Have MOOC Surfaced a New Breed of Learner?

Early research findings about MOOCs point to who actually benefits from these courses. What some of the early findings seem to indicate is that these are people who already have a traditional credential or two under their belt.  Of course, there are plenty of well-credentialed people who never take or complete MOOCs, so it is about more than just being formally educated. In fact, this leads me to wonder (since I don’t have the data at this point) if MOOCs are not surfacing a certain breed of learner. Consider the following:

  • While there are exceptions, MOOCs are rarely required learning activities for the participants as part of a larger formal education program or an employer requirement.
  • People who complete MOOCs do not earn a highly sought after or valued credential.
  • There are no traditional letter grades associated in most MOOCs.
  • People take MOOCs based upon individual goals, interests and aspirations.
  • One study indicated that many MOOC completers tend to be taking the MOOC for career advancement, developing new and valued knowledge or skill.
  • People tend to work on MOOCs during evenings and weekends.

Look at these different features, and we start to see that people who complete MOOCs are learners. As much it is might be a cliché to some, these are lifelong learners. They value learning, not just earning grades or credentials. They value enough of it that they are willing to replace other leisure activities with the work that it takes to complete a MOOC. They are self-motivated, self-starters, even self-directed learners.

In other words, if you are browsing the digital landscape in search of great learners, MOOCs are not a bad place to look. They are havens for people with a genuine love of learning and curiosity, or people with a drive for personal growth and development. Where else do you find people who want to study big data, ancient history, American history, design thinking, or international law for fun, personal interest, and professional gain (apart from getting a new degree)? We might find them in libraries, public lectures, online communities of practice and by browsing the comments of social media; but MOOCs as online learning communities represent a concentration of people who understand several important aspects of life and learning in a connected world.

  • Learning is about more than earning credits, grades and credentials.
  • The digital world is a new frontier for the willing and self-directed learner.
  • Learning apart from formal credentials has practical and professional benefits.
  • There is power is taking ownership for one’s learning, designing personal pathways based upon interests, professional aspirations, and personal goals.
  • Valuable learning experiences are freely available to those who are willing to seek them out and take advantage of them.

Not everyone approaches life and learning with such insights and perspectives, but the development of MOOCs over the past years puts a spotlight on these learners. Of course, MOOCs are not the only way to embrace the joys of open and connected learning, but they are a noteworthy congregating place for such people.

This leads me to muse about the implications for education. While some have touted MOOCs as a replacement for traditional higher education, I’m increasingly to what MOOCs tell us about self-directed learning. There is a treasure trove of insights to be gleaned from studying the people who congregate in and benefit from these massive online learning communities.

Too often we look to the technology and its capacity for changing education. I’m the first to argue that technology amplifies and muffles different values. As such, what values are amplified by MOOCs? One is clearly self-directed, uncaged learning. Not everyone is thriving in MOOC learning contexts, but those who are have the capacity to motivate themselves, manage their time, set their own learning goals or at least act upon their learning interests, and follow through on commitments to learning goals. This doesn’t sound too different from some of our most successful learners in traditional learning environments, does it?

This also points to what I consistently refer to as the new digital divide. The divide is between those who have the confidence and capacity to take initiative for their learning in the connected world and those who remain largely passive and dependent upon others to direct their learning. As such, learning from MOOC participants is something that reminds about one of the more imporant aspects of a quality educational experience, developing the agency and skill to take cotrol of one’s personal learning journey.

When does an Online Course Stop Being an Online Course?

What is an online course? When does an online course cease to be an online course? Since my days in graduate school, I’ve been drawn to a simple but helpful exercise to get at the “essence” of something. It consists of asking three questions. What is essential? What is important? What is merely present? Asking these three questions helps find out the attributes so significant that removing them causes that item to become something else. Amid the growth of online learning and talk about “online courses”, perhaps it is time to use this exercise to consider the essence of an online course. What are the attributes that are so central to an online course that removing them causes it to no longer be appropriately labeled an online course?

To illustrate how this works, consider asking these three questions about a ball. What are the essential attributes of a ball? Some people start by talking about its shape, that a ball must be round. Yet, we need to adjust that definition to consider something like a football. As such, we might revise our first statement to say that it must be round on one plane. From there we go to the second question. What is important? These are the attributes that impact its use and purpose but it remains a ball. Shape, size and weight fit into this category. Finally, we ask about those attributes which are merely present. These are the traits that do not significantly impact the use or purpose. In many cases, the color might be such an attribute. By going through such an exercise, we don’t just come to better understand the essential attributes. We also develop an overall, deeper, nuanced, and more multi-faceted perspective on whatever we are studying. Let’s apply this to the idea of an online course, a concept that continues to evolve.

