The Future of MOOCs

Challenges and lessons.

October 29, 2014
MOOCs are not dead, but MOOC mania has certainly abated.
Predictions made in 2012 that MOOCs would totally disrupt the existing higher education model were certainly exaggerated. But that does not mean that MOOCs won’t have an profound impact on the future of higher education.
As Bill Gates once said, “We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next 10.”
MOOCS played a historic role in stimulating discussion in teaching across the academy. MOOCs engaged faculty and gave new legitimation to online education.
MOOCs also provided an experimental space where content specialists, instructional designers, and educational technologists could test new pedagogies and teaching tools including auto-grading, interactive simulations, and educational gaming,
For the most part, however, MOOCs today have not evolved significantly in approach beyond those available in 2012. If next generation MOOCs are to appear, they will need to draw upon the experience of online retailers, journalism, online dating services, and social networking sites.
Here are ten challenges facing MOOCs and lessons they might learn from the commercial world.
Challenge 1:  Discussion Forums
Why is it that comments on newspaper websites are rich and widely read, while the discussion forums in MOOCs or class LMS sites are not? Too often, discussion forums in courses consist of disconnected comments and mindless chatter. The explanation is straightforward: Newspaper forums have a facilitator who deletes unproductive or offensive postings. A rating system that makes use of “likes” prioritizes strong and compelling contributions.

Challenge 2:  Cohorting
Small online discussion groups or collaborative teams too often work poorly—in stark contrast to the kinds of connections that dating sites or listservs produce. Why is this? Dating sites and listservs understand that groups emerge organically when individuals share common interests, profiles, and motivations.

Challenge 3:  Interactives
Across the country, campuses are reinventing the wheel: creating animations, simulations, virtual laboratories, and other teaching resources of varying quality and utility at great expense. Redundancy is widespread. Quality is highly variable. Why? Because of the lack of a carefully curated repository and a recommendation and comment system.

Challenge 4:  Student Engagement and Persistence
Although some MOOCs have experimented with term length, rates of learner engagement and persistence remain low. Lurkers and dabblers abound. How might we change this?  One possible answer: Challenge or crowdsourcing MOOCs – which take a pressing problem and strive to solve it. Imagine a timely MOOC offered by Médecins Sans Frontières on best practices in caring for Ebola patients. Another possible model was pioneered by Cathy Davidson’s History and Future of Higher Education MOOC, which combined an online component with face-to-face courses in multiple countries.
Challenge 5:  Progressive Personal Profile
Google rests on a personal profile.  So, too, does Linked In. A personal profile allows a website to tailor recommendations to a user’s interests.  A progressive personal profile would allow educators to follow students’ learning trajectory, including areas of confusion or misunderstanding, facilitating the development of personalized learning pathways.

Challenge 6:  Personalization
Customization is a watchword of contemporary marketing. Personalized adaptive learning, with embedded remediation and enrichment, ought to be one of MOOCs holy grails. Given their large “n,” MOOCs hold out the prospect of developing multiple learning pathways to better meet students’ learning needs.

Challenge 7:  Data Analytics and Learning Dashboards
Big data and predictive algorithms, which underlie today’s search engines, can be equally useful in education. These tools can identify learning pinch points, toxic course combinations, students at risk, and the efficacy of student support programs.
Challenge 8:  The User Experience
Commercial websites differ profoundly from learning management systems. Unlike LMSs, with their file or tab structure, commercial websites are more elegant and easily navigated. Design elements are transparent.  Support is a click away. And, most strikingly, commercial websites are mobile first and are supplemented with individualized notifications.

Challenge 9:  Credentialing
It remains striking: Almost no campuses that have created MOOC offer them for credit to their own students. Nor is it clear that the various badges, certificates, or specializations have a clear value in the labor market.  A great challenge for MOOC providers is to ensure that the credentials they offer are genuinely meaningful—industry aligned or validated by professional associations or another respected organization.

Challenge 10:  A Sustainable Business Model
Gated Executive MOOCs.  Verified certificates. Licensed content. The MOOC provider as LMS. MOOC as loss leader for for-fee programs. The quest for a sustainable business model remains one of MOOCs’ biggest challenges. One potential model is MOOC as next generation multimedia textbook, which might be especially attractive for students who are unwilling to undertake sustained reading and who are seeking a lower cost alternative to printed textbooks.

Steven Mintz is the Executive Director of the University of Texas System’s Institute for Transformational Learning and a Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin.


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