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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Where MOOCs Miss the Mark: The Student-Teacher Relationship

The mistake about MOOCs (massive open online courses) is that they discount the central component of effective teaching -- the relationship forged between student and teacher.

Sure, students around the world gain access to previously inaccessible and unimaginable content from some of the world's renowned universities and professors from MIT, Harvard and Stanford. These students can grow inspired by the possibility of absorbing information through online lectures and platforms, as 12-year-old Khadija Niazi of Pakistan explained recently at the World Economic Forum. The New York Times reported, "Ms. Niazi has been taking courses, free so far, from Udacity and Coursera, two of the earliest providers of this new form of instruction. Her latest enthusiasm is for astrobiology, because she is fascinated by UFOs and wants to become a physicist."

This is nothing short of amazing and shows the flattening of the education world. Thomas Friedman celebrates the power of the MOOC: "Nothing has more potential to lift more people out of poverty -- by providing them an affordable education to get a job or improve in the job they have. Nothing has more potential to unlock a billion more brains to solve the world's biggest problems."

However, MOOCs make a key assumption that the students enrolling in these courses have a certain degree of motivation and are reasonably adept self-starters as learners.

The Importance of Belonging

For students who know what they want and when they want it in terms of online content, MOOCs are a fabulous new option to build and construct personalized learning ecosystems.

Unfortunately, for many learners, MOOCs lack the possibility of mentorship and close guidance that comes through the building of a meaningful relationship between student and teacher.

One student who was exposed to Khan Academy lectures in a math class commented that she much preferred listening to her math teacher explain the same concepts because she likes this teacher and feels comfortable asking questions and going for extra help outside of class. This student-teacher bond is more challenging to develop and sustain through online learning, which by its design is constructed through distance and the tubes of the Internet.

The fact will always remain that great teachers inspire through their passion for their subject and their ability to communicate and connect with students in face-to-face interactions and relationships.

Noted author and blogger Annie Murphy Paul writes: "The level of comfort we feel in another person's presence can powerfully influence how intelligent we feel, and in some sense, how intelligent we actually are, at least in that moment. Now multiply that one-on-one interaction by tens or hundreds, and you start to get a sense of how important a sense of belonging to a learning community can be."

MOOCs are not yet able to cultivate the sense of belonging in "another person's presence." Not to mention that the completion rate of MOOCs is quite low. According to The New York Times, "Less than 10 percent of MOOC students finish the courses they sign up for on their own." While the exposure to great content is alluring, the lasting impact may be fleeting unless MOOCs can figure out a way to establish the relationship piece between students and teachers.

Do you have any experience with MOOCs? How might MOOCs begin to connect content with relationships?

Comments (26)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Rabbi Aaron Ross's picture
Rabbi Aaron Ross
Assistant Principal, Middle School, Yavneh Academy

Are MOOCs meant to replace high school classes or college lectures? If the former, then I agree with the critique of them. However, to the extent that they serve to replace 101-level lectures in colleges, let's be candid and admit that those courses often lack the close connection with a teacher. Obviously, it depends on the size of the school, but in a midsize to large institution, the basic lecture courses can have several hundred students, and those students will have as much a connection with the teacher as they will if they learn via MOOC.

Darlene.Schaefer's picture

Hi Mr. Levinson. I enjoyed this article, and I do agree that in many MOOCs, students lose this sense of connection. Enter North Carolina Virtual Public School. Our virtual institution is built on 4 key pillars - teaching through effective daily learning blocks, teaching through synchronous communication, teaching through individualized feedback, and teaching through unique student connections. Unlike many MOOCs, we teach through connection. I have taught 4 years for NCVPS, and I will say it is the most rewarding experience in my career. I have seen students of all learning abilities - from self-contained EC to AP - thrive and achieve through this means. Our teachers are carefully trained not just in the latest and greatest technology, but in the connections. I would be happy to share more about our model. I am very proud of it, and we presently boast the iNACOL National Teacher of the Year. Regards, Darlene

Jessica R.'s picture
Jessica R.
Spanish language teacher

I see what you're trying to get across, Matt. But you forget one thing: that teacher-student relations can go both ways: they can work *for* the student and this is definitely an area that MOOCs will always fall behind in, but they can also go sour - I can think of at least half a dozen cases when teacher's animosity towards me in school and university were playing against me.

Vinuthna Gaddipati's picture

I liked the article and surely agree with Ross's comment. In case MOOCs completely replace the traditional class room learning, then for sure that personal relationship between teacher and student could be missing and might be a drawback for MOOCs. But, all the efforts now being put towards MOOCs would make them overcome this disadvantage too. It might be personal video sessions from teacher on a topic clarifying a particular students doubts or live chat sessions where in special attention is received by every student.