If you go the route of studying the history and etymology of the word “course”, you will likely end up with something like a “planned series of study.” In the United States, we tend to use “course” to describe a part of a larger program, but “course” is used to describe the entire program in other parts of the world. What people call a degree program in the United States, people in parts of Europe might call that a course or course of study.

If you are speaking with people in a K-12 or traditional University setting in the United States, it is easy for people to describe what they think of as a course. It is something led and organized by a teacher for a group of students. It has a start and end date. There is a teacher. There are students, planned lessons, assessments, and assignments. There might be lectures, larger and small group activities, projects, quizzes and tests, discussions, homework, papers, readings, and dozens of other elements. Which are essential? Which are important? Which are merely present? What are the attributes of a course that make it a course and not something else?

One of the difficulties with educational innovation and the adoption of new practices is that we get used to and comfortable with certain constructs. Whether they are better or worse than an innovation, their familiarity gives them superiority in our minds. We are quick to defend them even when we are something unhappy with them. I suspect that this is part of the reason why we run into problems with the changing idea of a course, especially an online course.

There have been innovations to challenge or stretch our idea of a course for many years. Self-paced or correspondence courses, for example, conflict with traditional ideas of a course. There may be a teacher, but not one that fulfills the same role that we think of in traditional courses. There may be no scheduled time when people gather together, and the start and end dates for the course vary by learner. There is also likely like to no student-student interaction. Yet, we still call it a course. At the same time, because it is new and suspect, it is common for these new ideas of courses to be given lower status or credibility, at least among the most mainstream people in a given domain.

In the digital world, this becomes even more complex. Scan the web for what people call courses and you will find countless models. A course might be a series of three or four webinars led by one or more different people followed by a short quiz. It might be 3-credit class in a learning management system, part of a larger degree program. It could be non-credit or credit-based, offered by a school, a company, a government agency, even an individual. Students might have scheduled activities, readings, assignments, and graded participation in weekly discussion groups. We use “online course”  to describe a MOOC led by one or a few people, largely consisting of short videos and readings with a few quizzes or peer-reviewed exercises shared among hundreds or thousands of learners. An online course might also be something like what you often see on a site like Udemy, largely made up of a bunch of small video recordings, possibly with some quizzes or checks for understanding and a Q & A area. Sometimes there is an “instructor.” Sometimes there is not. Sometimes there are assessment of learners, but not always.

With such a broad use of the term, is there anything essential to an online course? Yes, but it is still important to recognize that it is a rapidly expanding term. With that caveat in mind, consider the following traits. Despite their differences, each of these examples includes a planned course of study. Whether explicit or implicit, something was established to be learned, explored and/or studied. Resources and/or activities were included in that plan. The other part, of course, is that these resources or activities relied upon online resources and/or environments.

That is all that I can come up with for essential attributes of an online course in today’s world. The rest is important or merely present. This includes whether or not it is for-credit, part of a larger program, includes student-instructor interaction, includes student-student interact, the nature of the learning activities, whether it is teacher-directed, learner-directed, or peer-directed and organized. The same is true for the length, complexity, and host/provider for the course. These all play an important role in how the course is valued, how it is experienced, and the impact of the course. Yet, people can implement diverse experiments with these attributes while still calling it an online course.

I’m sure there are many implications for such a broad and popular use of the phrase “online course”, but one comes to mind for me. Because people use the phrase so widely, it is not adequate to make broad assumptions about the idea of an online course. Blogs and other media sources report and reflect about online courses and online learning, but they sometimes jump from example to example without recognizing the distinctions. Studies come out about online learning, but people do not always take the time to consider the type of online courses represented in the study. This has led to widespread confusion, sometimes unnecessary debates, misrepresentations, and often overly general statements about online learning.

Consider the example of MOOCs. As soon as people started writing about MOOCs, most failed to compare them to more traditional online courses. In fact, some wrote about MOOCs as if they were the beginning of online learning, ignoring decades of practice and research that preceded MOOCs. Instead, people compared MOOCs to traditional college courses leading toward traditional degrees. It created a debate that led to a more guarded and often dismissive tone to the conversation instead of allowing us to just be curious about the affordances and limitations of this new construct. This was likely intensified by using the word “course” and people’s pre-existing notions of what constitutes a course.

