery option for large enrollment courses with longer refresh cycles. At least while an institution embarks on the MOOC path, the economy-of-scale issue is a top-of-mind consideration to be addressed. Building MOOCs that will “be around for a while” with less need for revision while help in budgeting, and attaching MOOCs to courses that already may have more faculty (and even instructional design) resources associated with them will be helpful as well.
  2. MOOCs should not necessarily replace traditional on-ground and online courses, but rather they should be offered as a supplemental environment. As an additional learning environment, the existing student support mechanisms can still be utilized, which might mitigate some of the concern over the participation of tech-novice students. And keeping MOOCs associated with course that are funded traditionally is one way of covering their development and maintenance costs.
  3. We should seriously consider collaborative efforts between institutions and team mentorship (not “teaching”!) from an instructor pool. Again, the sharing of resources is a consideration, but a big “win” with this approach is the potential for extending and enhancing the learning community. Ultimately, if we are able to provide more types of support for our students, we widen our pathways to improved student success.

Are MOOCs for everyone? Certainly not, at this point in time. However, taking a measured look at how MOOCs might be integrated into an institution’s existing model of instruction is a conversation that will be coming up more and more in higher education.

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Filed under colleges and universities, cost of education, education technology, face-to-face instruction, Hap Aziz, higher education, instructional design, learning outcomes, MOOCs, online education