Remembering the MOOC

Whatever your opinion of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS), if you are an instructor who develops your own online courses and you haven’t at least ‘lurked’ around in open courses, you have really missed something. MOOCs may be remembered as nothing more than tumbleweed in these wild west days, but at least for now they are part of that exciting spirit of frontiersmanship, whose closing we may one day regret.

MOOCS have experienced a meteoric rise and fall in the past two years.  A year ago, they were poised to disrupt higher education as we know it.

A year later, Sebastian Thrun (co-founder of Udacity, a MOOC provider) admits that his company’s courses are a “lousy product” and did not succeed in educating state university students, for whom MOOCs were an inexpensive and accessible option.

As bombastic as some of the MOOC claims may have seemed, several MOOC providers are quietly changing the world. George Siemens inspired the MOOC label with his massively open and free online course on Connectivism. If you feel intellectually isolated in any way as you ponder the meaning of knowledge in this new age, participate in the Connectivism course the next time it is offered. (Professor Siemens now heads up the MOOC Research Initiative, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Regardless of the rise and fall of MOOCs in public perception, MOOCS do offer us an opportunity to peek into open courses (known as ‘lurking’) and gather some insights.  If nothing else, MOOCS can give us ideas on instructional strategies and things to try in our online courses.  According to the 2012 Babson Report on Online Learning, more than 50% of the institutions surveyed agreed that MOOCS are important for institutions to learn about online pedagogy.

Amidst all of the hand-wringing and rebutting of MOOC claims, I have enjoyed gleaning strategies from them in an effort to make our own courses better and to improve our tools. My personal belief, supported by the evidence (ADL research), is that strong instructor presence in an online course correlates with student satisfaction, retention and success. The MOOC offerings I viewed may not have taught us much about instructor to student interaction, but they taught us plenty about student to content and student to student interaction. MOOCS reminded us about motivating students first, establishing relevance, individualizing learning (one course, multiple paths), frequently checking for understanding, chunking content, providing continuous educative feedback, promoting practice, punctuating video with questions, peer grading, collecting data, promoting student study groups and appreciating the power of the graphic. And this is just from what I observed.

I prefer the wildness, perhaps messiness, of the MOOC. It reminds of me of when instructors got excited about computer-based training in the late 80s. The imaginations ran wild. Companies like the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC) sprung from the convergence in Minnesota of education leaders and technology leaders like IBM, Honeywell, and Control Data.

Learning from MOOCs is not the same as accepting that MOOCS will replace our online courses. The untold story is that there is a far far greater threat to the homespun online course. But I leave that discussion to others. In the meantime, we can strengthen our online course offerings by strengthening our instructional design and media design support and by adequately training faculty. As I’ve written in the past, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, every metric of computing has improved, but one. We have faster, more capable computers. We have more bandwidth. Computers are cheaper. But, the investment we make in professionally developing our instructors remains flat.

If 2012 was the year of the MOOC, and 2013 the year of its demise, let’s embrace 2014 as the year of the individual online instructor. But let’s learn all that we can, while we can – while courses remain available, innovative and …open.