MOOCs were not, however, the first alternative use of the word “course.” Long before MOOCs we used, people used the word “course” to describe a vast array of online learning experiences. Many of these mentions didn’t have the widespread media attention of MOOCs, so people skipped over them, missing the chance to compare MOOCs to multiple concepts of courses. If this happened early on, it could have transformed and expanded our thinking about MOOCs, their benefits, limitations, and positive potential use moving forward.

What is an online course? It is a course that relies heavily upon online resources, activities and experiences. What is a course? Now that is the important question. Its’ essential attributes involve planning and learning, but in the evolving use of the term, a course can be almost anything. Until we recognize these developments, we will continue to miss promising possibilities, talk past one another, and fall prey to overly simplistic understandings of learning in a connected world.

It is Time for some MOOC Assessment Makeovers

I’m convinced that is time for some MOOC assessment makeovers. I’m a fan of Coursera, EdX and many others who are investing in creating open and high-quality online content and learning experiences. While the data may show that these providers continue to mainly serve already educated people, we live in an age where lifelong learning is more important than ever, and MOOCs are unquestionably enriching people’s lives and learning. They are not solving all of education’s problems or eradicating problems of access and opportunity, but it is unreasonable to think that they would, especially in the short-term. For MOOCs and open courses and content to increase access and opportunity, we have much work to do to inspire, equip and empower diverse individuals to take advantage of such resources. If you are not informed about the power of possibility of open learning as a tool for personal growth and development, you are not very likely to take advantage of these innovations.

With all this said, it is time to add greater design depth and sophistication to many of the existing MOOCs and open learning experiences. I suggest that we start with some MOOC assessment makeovers. In 2014, I hosted a MOOC on this subject called Learning Beyond Letter Grades, an opportunity to explore what is possible if we climb out of our century-old assessment ruts and re-imagine the role of assessment, especially formative assessment used for increasing student learning, student engagement, and even the ability to transfer what is learned to real world circumstances. Then I taught a short course for Educause members on the same topic in 2015. And, in 2016, I am scheduled to host a series of webinars outlining these possibilities. My mission is simple but substantive. It is to help people discover or rediscover how an assessment makeover of your course or learning experience can produce delightful and positive results for both teacher/facilitator and learner.

This is not prohibitively complex, but it does require us to look beyond many of our lived experiences with assessment and to reconsider assessment plans for our courses and programs. We must let go of the idea that “tough grading” is equal to academic rigor. We will benefit from moving our attention away from high-stakes quizzes and exams, and instead looking at formative and low-stakes feedback and assessment opportunities throughout courses. It means taking the time to learning about distinctions between formative and summative assessment, understanding the limitations of common “grading” practices, weaning ourselves from treating grading and assessment as synonymous, and understanding that frequent and meaningful feedback is one of our greatest friends in the pursuit of quality and engaging learning experiences. As such, this calls for a deeper understanding of things like authentic assessment, portfolio assessment, narrative feedback, checklist and rubric designs (and their benefits and limitations), designing for self-feedback and peer-feedback, the benefits and limitations of standards-based and competency-based assessment models, integrated assessment in educational games and simulations, and how you can blend many (even all) of these into a course or learning experience to create an extreme classroom assessment makeover that pops. This is design work that matters in education.

It means taking the time to learn about distinctions between formative and summative assessment, understanding the limitations of common “grading” practices, weaning ourselves from treating grading and assessment as synonymous, and understanding that frequent and meaningful feedback is one of our greatest friends in the pursuit of quality and engaging learning experiences. As such, this calls for a deeper understanding of things like authentic assessment, portfolio assessment, narrative feedback, checklist and rubric designs (and their benefits and limitations), designing for self-feedback and peer-feedback, the benefits and limitations of standards-based and competency-based assessment models, integrated assessment in educational games and simulations. Then it calls for exploring how you can blend many (even all) of these into a course or learning experience to create an extreme classroom assessment makeover that pops. This is design work that matters in education.

