November 22, 2014

Why MOOCs are only part of the answer for higher education

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Formal education is the necessary launchpad for successful MOOCs

Formal education is the necessary launchpad for successful MOOCs

OK, except for the next post, which will be a list of publications on MOOCs for graduate students studying the topic, and a scenario for a ‘good’ MOOC, this will be my last post on MOOCs for a while.

This is the conclusion to my chapter on MOOCs for my open textbook, ‘Teaching in a Digital Age‘. This whole chapter is now published here. There will be a scenario illustrating what I define as a ‘good’ MOOC to go with this conclusion. Here is the extract:

The importance of context and design

I am frequently categorised as a major critic of MOOCs, which is somewhat surprising since I have been a longtime advocate of online learning. In fact I do believe MOOCs are an important development, and under certain circumstances they can be of tremendous value in education.

But as always in education, context is important. There is not one but many different markets and needs for education. A student leaving high school at eighteen has very different needs and will want to learn in a very different context from a 35 year old employed engineer with a family who needs some management education. Similarly a 65 year old man struggling to cope with his wife’s early onset of Alzheimers and desperate for help is in a totally different situation to either the high school student or the engineer. When designing educational programs, it has to be horses for courses. There is no single silver bullet or solution for every one of these various contexts.

Secondly, as with all forms of education, how MOOCs are designed matters a great deal. If they are designed inappropriately, in the sense of not developing the knowledge and skills needed by a particular learner in a particular context, then they have little or no value for that learner. However, designed differently and a MOOC may well meet that learner’s needs.

The potential of cMOOCs

So let me be more specific. cMOOCs have the most potential, because lifelong learning will become increasingly important, and the power of bringing a mix of already well educated and knowledgeable people from around the world to work with other committed and enthusiastic learners on common problems or areas of interest could truly revolutionise not just education, but the world in general.

However, cMOOCs at present are unable to do this, because they lack organisation and do not apply what is already known about how online groups work best. Once we learn these lessons and apply them, though, cMOOCs can be a tremendous tool for tackling some of the great challenges we face in the areas of global health, climate change, civil rights, and other ‘good civil ventures.’  The beauty of a cMOOC is that they involve not just the people who have the will and the power to make changes, but cMOOCs give every participant the power to define and solve the problems being tackled.

But socially transformative MOOCs will almost certainly benefit from the resources of strong institutions to provide initial impetus, simple to use software, overall structure, organization and co-ordination within the MOOC, and some essential human resources for supporting the MOOC when running. At the same time, it does not have to be an educational institution. It could be a Public Health Authority, or a broadcasting organization, or an international charity, or a consortium of organisations with a common interest. Also, of course, we need to recognise the danger that even cMOOCs  could be manipulated by corporate or government  interests. Finally, I don’t see cMOOCs as being a replacement for formal education, but as a rocket that needs formal education as its launch pad.

The limitations of xMOOCs

The real threat of xMOOCs is to the very large face-to-face lecture classes found in many universities at the undergraduate level. MOOCs, at a cost of around $20-$50 a student, are a more effective way of replacing such lectures. They are more interactive and permanent so students can go over the materials many times. I have heard MOOC instructors argue that their MOOCs are better than their classroom lectures. They put more care and effort into them.

However, we should question why we are teaching in this way on campus. Content is now freely available anywhere on the Internet – including MOOCs. What is needed is information management: how to identify the knowledge you need, how to evaluate it, how to apply it. MOOCs do not do that. They pre-select and package the information. My big concern with xMOOCs is their limitation, as currently designed, for developing the higher order intellectual skills needed in a digital world. Unfortunately, xMOOCs are taking the least appropriate design model for developing 21st century skills from on-campus teaching,  and moving this inappropriate design model online. Just because the lectures come from elite universities does not necessarily mean that learners will develop high level intellectual skills, even though the content is of the highest quality. More importantly, with MOOCs, relatively few students succeed, in terms of assessment, and those that do are tested mainly on comprehension and limited application of knowledge.