In fact, using latest technologies like Augmented Reality , Artificial Intelligence, and embedding them into these online learning communities would to a large extent overcome the problem of interaction and personal attention. Personalized chat helps and mentor ships have now started to be included in various MOOCs. Talking about the sense of belonging, the article says that the students enrolled in MOOCs courses are expected to be self learners and motivators. Various MOOCs now give badges and ratings to the students based on their performance and have them on their profiles. This helps increase the users Social Affiliation and Capital (by networking) and also get a higher sense of belonging when they know their effort is being rewarded.

Also, using Twitter in these communities would be one good way of connecting content with relationship. Joanna C. Dunlap and Patrick R. Lowenthal's work on "Tweeting the night away" http://www.patricklowenthal.com/publications/Using_Twitter_to_Enhance_So... also talks about the social presence achieved by using twitter and could partially be an answer to this article.

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Aravind J's picture

I think the author is bringing out a whole new aspect of motivation which is indeed a major factor for motivating students to learn. What happens in MOOC's is that the traditional classroom is replaced by an online medium.The author correctly points out that sometimes teachers motivate students to learn because of their passion for teaching. This factor is completely forgotten in current MOOC's . As Nikhil has mentioned bringing student's together for skype sessions can help build relationship with the teacher. I think creating profiles for both the teacher and students would help in building relationship between student and teacher. A student may be motivated by seeing the profile of the teacher. Creating profiles with details such as academic qualifications and research of interest gives the student background information about the teacher.
As the author mentions in the article MOOC's have made plenty of resources available to a large community and it greatly helps students who know what they want to learn. But building student teacher relationship to motivate students to learn more is a challenging task which MOOC's face with the limitation of face to face interaction.

Haritha Meka's picture

The author has pointed out an important thing required for the success of MOOC - "importance of belonging". It is true that in MOOCs, where the teacher-student ratio is 1:150,000 few times, there is no relationship formed between students or teacher and student. As there are no verbal and non-verbal cues which are present in face- to -face environment that help in impression formation, there is no sense of belonging which is essential for effective student participation and collaboration.

As suggested in above posts, we can have Skype sessions, chat, profiles, integration of social media to achieve this sense of community. People who live close by can also meet once in a while and discuss topics. We can even have peer tutors to help the students. In addition to badges, earning credits for courses completed, certifications will also motivate people.

Sonali's picture

This is a very nice article. The author clearly states the main reason for low completion rates of MOOCs. The main reason why students can fail to continue the course is the lack of motivation and active participation characteristics. As the author says, MOOCs are a very good source of content from experts. But as a student, without a sense of belonging or without active communication, it is very hard for a MOOC to succeed. This article "Educational and social hurdles for MOOCs" by Louwarnoud van der Duim is also a very nice read where he mentions the reasons why MOOCs fail. He says that today MOOCs never check if a student possesses pre-requisites for that course. This may create problems for students later. In MOOCs there may not be a sense of commitment and urge for goal completion. He also states that a MOOC is not only about learning content but learning through interactions. He states that many students enroll but never do any activity as there is no motivation or sense of belonging. Hence for a MOOC to succeed, the social factor plays a major role.
As other have mentioned, it may be the case that using Augmented reality, Artificial intelligence can improve this. Adding activities where students can get to know their fellow classmates can help a lot. Through regular meetings online and through advising at certain time intervals can make the completion rate go higher.

Induja Gopinath's picture

I feel the solution proposed by Nikhil SB may not work in all occasions. This heavily depends on the size of the Online community and also depends on the availability of teacher for the courses. When the class size is more than 50, it is less feasible to have skype sessions and also face-to-face interactions.
When an Online Community is designed in such a fashion that it supports video lectures to enable learning or adaptive environment to learn a course, the student-teacher element is absent. Communities like Coursera and Khan academy have a list of modules associated with the course. The student learns through the modules and tests his knowledge. In case of doubts, he approaches the discussion board. So it becomes less feasible to have skype sessions as student learn at their own pace and time.

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Shruthi Ramamurthy's picture

Interesting article Matt! As emphasized by you, drop out rate is a big challenge for MOOCs and the lack of student-teacher relationship is one of the major reasons.

I do agree with all the counter measures provided in the comments. Synchronous (real time) communication is a key factor in student-teacher relationship. We need to find ways to make sure the student is getting the attention and help from the instructor and all his educational needs are satisfied.

In my experience, I always find it easier to learn when I collaborate. Since the teacher in a MOOC cannot dedicate time to all students, the students who have taken the class earlier or who are doing well in the class can help mentor other students. These mentors/tutors can discuss with students in real time and answer their questions via chat, skype etc.
The mentors in turn need some motivation factor. MOOCs can issue certificates to these mentors who can share it on Social networking sites like Facebook or professional sites like LinkedIn. With this system, the students who need help are getting help and other students are given opportunity to expand their knowledge by mentoring.

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