As I review various existing open courses, some of this assessment innovation is happening. There are promising experiments around peer assessment, for example. Yet, the dominant practice is still discussions and quizzes, multiple choice exams and checking off viewing of a video or participation in a given activity. These courses still have value, especially for learners ready and able to add their own feedback systems on top of what the course provides. Yet, it would be huge progress for MOOC providers and participants if we invested more creativity and thought into robust assessment makeovers of these courses. Let’s get to work.

The Hidden Value of MOOCs as Intellectual Gold Mines

We are walking through an intellectual gold mine and most have not even realized it. Even as the number of MOOC participants continue to grow around the world, much of the initial media buzz with MOOCs has settled. Early rhetoric about MOOCs replacing the traditional University have largely subsided, bringing us back to the more important questions.

  • How can MOOCs increase access and opportunity?
  • Where do they fit into the larger and diverse selection of educational opportunities?
  • What affordances do MOOCs add to the broader educational ecosystem?

That last question is, I contend, is the most important one to explore, and one that will open our eyes to the hidden value of MOOCs.

http---www.pixteller.com-pdata-t-l-158894Daphne Koller, President and Founder of Coursera, frequently explains that Coursera does not exist to replace the traditional higher education experience. Those spontaneous and sometimes serendipitous moments in a traditional face-to-face class remain as valuable as ever. Coursera doesn’t seek to diminish or replicate that. It does, however, exist to expand access and opportunity to valuable (as deemed by the participants) learning experiences for an audience that will likely never step foot (or have to opportunity to) on a campus like Stanford University. It doesn’t solve problems of equity, access and opportunity. It does offer to help with such problems, but even when failing to do so, that doesn’t mean that MOOCs lack value. People sometimes focus on the limitations of MOOCs and how they are not equivalent to other forms of teaching and learning, but MOOCs do give more access to those who have nothing, and they clearly offer value, as evidence by the massive enrollments. It is hard to deny the significance of something that garners registrations in the tens and hundreds of thousands.

Coursera doesn’t replace the value or experience of a traditional undergraduate education. However, how many students sitting in Stanford and many other University courses have the self-direction, curiosity, will-power and follow through to identify a MOOC of interest, sign up for it, commit to using it for a robust learning experience, and walk away from the course having gained something of value? In other words, could it be that being a MOOC participant and completer is a sign of certain traits and abilities in a person, traits that are highly desirable in life and work? Studies of MOOC participants have shown that they largely consist of people who already have at least a bachelor’s degree, although there are growing efforts to draw the interest of more underserved populations.

Reaching underserved populations is a commendable aspiration, but let’s not overlook what we have identified. MOOC participant are largely people who elect to learn something on their own time, most often inspired by personal and professional goals. This is a population of people who demonstrate high levels of curiosity, a love of learning, and ownership for their growth and development.

These are engaged people. In one report, they found that 61% of MOOC participants took a MOOC to help them do their jobs better or to get a new job. These are not people who are just clocking their hours at work, living for the weekends. For one reason or another, they want to get better at what they do or they are committed to becoming competent and confident at something new.

As such, perhaps we need to start looking at MOOCs differently. If you had a group of hundreds of thousands of engaged people with curiosity and a love of learning, what might you do?

  • This is a great place for job postings, especially for employers who care about having engaged, curious self-starters.
  • It is certainly a prime place for advertisements to populations with an intellectual, self-directed bent; although many MOOC providers have opted not to go the route of paid advertisements.
  • It is an excellent place to draw people into a larger ecosystem of educational offerings ranging from coaching services and webinars to conferences, degree programs, workshops, and even subscription to newsletters.
  • It is a prime spot to share news and information that you want to spread in the social world.
  • It is a promising community to find people who value knowledge and understanding.
  • This is also a great place to stage competitions and gateways that can lead to new jobs and opportunities for committed and qualified people. Imagine a company that is expanding and plans to have 50 openings that need motivated and qualified people. Why not build a competition or course in a MOOC platform where completers are guaranteed at least an interview? This is a largely new and untapped space for identifying top talent (although the Udemy pivot partly gets at this).

I am not just talking about the marketing and financial benefits. I’m looking at this in terms of having an online space/community that is dense with engaged, lifelong learners. We are looking at an intellectual gold mine. If you care about talent management, then  MOOCs might not fix massive problems of inequity, access and opportunity at the moment; but they are providing a way to identify a population of people who are good at leveraging the power of the connected world for lifelong learning. Perhaps we’ve been so focused on the value of the MOOCs themselves that we’ve largely missed the true value, the people participating in the MOOCs.