How MOOC Collaboration Could Aid On-Campus Teaching and Learning

Creating a sharing economy for MOOC content among universities in open online consortiums wouldn’t be simple but could have enormous benefits for those institutions and others, Daniel Seaton writes.

December 5, 2018
 
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Massive open online course providers, such as edX, have consistently experimented with new learning initiatives, from fully online master’s programs to high school initiatives. As higher education partners, we often judge these experiments through a localized lens of the impact at our institutions, often failing to realize this continual experimentation has led to a huge body of content.

At a time when many institutions are re-evaluating their approach to open online learning, how would the perceived value of being an edX consortium member change if any instructor or student could readily use edX videos, problems and pages for residential teaching and learning?

For example, within the edX consortium, more than 130 institutions have created over 2,200 open online courses, making up approximately 500,000 individual problems, videos and HTML pages. The growing body of content represents a budding collaboration economy -- an economic system based on sharing underutilized assets or services directly among peers or organizations.

The underutilized assets in this framing are videos, problems and pages created by instructors and organizations for single-course modalities. The peers in this framework can take on numerous relationships: instructor to instructor, institution to institution and/or even instructor-student. Such an economy can offer institutions and learners numerous benefits:

  • Residential instruction gains a large pool of resources that can be used to more seamlessly blend and/or flip instruction;
  • Institutions can more easily cross-list courses or materials;
  • Students can supplement their residential experience through direct access of materials.

Sharing MOOC content among partner institutions for the purposes of residential instruction could substantially increase the value-add of participating in a MOOC consortium. The challenges to MOOC providers involve unbundling content from course models, providing interoperability pathways between MOOCs and residential learning management systems, and formulating governance for sharing as more initiatives move toward sustainable -- for-pay and/or for-credit -- models.

Vision for a Collaborative MOOC Economy

MOOC content largely exists behind registration firewalls, meaning students and instructors must register and navigate through a course to experience content. Most MOOC platforms do not easily allow content to be transferred, searched, linked to or reused within other platforms (i.e., using a course on campus often means rerunning that course in a specialized version of the native platform).

However, the Open edX platform has an existing integration that allows individual content to be accessed via LTI (learning technology interoperability), and the platform is also being developed to further separate content from course models.

Imagine a computer science student who is having difficulty with vector mathematics and can sample materials covering this topic from other math and physics courses, all while bookmarking resources for the future. In a similar manner, imagine instructors discovering supplementary content that they can seamlessly incorporate into their existing on-campus courses, within their native learning management systems.

In addition, many observers have described a vision for higher education that facilitates relationships throughout the journey from undergraduate to lifelong learning alumni. Giving alumni access to content and technology that facilitates lifelong learning is powerful, but hard to realize the full benefits of if only full-semester courses are offered to this population. The power of collaboration economies will be realized by tools that allow the users to explore and shape optimized pathways based on unbundled content.

Institutions have a desire to fulfill these use cases: many joined the MOOC movement with the explicit goal of supporting and improving residential education. Some experiments are already being run at institutions like the University of Michigan and Duke University, where any current student can enroll in their institutions’ Coursera offerings for free. User engagement still revolves around course models; a true collaboration economy will only work if tools allow users to drive optimal use cases on their campuses with technology that supports their learning pathways.

Focusing on the governance, while simultaneously creating tools that utilize unbundled content, can generate new value propositions for institutions and MOOC providers.

Governance

Governance is perhaps the most complicated issue with such a collaboration economy -- who can access content? Restricting discussion to the edX consortium for purposes of simplicity, we envision a world where all free content can be utilized in residential instruction -- “open online” as a principle for sharing across institutions.

The open online movement itself has already taken the first big step: institutions have agreed to let the world see their content and pedagogy. A perfectly natural next step would allow instructors and students at other institutions to more directly utilize content residentially. For paid programs, more nuanced access is obviously required, especially for institutions that are using MOOCs as gateways to full credit at their institutions.

Interoperability

Interoperability is required to power this collaboration economy. Institutions often make very different decisions on educational technology based on user and delivery needs: edX or Coursera for open online; Canvas, Blackboard, Moodle for residential; and a plethora of individual technologies that support specific activities.

The next-generation digital learning environment (NGDLE) poses an interesting framework to envision the future of learning on any campus. Learning on our campuses will continue to move toward “an environment, a setting comprising many interacting components that enable learning of all kinds to flourish.”

For an edX collaboration economy, interoperability between edX and the residential LMS of choice for all institutions is the first issue to address. Since edX has already invested in LTI, there are existing pathways to allow consortium content to act as a large body of high-quality learning resources.

Solutions

Harvard University is currently experimenting with technology to allow broad reuse of edX content on campus, but these solutions are better presented through the challenges our organization has faced. Harvard has made large investments in the massive open online course movement through HarvardX -- over 100 unique MOOCs accounting for over 26,000 videos, problems and text pages.

Although this content is currently open online through edx.org, there are no mechanisms that enable discovery of individual resources within a course. This presents the first challenge: How do we make digital content more readily discoverable by students and instructors?

Next, Canvas is the residential LMS for all of Harvard. So even if instructors identified HarvardX content they wanted to use in their residential classrooms, one needs to create a bridge between edx.org and Canvas. This is the second challenge: How do we take advantage of interoperability standards like LTI to allow digital content to flow between instructional technology?

Harvard’s current solution is a new initiative called DART: Digital Assets for Reuse in Teaching, a system that allows any instructor to utilize HarvardX content in their on-campus courses via the Canvas LMS. Content is discoverable through search and recommendation interfaces, and the embed process is reduced to a few clicks. The initiative is well aligned with the envisioned NGDLE, focusing on platform interoperability (edX to Canvas) and microservices (small isolated coding blocks) that appropriately isolate development to allow for quick iteration.

To date, the primary DART use case has been faculty who have created HarvardX content and intend to incorporate that content into their residential courses. This use case is, of course, far more general -- shared by many universities across the edX consortium and certainly relevant to other MOOC providers. The potential benefits are large. Although HarvardX is one of the largest bodies of MOOC content (over 100 unique courses), it represents only a fraction of the thousands of residential courses run in a typical semester at Harvard. And including all 2,200 courses in the edX consortium would offer much more topical coverage, creating more use cases at Harvard and any campus participating in such a collaboration economy.

As edX and other MOOC providers continue to chart paths to paid, for-credit courses, it is an opportune time to more boldly reimagine the benefits participating in a MOOC consortium brings. Institutions of higher education are beginning to more deeply strategize about how they view the digital learning landscape. And at a time when so many institutions have committed to open online courses, it’s natural to ask how these materials can be used to explore new pathways in both existing and nascent learning settings.

Bio

Daniel Seaton is a product owner for the DART project at Harvard University.

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