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Learning with MOOCs II
Conference Review (October 2-3, 2015)

A couple of weeks ago I attended “Learning with MOOCs: II,” a conference at Teacher’s College at Columbia University (the conference was the second of its type; the first, which I was unable to attend was held at MIT in October of 2014). In many ways, Learning with MOOCS II seemed a well-timed follow up to an Inside Higher Ed article written by Candace Thille, John Mitchell, and Mitchell Stevens published in late September. In this article, Thille, Mitchell, and Stevens reflect on the recent ebb of “MOOC mania” and the pragmatic realization that MOOCS are not a revolutionary panacea for the problems that plague higher education. A similar realization seemed to frame the conversation at Learning with MOOCS II, and many of the keynote speeches, panels, and presentations were structured around the question: if MOOCS aren’t going to revolutionize higher education, how can they change student learning in more subtle ways?

In my own assessment, the answers offered to this question can be categorized into four categories, each described in more detail below. MOOCs, the speakers at the conference argued, have the power to be quietly disruptive by allowing for new types of pedagogy and learning only feasible in online environments; by introducing professors to new tools and techniques that they could use to improve their on-campus teaching; by providing researchers access to a tremendous amount of data to improve teaching and learning; and by offering a level of international connectedness and shared meaning-making that, in its most utopic form, could lead to a new form of cosmopolitanism and global citizenship.

What was most interesting about each of these answers was the way in which they eschewed an oft-used framework that compares online learning to face-to-face environments (and even positions online learning as a replacement for face-to-face teaching). Rather, each of these directions focused on the digital, massive, and open aspects of MOOCS, and how these characteristics opened up new opportunities for improvements in teaching and learning. The most exciting examples of innovation looked to born-digital communities—rather than face-to-face courses—for some of their most influential pedagogical cues.

New Types of Teaching and Learning

One of the most prominent themes at the conference was the notion that MOOCs were learning spaces that could accommodate new pedagogical approaches, learning styles, and media formats. For example, OpenUniversity in the UK has built its MOOC platform, FutureLearn, on the assumption that the massive and open nature of MOOCS lends itself particularly well to a social constructivist approach to learning in which engaged learners work together to make and share knowledge. Though it was unclear to me how successfully FutureLearn’s platform has realized this pedagogical model (the platform looks much like edX’s or Coursera’s but with more robust learner social profiles and commenting opportunities) its explicit incorporation of concepts and features from social media platforms was compelling. Certainly, many of us think of forums like Twitter, Facebook, Reddit or even the comments sections of articles as digital spaces in which communities are built around the exchange and discussion of information (the edifying value of that information may be contested depending on venue). FutureLearn’s model suggested that—when it comes to generating discussion, inquiry, and social learning in an online environment—these spaces might have just as much (if not more) to teach us than the face-to-face classroom.

Al Filreis of the University of Pennsylvania described his Modern and Contemporary American Poetry MOOC on Coursera (“ModPo” for short), where he has focused on creating what he calls a “large, incredibly diverse community” that “improvisationally, synchronously and collaboratively interacts with each other and the materials.” This community—rather than the lecture—is the core focus and driver of learning in the course. The lecture video—which has been replaced with a recorded session of Filreis leading collaborative close readings that others are encouraged to mimic and upload—is one of many, interconnected opportunities for social learning in the course. Others include international meetups, very active social forums, Google Hangouts, and opportunities for peer review, all moderated and coordinated by Filreis, 11 teaching assistants, and 50 internationally dispersed community TAs (students who have taken the course several times before). When a student enrolls into the course, they enter into a learning community of roughly 40,000 global learners, connected by a shared interest, goals, and experience with the course’s content. In many ways, this seems to me less of an adaptation of the traditional college lecture class to an online environment than it is the formalization and coordination of auto-didactic processes and communities that the web has facilitated for more than a decade.

Enhancing On-campus Courses

Recently, conversations about MOOCs have moved away from the hope that open online courses will democratize elite education, and instead shifted towards the view that MOOCs enhance education for those who already have access to it. The use of MOOCs in residential education is one way in which this has happened. (Ithaka S+R, with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is wrapping up an experiment on the use of MOOCs in hybrid courses at multiple campuses of the University System of Maryland.) Several faculty members at the conference reported that, after designing and teaching a MOOC, they approached their residential courses in new and more innovative ways. They explained that they employed new teaching tools and techniques to which they were introduced when designing a MOOC, embraced multimedia content, and changed the format of their classes so that they resembled hybrid courses more closely. Shigeru Miyagawa, who teaches at MIT and the University of Tokyo, reported that after using lectures from his Japanese history MOOC in place of readings in his residential class, he saw noticeable increases in participation in his now flipped-classroom.

