MOOCs are Maturing

Published by: WCET | 8/8/2013

Tags: Assessment, MOOC

Our next guest blogger in our series on MOOCs is Ray Schroeder, who, until recently was the Associate Vice Chancellor of Online Learning at the University of Illinois Springfield.  Congratulations to Ray on his new position with UPCEA.  Ray has been very active in MOOC development and research over the past few years.  He shares his excitement for MOOCs and his insights on how they might mature.
Russ Poulin

MOOCs are the adolescents of higher education.  Actually, they have been around for less than a decade through which they have undergone an evolution that is marked by the growth spurts and changes in priorities that many of us have noted in the maturing of our own children, nieces, and nephews.  As adolescents, it is not yet fully clear where MOOCs will go when they mature.

The Birth of MOOCs?
MOOCs date back half a dozen years with early experiments in teaching larger online classes in the U.S. and Australasia.  The OERu Foundation documents some of the early efforts.

Photo of Ray Schroeder pointing to an iPad
Ray Schroeder

These early MOOCs were different in several respects.  “Massive” was defined in hundreds rather than hundreds of thousands of students.  Early MOOCs were truly open educational resources.  The materials of the classes were freely available even after the class was completed.  And, the early MOOCs were associated with non-profit universities, they were not associated with entities seeking a revenue stream to sustain themselves, such as Coursera and Udacity.

I led my first MOOC in the summer of 2011 – eduMOOC – Introduction to Online Learning Today and Tomorrow.  At the time it was the largest MOOC conducted, ultimately with some 2,700 participants in 70 countries worldwide. There was, of course, no LMS for massive courses, so the MOOC delivery system was cobbled together with Google Sites, Google Groups, Wikispaces, Twitter, streaming media servers, blogs, and more.  Some participants added Moodle and others added Google Hangouts.  There were educators and education students participating around the world.  In Christ Church New Zealand, for example, a group of participants met at the local MacDonald’s (because of the free WiFi) and discussed the readings and weekly live/recorded panel discussions.

The early MOOCs live on today.  Every day, even these two years later, I am notified that students are entering the discussions and accessing the resources.  While some of the materials are becoming dated, much remains relevant and useful.   Anyone can use / re-use the materials for their own classes.  If I had the time and energy, it would be possible to keep this MOOC fully updated, but given realities my updates continue through the Online Learning Update blog .

MOOCs in Childhood
In many respects, eduMOOC represented the end of the infancy of MOOCs.  Just days after our final session, Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig launched the artificial intelligence MOOC that bested the reach of our MOOC by a factor of 60 or more, enrolling 160,000 students.  And MOOCs moved into their childhood years.  In the intervening two years hundreds of MOOCs have been launched and we have seen enormous potential blossom.  Just as with a developing adolescent, MOOCs are far from complete.  We cannot yet tell what this precocious child will become when fully mature.  We see glimmers of growth in the Georgia Tech experiment  and other initiatives.

Research on the Growth of the Adolescent MOOC
I am now embarked on leading an ambitious research project for the American Council on Education (ACE) and the University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA), to assess the pedagogy of MOOCs and collect data on how students who have received college credit for MOOCs progress in their academic careers.

We are early on in the project, applying a pedagogy/practices tool developed by Professor Karen Swan of the University of Illinois Springfield to a group of MOOCs.  We hope to correlate pedagogies and practices with success rates and satisfaction levels of students.  Our research continues with the tracking of students enrolled at seven UPCEA member institutions that grant credit for ACE CREDIT recommended MOOCs.  UMUC, one of those institutions participating in this study, recently announced their approach to offering credit .

We hope to have some early results in the spring term.

What Will MOOCs Become When They Grow Up?
The ACE/UPCEA research follows just one of the several paths that we may see MOOCs take – students choosing to take individual MOOCs and applying them for credit.  Other paths may be the MOOC-delivered degree approach such as Georgia Tech has outlined.  Current MOOC providers such as Coursera and Udacity may become MOOC universities.  Perhaps we will soon see an IPO offered to create a commercial base for such an initiative.

Or, imagine an accredited university offering degrees that instead of collecting tuition are supported by advertising such as we have seen Google successfully apply in its ventures.  International providers have begun to organize in Europe and Australia such as FutureLearn  and Open2Study  – they may provide MOOC products that will be competitive with American MOOCs.   Will the delivery model of the Minerva Project  extend to a more open university?  The possibilities abound.

What will this adolescent, MOOC, become when it grows up?  Some key traits are apparent even at this early point in the development of this movement.  MOOCs, by definition, reach massive audiences.  Where there are massive audiences, there are efficiencies that may be had, and there is money to be made through advertising.  MOOCs are pioneering new modes of assessment that may be applicable across all of education.

Adaptive learning has been given a boost by open online initiatives.  The hundreds of millions of venture capital dollars attracted by the potential of MOOCs are a significant incentive to make some version of massive open online learning work.  If there is one thing that MOOCs have shown us, it is that there is a huge international appetite for learning.  Empowering a world through education may most efficiently be done through MOOCs.  And, the ramifications of that could make for a remarkable outcome, indeed.

We have a precocious adolescent with a lineage of “traditional” online learning, correspondence, professional, and continuing education.   Where this child’s future will lead is uncertain.  MOOCs are a product of the 21st century; they will ultimately be shaped by the technologies, forces, and needs of our worldwide society.  Those of us who are parenting fledgling MOOCs in these early years can contribute much to their future, we can test different pedagogies, practices and approaches.  But in the end, we may well be on the sidelines as MOOCs mature into the future of higher education.  We cannot yet imagine all of the possibilities that lie ahead.

Ray Schroeder
Center for Online Leadership and Strategy

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