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Essay on two recent discussions of massive open online education

The MOOC Synthesizer

June 5, 2013

Two recent interventions in the ongoing conversation about massive open online courses (MOOCs) strike me as provocative, in very different ways – and also as curiously neglected, given the interest of what the authors have to say. Perhaps it is a sign of fatigue with the subject? Maybe, but the two articles in question, published a little over a month ago, take up the MOOC question in ways that haven’t previously come to the fore.

In calling them to readers’ attention, I don’t aim to influence anyone’s opinion of MOOCs. To attempt that, my own opinion would have to be settled, which it isn’t. There are compelling arguments for assessing them as the pedagogical wave of the future, bringing quality education to everyone, or as a passing fad, possibly in the nature of an economic bubble. I sometimes wonder whether MOOCs might not be the next step towards a dehumanized future in which we become the carbon-based batteries fueling our robot overlords, but have come, as yet, to no settled judgment. (Not that these are the only options, of course, but the topic does tend to elicit strong feelings.)

Wherever you fall in the spectrum of opinion, at least one of the two articles flagged here should be of some interest. They take perspectives not otherwise represented, to my knowledge, in the arguments of the past couple of years. That neither has raised any ruckus seems odd.

Visibility was certainly not the problem with “The Pedagogical Foundations of Massive Open Online Courses” by David George Glance, Martin Forsey, and Myles Riley. It ran in early May in First Monday, the peer-reviewed journal for research concerning the Internet. Hosted at the University of Chicago and now in its 18th year, First Monday is one of the more venerable open-access online publications.

Glance, Forsey, and Riley (the first two associate professors at the University of West Australia, the third a research assistant there) are in effect addressing the question posed in the title of John F. Ebersole’s article here at IHE, a couple of days ago: “Where’s the Evidence?” Their paper is a review of empirical studies of the components of MOOC instruction – short videos, frequent quizzes, peer- and self-assessment, and online forums where students discuss course material. The authors located and synthesized 138 relevant papers. Very little of the literature specifically focused on MOOCs themselves; they are still too recent a development for much research to have been done. But, the authors maintain, MOOCs share enough features with other forms of instruction (both online and face-to-face) to make studies of their common features pertinent.

“A common format for MOOCs,” the paper notes, “is the short video interspersed or associated with multiple-choice quizzes.” The combination “emulates one-on-one tutoring” and enables the student “to control the pace, pause, rewind, explore, and return to the content,” unlike with “standard lectures or with video recordings which may be one to two hours long.” Self-pacing enables the student to “achieve mastery of a concept before moving on the next” -- a pedagogical process known as “mastery learning,” for which there is much evidence of efficacy: “A meta-analysis of 108 controlled evaluations,” reported in a paper in 1990, “showed mastery learning programs to have positive effects on examination performances of students in university, high school, and upper grades of primary school.”

Frequent assessment via multiple-choice tests (which have the obvious advantage of being scored by computer and giving the student almost instantaneous feedback) means that students have “an opportunity for retrieval learning” through a practice that “enhance[es] long-term memory of facts through recalling information from short-term memory.” The authors cite a number of studies indicating that retrieval practice improves long-term retention, and note that some research suggests that it can have deeper effects: “Every time we retrieve knowledge, that knowledge is altered, and the ability to reconstruct that knowledge again in the future is strengthened. Recent studies have shown retrieval practice to also enhance meaningful learning (producing organised, coherent, and integrated mental models that allow people to make inferences and apply knowledge)….”

There’s more, though that much should suffice for present purposes. The gist of it is that the “pedagogical foundations” of MOOC instruction are at least as firm as those beneath the traditional classroom “and may actually improve learning outcomes.” This is, again, an extrapolation from work done (most of it) before the advent of MOOCs. The latter are treated, in effect, as just online education on steroids. The authors acknowledge, in passing, that the “massive” side of the phenomenon may have the undesirable effect of fostering social isolation, and note that they have not addressed “the larger questions around whether taking a collection of MOOCs could replace obtaining an education on campus at a university in all of its facets of personal development and education.”

In other words, more research remains to be done -- and the three authors seem to be in a position to undertake some of it: earlier this year, the University of West Australia began offering its first set of MOOCs.

Why stop at offering courses? Why not massive open online degrees, as well? While looking around for discussions of “The Pedagogical Foundations” – and there was precious little, apart from the thread following this summary by one of the authors – I came across a blog post with a subject line reading

MOOCs are so unambitious: introducing the MOOPhD

which I bookmarked as something to revisit as a diversion. You might reasonably assume that it is a satirical piece -- or at least I did.

Except it isn’t. The author, Jon Dron, is an associate professor of computing and information systems at Athabasca University, in Alberta, Canada. He has “had peripheral involvement with a support network for students investigating learning analytics,” he writes, and “helped to set up a site to provide resources for graduate students and their supervisors.” His remarks framing the possibility of massive open online doctoral studies are sober and completely uncontaminated by irony.

Dron brainstormed the idea with a couple of colleagues, and the very concept sounds like work in progress. The MOO doctoral candidate “would accrue a body of research publications that could be used as evidence of a sustained research journey, and a set of skills that would prepare them for viva voces and other more formal assessment methods. This would be good for universities as they would be able to award more Ph.D.s without the immense resources that are normally needed, and good for students who would need to invest less money (and maybe be surrounded by a bigger learning community).”

Much could be said about the whole idea -- let alone about how desirable its outcomes might be -- though I will forebear. But if the plan is ever realized, we must at least draw a line at the massive open online MD program. That would be just a little too much like Hollywood Upstairs Medical College.

 

 

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