Let’s broaden the MOOC experiment

By Brian Whitmer , written on April 13, 2013

Published to the News desk.

If you’re like me, you cop a wait-and-see attitude toward news of big tech breakthroughs. Sometimes it’s hard to know whether the Next Big Thing will end up like Apple’s Ping, Facebook’s Timeline or Gmail. The talk around these launches was all about how life was going to change forever, but in hindsight it was just hyperbole. And honestly, part of the blame for that falls on you and me. We want to hear about breakthroughs before they happen, so that’s exactly what we get — news that jumps to conclusions while the experiment is still in progress.

We’re experiencing something similar with massive open online courses (MOOCs). Ever since MOOCs took off last year, the public conversation has focused on the potential to disrupt higher education. It’s easy to see why some view this a messiah moment. Education is in desperate need of a shake-up, with tuition costs rising unsustainably while the value of a bachelor’s degree decreases. MOOCs have a lot to offer because they are open to anyone, leverage new technology, and don’t cost students a dime (for now, anyway, but the search is on for a sustainable business model). But we need to remember that we’re still early in the experiment and resist the temptation to declare victory too early.

Now, some tech breakthroughs really do change everything, and so may MOOCs. They will probably play a role in remaking education, but the reality is we’re not going to discover viable strategies until we broaden the experiment and remove arbitrary constraints. Specifically, we need a wider range of institutions offering MOOCs so that we can learn more about what works best in terms of class size and learning models.

Right now, the MOOC experiment has been heavily focused on elite universities. These institutions should absolutely play a role but they shouldn’t be the only ones invited to the party. Why can’t a major breakthrough in effective online teaching come from a small state college or community college? What would happen if we really democratized things and created a MOOC for students in high school or elementary?

It would be beneficial to connect 50 sixth-grade classes from around the world to the same general curriculum via a flipped classroom MOOC, then let each teacher work with the individuals in their classroom on a more personalized basis. This would give teachers a forum to share ideas, then let them aggregate data from the MOOC as evidence of what’s working. This is just one example, but the potential is limitless if we’re willing to admit that we’re experimenting and really undo the shackles. We need broad participation and an army of trained observers taking field notes.

We also need to learn more about just how massive these massive open online courses need to be. I like Jeff Goldblum’s point in "Jurassic Park" -- “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.” That feels a lot like what’s happening as we open MOOCs up to tens and hundreds of thousands of students. It’s easy to fall in love with the fact that, conceivably, anyone with an Internet connection can enroll in a MOOC, but let’s not forget that this isn’t the first go-round for curriculum for the masses. While we test the upward limits of class participation, we also need to make sure we’re checking what happens to learning outcomes and retention – an issue of particular concern in the viability of MOOCs – when we throttle up and down on the massiveness.

This is why it’s a good idea to cap enrollment. Obviously that takes the “m” out of MOOC but that’s okay. The important thing is that we take time to analyze what’s happening inside these courses, which is why I think open data needs to be a part of MOOCs. Academics and analysts are doing their part to weight and measure student output in MOOCs, but in the spirit of democracy in experimentation, we have seen students in a learning analytics MOOC get in on the action, too. Students in the course, taught by edtech pioneer George Siemens, are digging into the course’s APIs and RSS feeds to identify high-level patterns about everything from student activity levels to how groups and cliques emerge within the MOOC.

One of the most compelling reasons to broaden the experiment is to find out which teaching methods are best suited to the open online format. The flipped classroom concept has gotten a lot of attention, and MOOCs are a natural fit because teachers can deliver lectures through the technology and assign students to do related projects and activities in a brick-and-mortar setting. We shouldn’t stop there, though. We already have the “sage on the stage” model in big lecture halls at every college and university, so let’s use MOOCs to explore a range of pedagogical models instead of just delivering the standard lecture digitally.

One interesting example is “Gender Through Comic Books,” a MOOC running on Canvas Network. This course is a true experiment, using non-traditional texts (comic books) to teach traditional academic concepts such as anthropology and social studies. What’s more, the course is operating as more of a fluid discussion than a traditional lecture, with prominent comic authors digitally dropping in from time to time to add new perspectives. Maybe this format will stick or maybe it won’t, but the key is we’re using MOOCs to identify new ways of getting students excited about learning.

MOOCs are all the rage, and they may very well be a key in solving the big educational problems we face. To get this experiment right, however, we need a larger sample size. Let’s be patient and do this right so MOOCs can be more than a flash in the pan.