Colgate University, a small, liberal arts college, has also used MOOCs to enhance on-campus courses. For the past two spring semesters, the history  department has offered “The History of the Atom Bomb” as an edX course in which both current undergraduates and Colgate alumni enroll. The course has acted as a way to build a community that exceeds the bounds of Colgate’s undergraduate student body (yet still very much supports the school’s mission), and students spoke highly of the opportunity the MOOC offered them to engage with a new pedagogical tool.

Research and Data

Though much of the conversation at Learning with MOOCs centered on pedagogy and student experience, it was hard to ignore the question of research and data. MOOCs capture an incredible amount of data on how each student moves through a course, and this data can be used to improve MOOC platforms, to refine lessons and teaching practice, and to help educators and researchers better understand the needs of students of different backgrounds. Anant Agarwal of edX announced that RDX, a data-sharing initiative of edX, was in the works, though his description remained vague. Similarly, as a vocal audience member, Candace Thille of the Open Learning Initiative spoke of exciting opportunities to give instructors insights into student learning in real time, and saw this as a fundamental way in which MOOCs could change—and improve—pedagogical practice. Additionally, researchers from the University of Illinois reviewed a variety of data-based research projects they had completed with their own edX data. These included inquiries into learner demographics, usage patterns, the relationship between duration, engagement and completion, and the impact of various approaches to grading and instruction on student outcomes.

Many researchers agreed that the format in which edX and Coursera deliver data to institutions is incredibly messy. It can often be difficult to find significant meaning in this information.  One practitioner with whom I spoke said that there had been talk for years about building a data sharing tool, but nothing had come to fruition. He imagined a tool like StackExchange’s Data Explorer, where researchers and data scientists could share their queries with one another in slightly anonymized forms, but said that there was frustratingly little momentum behind inter-institutional collaboration.

Global Citizenship

Perhaps the most interesting—and certainly abstract—direction articulated for MOOCs was their potential to foster a new sort of global citizenship. Though George Siemens introduced this concept in his opening keynote, many speakers touched on the notion, and each of the presentations about the social aspects of MOOCs embraced the belief that there was a certain level of trust and even compassion built into the learning community that MOOCs created. Still, the exact mechanism through which MOOCs could train a more compassionate or humane learner remained fuzzy at best.

After his talk, I asked Dr. Siemens if he thought that there was something unique about MOOCs that made them especially generative venues for creating what he called “better people, not better button clickers.” He candidly told me he was still working through the answer to this question, but other speakers speculated that there might be something about the global communities that MOOCs created, the juxtaposition of reasons for engagement, or the personal accountability necessary to complete a MOOC that might do something to explain this possibility. While there may very well be something unique about MOOCs that makes them particularly good (or at least novel) tools for fashioning a new form of global citizenship, Siemens’ aspirations for a holistic learning experience is nothing new in discussions of the purpose of education. What is new and exciting about Siemens’ proposition is that MOOCs have been traditionally been imagined as serving a more vocational form of learning (of course, the vast number of people who take MOOCs like ModPo for personal enrichment should make us question the validity of this characterization). Siemens’ proposal seemed to be saying that—not only are MOOCs not going to revolutionize higher education in the way they thought they would—but, in fact, we may need to revolutionize MOOCs to serve an educational purpose that has often been located in their imagined antithesis: the small, face-to-face classroom (though through mechanisms wholly distinct from those employed in these spaces.)

Challenges

MOOCs face a number of challenges going forward: gathering and sharing usable data and defining a research agenda will be a significant project in the coming years, as will evolving MOOC pedagogy to fit the many directions conference participants articulated. Despite common laments about MOOC completion rates, few saw this as an adequate measure of success, though there was significant discussion about which formats and approaches might foster the greatest levels of student engagement. Orchestrating truly collaborative social learning experiences seems a top priority for many providers (edX recently launched a “Teams” feature in beta form), and many innovators are still trying to find ways to use MOOCs to supplant at least some in-person courses to reduce the cost of earning a degree.

The single most pressing challenge discussed was sustainability. In fact, I sat in on an entire panel on sustainability and not one participant offered even an idea as to what a sustainability model for MOOCs might look like. One audience member, an edX course designer for MIT, proposed a type of digital marketplace for MOOC content that would compete with publishers, and Candace Thille argued that sustainability would come from MOOC providers’ and institutions’ ability to offer new avenues for research and research partnerships. In a different session, Timo Kos, the Director of Education and Student Affairs at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, presented one of the more compelling and complete strategies of the conference. Kos explained that Delft publishes all of their content from MOOCs as modularized, free, open courseware on their website. To support the development of MOOCs and open courseware, the institution licenses complete courses to other institutions and offers services such as quality assurance and teacher training for a fee.

Conclusion

As Thille, Stevens, and Mitchell wrote in their Inside Higher Ed article, MOOCs are no panacea for higher education. Many of us have known this for quite some time. As the dust created by “MOOC Mania” settles, the “Learning with MOOCs II” conference offered an exciting arena to explore, short of this utopic vision, what role MOOCs may play in the future of teaching, learning, and educational communities.

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