We can and have done much better in terms of skills for a digital age with other pedagogical approaches on campus, such as problem- or inquiry-based learning, and with online learning using more constructivist approaches in online credit courses, but these alternative methods to lectures do not scale so easily. The interaction between an expert and a novice still remains critical for developing deep understanding, transformative learning resulting in the learner seeing the world differently, and for developing high levels of evidence-based critical thinking, evaluation of complex alternatives, and high level decision-making. Computer technology to date is extremely poor at enabling this kind of learning to develop. This is why credit-based classroom and online learning still aim to have a relatively low instructor:student ratio and still need to focus a great deal on interaction between instructor and students.

I have no problem however with xMOOCs as a form of continuing education or as a source of open educational materials that can be part of a broader educational offering. They can be a valuable supplement to campus-based education. It is when the claim is made that they can replace both conventional education or the current design of online credit programs when I become really concerned. As a form of continuing education, low completion rates and the lack of formal credit is not of great significance. However, completion rates and quality assessment DO matter if MOOCs are being seen as a substitute or a replacement for formal education, even classroom lectures.

Undermining the public higher education system?

The real danger is that if we are not vigilant, MOOCs will undermine what is admittedly an expensive public higher education system. If elite universities can deliver MOOCs for free, why do we need crappy state universities? The risk is a sharply divided two tier system, with a relatively small number of elite universities catering to the rich and privileged, and developing the knowledge and skills that will provide rich rewards, and the masses going to MOOC-delivered courses with state universities providing minimal and low cost learner support for such courses. This would be both a social and economic disaster, because it would fail to produce enough learners with the high-level skills that are going to be needed for good jobs in the the coming years – unless you believe that automation will remove all decently paid jobs except for a tiny elite (bring on the Hunger Games).

It should be noted that even for credit-based online programs, content accounts for less than 15 per cent of the total cost over five years; the main costs required to ensure high quality outcomes and high rates of completion are spent on learner support, providing the learning that matters most. The kind of MOOCs being promoted by politicians and the media fail spectacularly to do this. We do need to be careful that the open education movement in general, and MOOCs in particular, are not used as a stick by those in the United States and elsewhere who are deliberately trying to undermine public education for ideological and commercial reasons. Open content, OERs and MOOCs do not automatically lead to open access to high quality credentials for everyone. In the end, a well-funded public higher education system remains the best way to assure access to higher education for the majority of the population.

Having said that, there is enormous scope for improvements within that system. MOOCs, open education and new media offer promising ways to bring about some much needed improvements. However, that means building on what we already know from the use of credit based online learning, from prior experience in open and distance learning, and designing courses and programs in a variety of ways appropriate to the wide range of learning needs. MOOCs can be one important part of that environment, but not a replacement for other forms of educational provision that meet different needs.

Key Takeaways

1. MOOCs are forcing every higher education institution to think carefully both about its strategy for online teaching and its approach to open education.

2. MOOCs are not the only form of online learning or of open educational resources. It is important to look at the strengths and weaknesses of MOOCs within the overall context of online learning and open-ness.

3. There are considerable differences in the design of MOOCs, reflecting different purposes and philosophies.

4. MOOCs are at still a relatively early stage of maturity. As their strengths and weaknesses become clearer, and as experience in improving their design grows, they are likely to occupy a significant niche within the higher education learning environment.

5. There are still major structural limitations in MOOCs for developing deep or transformative learning, or for developing the high level knowledge and skills needed in a digital age.

6. MOOCs could well replace some forms of traditional teaching (such as large lecture classes). However, MOOCs are more likely to remain an important supplement or alternative to other conventional education methods. They are not on their own a solution to the high cost of higher education, although MOOCs are and will continue to be an important factor in forcing change.

7. Perhaps the greatest value of MOOCs in the future will be for providing a means for tackling large global problems through community action.

Next

I am now trying to finish Chapter 6, on design models. I will be writing about (a) personal learning environments and (b) flexible design models based on sound educational design principles.

