Recently NPR did a story that had the general title The Online Education Revolution Drifts Off Course. And yet the article was focused solely on MOOCs (massive open online courses). Let's be clear that MOOCs are just one part of the so-called online learning revolution. (Don't forget blended learning, the flipped classroom, etc). The story was a strong critique on MOOCs and their effectiveness. For instance, the article cites one case at San Jose State University in California:
But by all accounts, the San Jose experiment was a bust. Completion rates and grades were worse than for those who took traditional campus-style classes. And the students who did best weren't the underserved students San Jose most wanted to reach.
Even Udacity's co-founder called their MOOCs a "lousy product." Obviously MOOCs are not as successful as was previously hoped. In fact, much of this was not a surprise to me. MOOCs can run into the same pitfall that swallows other iterations of online education. Let's use this iteration as an opportunity to improve practice for online learning.
1. Retain the Human Element
Education is about relationships. We know this, and the creators of MOOCs have started to adjust based on this. Course mentors are being added, as well as more 24/7 support specialists. We can no longer continue with the "factory farm" model of online education and push students through it without the close relationship and coaching of a teacher. Online and blended-learning teachers need to continue building relationships with students to truly personalize learning. You can't personalize learning with a 100:1 student:teacher ratio!
2. Foster Focused Collaboration
While MOOCs have had a lot of tools for open collaboration, engagement in these spaces may be hit or miss. Participation in discussion boards can in fact be a good metric to gauge a MOOC's success. In order to increase participation, give students authentic issues and problems to address. In addition, create affinity or project groups, or have students self-select for these groups. This will create not only a focused cohort of colleagues, but also a focus on topics and problems.
3. Provide Ongoing Feedback
If students receive needed and timely formative assessment feedback, learning can be more personalized, and they will be getting the attention they need. There can of course be self, peer, expert and teacher assessments, along with assessment by other agents, but it must be ongoing. We need to build more of this into MOOCs and online education in general.
4. Blended Is Best
I would make an argument that one of the best ways to work on all the above recommendations is to take on some sort of blended model. There are many of these models and implementation methods. When a course is blended, ongoing feedback and assessment can happen more readily, relationships can be strengthened, and collaboration can happen in varying spaces that meet student needs. Even Coursera is seeing this as important and is building "learning hubs" that include weekly in-person instruction. Anant Agarwal makes the case in a recent TED talk that MOOCs, despite the issues we've discussed, can still be used to supplement instruction. In fact, Anant pairs online instruction with face-to-face, creating a blended environment.
We know these strategies and recommendations work! Another important thing to consider, however, is how we are measuring the "failure" and "success" of MOOCs. Perhaps MOOCs are disrupting the traditional mold of education and are still being measured using the quality indicators of Education 1.0. In fact, the Atlantic recently published an article that explains how "tricky" it is to measure the success of a MOOC. In addition, Anant Agarwal believes that MOOCs can still be a useful component of blended learning. And so, regardless of this rough patch, we can still learn from some of the bumps and, in learning, we can improve digital education for all.