As always, I welcome comments on either this final section on MOOCs, or on the Chapter as a whole. You can use either the comment page here or the one at the end of the Chapter.

EDEN research papers on learner characteristics, course design and faculty development in online learning

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Some of the participants at the EDEN Research workshop, 2014

Some of the participants at the EDEN Research workshop, 2014

EDEN has now published my review of some of the research papers submitted to the EDEN research workshop in Oxford a couple of weeks ago. All the full papers for the workshop can be accessed here.

Main lessons I culled from these papers:

Learner characteristics

  • open and distance learners/online learners are much more heterogeneous than on-campus students: social background, institutional differences, prior education/learning experiences, all influence their readiness for online learning
  • as a result, ODL students need much more personalization or individualization of their learning: one size does not fit all
  • special attention needs to be paid to ‘at risk’ students very early in their studies: intense personal/tutor support is critical for such students.

It can be seen that such findings are important not only for the design of for-credit programs but also for MOOCs.

Course design

There were surprisingly few papers directly on this topic (although papers on other topics such as assessment and quality are also relevant of course).

The main lessons for me from this research on course design were:

  • technology offers opportunity for radically new course designs and new approaches to student learning,
  • such new designs need to be driven and informed by sound pedagogical theory/principles and prior research.

Faculty development

Main lessons:

  • we should be working to use technology to decrease faculty workload, not to increase it, as at present
  • this will probably require team teaching, with different skills within the team (subject expert, learner support staff, course designer/pedagogue, technology specialist); it is unrealistic to expect faculty to be expert in all these areas
  • to individualize learning, increased use of adaptive technology and the creation and support of personal learning environments will be necessary to help faculty manage the workload.

Next

Two more reports are expected shortly, covering OERs/MOOCs, quality and assessment, research methods and overall conclusions.

Teaching assistants, adjunct faculty and online learning

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Lecture to hybridI am struggling these days with the issue of who should teach online courses, in terms of qualifications and status, and in particular, the issue of how to scale up credit-based online courses while maintaining or improving quality.

These questions are coming to the forefront because, through blended learning, practices that are common in face-to-face teaching come head to head with quite different practices in online learning.

What has made this an issue for me

Recently I’ve been involved in assessing proposals for funding for large-enrollment online credit courses. Most of the proposals have focused on using several/many teaching assistants working under a professor to provide the learning support. I’m also finding this model being increasingly used where institutions are moving to a hybrid model, combining both online and face-to-face components, especially where a former very large lecture-based course is being redesigned for hybrid learning. Even including the TAs, the instructor/student ratio is often 1:100 or higher for these large enrollment courses (in other words, the same ratio more or less as when the course was delivered solely through large lectures.) In the proposals, and in the reports I am receiving, there is usually no additional training for TAs about how to teach online, although in many – but by no means all – cases, they do get some kind of training in teaching face-to-face.

This is a problem for me, because I have always worked with a model for online courses where the instructor: student ratio has been under 40 for undergraduate courses, and under 30 for graduate courses. Scaling up has been handled by hiring on contract additional part-time adjunct or associate professors, either with a doctoral degree in the subject area, or with strongly related work experience. The adjuncts would be paid to take a short online briefing course on teaching online which sets out the expectations for online teaching. This was an affordable model because the additional student tuition fees would more than cover the cost of hiring additional contract instructors, once the course was developed.

However, this has been possible because most of the online courses I have been responsible for have been aimed mainly at higher level undergraduate students or graduate students. With both blended and online courses now being targeted at large first and second year classes, new models are being developed that I fear will not have the same level of quality as the ‘best practice’ online courses I have been working with.

Why this is not an easy issue for me

This is a particularly difficult issue for me to discuss for several reasons:

  • most of my experience is with fully online courses; when I have taught face-to-face, it’s usually been me on my own, and generally with relatively small groups of between 25 to 200 maximum
  • practices both for dealing with large face-to-face classes and with online classes vary considerably within each form of delivery, and from one institution to another, so making generalizations is fraught with danger
  • decisions about whether to use teaching assistants or part-time, contract instructors, are driven more by financial considerations than by best pedagogical practice, although institutions do their best to make it as effective educationally as possible once a model for TAs and/or adjuncts has been decided on
  • there are other factors at work besides money and pedagogy in the use of teaching assistants and adjunct faculty, such as the desire to provide financial support to international and graduate students, the idea of apprenticeship in teaching, and the supply and demand effects on the employment of doctoral graduates seeking a career in university teaching and research
  • there is no golden mean for instructor/student ratios in either blended or online learning. In the mainly quantitative/STEM subjects, much higher ratios are sustainable without the loss of quality, through the use of automated marking and feedback
  • MOOCs (rightly or wrongly) are giving the impression that it is possible to scale up even credit-based online learning at lower cost.

What follows then is tentative, and I’m ready to change my views especially on the evidence of others who have grappled with this issue.

My concern

My real concern is that the over-reliance on teaching assistants for online and blended courses will have three negative consequences for both students and online learning in general:

  • As with the large face-to-face classes, the pedagogy for online or blended courses will resort more to information transmission.
  • however, for the online or hybrid courses, student drop-out and dissatisfaction will increase because, especially in first and second year teaching, they will not get the learning support they need when studying online.  As a result, faculty and students will claim that online learning is inferior to classroom-based instruction
  • faculty will see online learning and blended learning being used by administrations to cut costs and over time to reduce the employment of tenured faculty, and will therefore try to block its implementation.

Why can’t TAs provide the support needed online if they can do this for face-to-face classes? First, I’m not sure they do provide adequate support for students in large first year classes, but I’m not in a position to judge. But in online courses in subject domains where discussion is important, where qualitative judgements and decisions have to be made by students and instructors, where knowledge needs to be developed and structured, in other words in any field where the learning requires more than the transmission and repetition of information, then students need to be able to interact with an instructor that has a deep understanding of the subject area. For this reason, I am more than happy to hire adjunct faculty to teach online, but not TAs in general (although there will always be exceptions). Furthermore this kind of teaching and learning (‘the learning that matters most’) is very difficult to do with a very large instructor/student ratio, although with good design and faculty training, we could possibly push numbers higher than 1/40.

One possible solution

I’m not sure there is an easy solution to this problem. Whether online or face-to-face, large numbers of students per instructor limits what is possible pedagogically.

Furthermore, in my view online learning works better for some kinds of students than others. Students in their first year of university or college are not the best target group. They are often young, have little experience of independent learning, lack confidence or discipline in their study habits, and indeed expect to be in a face-to-face teaching environment and want the social and cultural milieu that a campus provides. What we should be doing though in their first and second year is gradually introducing them to online components so that they slowly develop the discipline and skills required for successful online learning. This still doesn’t resolve the issue though of very large classes.

So here’s my suggestion for these large introductory courses of 1,000 students or more (this is not new – see the National Center for Academic Transformation‘s course redesign):

  • create a team to design, develop and deliver the course. The team will include a senior professor, several adjunct professors, and two or three TAs, plus an instructional designer and web/multimedia designer.
  • The senior professor acts as a teaching consultant, responsible for the overall design of the course, hiring and supervising the work of the adjuncts/TAs, and the assessment strategy/questions and rubrics. This though is done in consultation with the rest of the team.
  • Most content is provided online.
  • Students work in groups of 30, and each of the adjuncts is responsible for several student groups. Students do both individual and group work (e.g. projects, problem-solving),
  • Students participate in ongoing online discussion forums, under the moderation of an adjunct or TA
  • The senior professor meets for one hour a week three times face-to-face or synchronously with  a group of 30 students; this brings the professor in face-to-face contact with just over 1,000 students a semester; adjuncts where possible meet once a week with a group on campus or synchronously.
  • Adjuncts and TAs mark assignments, and the senior professor monitors/calibrates the marking between instructors
  • Now think of what could happen if this course was shared with other universities. Savings could be made on course development, but the delivery of the course would still need instructors at the other universities. So there would be some economies of scale from sharing, but not a very large saving, because the development cost is a small proportion of the overall cost. This does not mean that institutions shouldn’t co-operate and share resources, but this will not bring the large economies of scale that are often claimed for sharing online courses.

Whatever detailed design is done, these large courses should have a clear business model to work with, which basically provides an overall budget for the course, that includes the cost of tenure track and adjunct faculty and TAs, and takes account of the students numbers (more students, more budgeted money), but allowing the senior professor to build the team as best as possible within that budget.

The two elephants in the room

The above scenario works with the current system of allocating resources to different level of courses. But there are two factors that lead to the very large class sizes in first and second year that no-one really wants to talk about:

Elephant in room

  • the starvation of first and second year students of teaching resources; senior faculty concentrate more on upper level courses, and want to keep these class sizes smaller. As a consequence first and second year students suffer
  • teaching subsidizes research: too often tuition revenues get filtered off into supporting research activities. The most obvious case is that if teachers spent more time teaching and less doing research, there would be more faculty available for teaching. Teaching loads for experienced, tenured faculty are often quite light and as stated above, focused on small upper level classes.

Do a simple calculation: divide the total number of students by the number of tenure track instructors  in your institution, and that will give you an overall average instructor/student ratio for the university as a whole. So if you have 40,000 students and 2,000 full-time instructors , you have an overall instructor/student ratio of 1:20. However, then deduct 40% of their time for research, so that equals 1,200 full time equivalent, or a ratio of one instructor for 33.3 students. Then deduct another 20% of their time for administration and public service and that leaves 800 FTEs, or a ratio of one instructor for every 50 students. Even with this fairly generous allowance of 60% of their time for other activities, and WITHOUT adjuncts or TAs, in this large university there should be enough instructors to teach without having the absurdly large first and second year classes commonly found in such large universities. Add in adjuncts and TAs, and this ratio drops even further.

So don’t expect online learning to solve this problem on its own.

Your turn

I would particularly like to hear from the relatively rare instructors who have taught large classes both face-to-face and online. Do you share my concern about using TAs for distance or hybrid courses?

I’d also like to hear in general about experiences with TAs or adjunct/contract instructors as well on this topic.

Contact North on How to Design an Innovative Course

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Image © University of Ontario Institute of Technology, 2014

Image © University of Ontario Institute of Technology, 2014

Anon (2014) How to design an innovative course, Sudbury.Thunder Bay ON: Contact North

As reported in Contact North’s Online Learning News:

There is a lot of pressure these days on faculty and instructors to be ‘innovative’ in their teaching. But exactly what does being innovative mean? How do you go about designing and implementing an innovative course? What is the problem you are trying to solve? Will technology help? Learn a series of steps that can help you approach innovative teaching in a systematic way.

Comment

I found this article quite interesting. No author is given but they must be pretty smart to get this topic down to about 1,000 words….

Compressing the time of online courses

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Image: © plushplaza, 2013

Image: © plushplaza, 2013

Shaw, M. et al. (2013) An Evaluation of Student Outcomes by Course Duration in Online Higher Education  Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, Vol. 16, No. 4

This study looked at the effect of designing a course that would otherwise last 16 weeks into eight weeks. The conclusion – no significant difference in student scores, so, yes, students can do just as well on compressed online courses:

Both 8 and 16 week course options provided similar learning experiences for students in terms of content given, scores earned, and total assignments completed. What is not at all evident from the literature is whether generalizability is possible.  In some situations, traditional-length terms might yield better assessment results than shorter-length courses.  If research informs practice, though, enough data exist to support compressed courses.  Yet, before administrators and educational theorists view this as a carte blanche for shorter-term courses, it is vital to understand clearly the objectives of learners and of school administrators.

For a whole series of papers on the effect of the time factor in online learning, see the eLearn Centre’s publications at the Open University of Catalonia