MOOCS: Contemporary Issues

This paper will be exploring the impact of Massively Open Online Courses (“MOOCs”), assessing the influence they are having on education delivery, teachers and learner progress and success in Britain and the educators across the globe. This report will be focused on the dominant and emerging providers; “futurelearn.com”, MIT’s “edx.org”, “khanacademy.org”, “udemy.com” and “coursera.org”, amongst others. I will evaluate the impact these course providers are having on the wider spectrum of teaching practice and also my own subjects. I will analyse the impact of these issues in the context of current policies and philosophies in relation to post-compulsory education settings. Ofsted are not officially the overseers of these courses and as such, do not have any comment — official or otherwise about them.


This work is for reference only, please note it has been through the TurnItIn system, therefore you cannot plagarise my work. All work is in British English.


There are however, a small selection of associations that can be drawn on and some comments that can be made about that Ofsted, in certain documents, say make about learning styles and methods, and the way that online courses are designed and implemented that take advantage of them.

 

Current status of MOOC’s

Academia is known for its rapid embrace of change. Figure 2 illustrates this – a timeline of MOOCs since 2000 (created by Li Yuan in 2015). It visualises the rapid growth of online course providers since the turn of the century, and the way they are beginning to link in to traditional teaching. One of the first institutions in the UK to create a course specifically for delivery online was Edinburgh University. In 2011, chief information officer and librarian Jeff Haywood, at Edinburgh University, said that “MOOCs allow University’s and Colleges to ‘flex and bend’ to [in order to] accommodate for the changing needs of the learners”. This is implying and is highly suggestive that MOOCs are not as refined as they ought to be. It also succinctly explains why, as with the majority of digital services, that they are always evolving. This evolution is moving forward and is branching out simultaneously – the software that displays online courses (through web browsers) is endlessly being improved upon, using ever more efficient code. The Khan Academy demonstrates this evolution; this began by delivering content predominantly in linear video form on YouTube, and over time developed their delivery methods into interactive, live, responsive software that can accommodate a wide array of subjects from art and design, to complex mathematics (see figure 1, below).

This also means that those who previously had no access to online education, or any learning content of this nature with this level of accessibility need to only partially adapt to taking courses through this medium. As a course evolves, the delivery of content via computer displays (through the browser) will always have some changeability that learners need to get used to. Figure 1 shows the integration of the widely used Google Maps navigation interface, which is a versatile tool that has been re-tasked to help users navigate large amounts of data (the left hand sidebar) whilst showing progress made on individual components of the overall course. Each star represents a topic, linked to another, to help participants visualise links and the logical next steps for their learning.

Figure 1: Khan Academy Screenshot: Mathematics- linked learning activities

 

 

Figure 2: Li Yuan, Institute for Educational Cybernetics, University of Bolton, 2015

The diagram above shows the dynamics of the course providers since 2000. ‘OER’ denotes ‘Open Educational Resources’, an organisation that assembles resources for teachers online and in classrooms. Despite having some well established institutions behind the courses and projects, there is not always a governing, overseeing body (in the Britain or the United States) that carries out any verification of quality of many courses. It is understood that the vast majority of courses offered across all of the platforms are sanctioned by the ‘course providers’ (for example Edinburgh University), and in turn they may have their own internal verification process that allows it to be made public for general utilization by online learners.

 

Critical Standpoints

There are a number of critical standpoints from which MOOCs can be appraised. In my subject area, which is dominantly ICT based, online learning outside the classroom can be a useful tool to assist accelerated learning and to promote autonomy in learner groups. In turn, these contrasting standpoints generate a number of positive and negative points of view, which will be explored in the following section and are summarized as follows:

  • Positive aspects of MOOCs
    • Free to all (with certain exceptions for certification)
    • Paced at the learner’s preference
    • Community based assessment, feedback and support methods
    • With careful planning MOOCs can be integrated into regular lessons
  • Negative aspects of MOOCs
    • Poor retention rates (described by Gartner’s hype cycle, see figure 3)
    • Can undermines educators’ validity
    • The online community can harbour bad habits
    • Threatens school and college intake levels

The fact that the majority of MOOCs are free is a great thing and this allows many millions of people across the world to access learning, scales on which educators have never seen before. This means that those on a low-income who would otherwise only have access to education through a college or school, can progress in their learning. According to Daphne Koller, the co-founder of Coursera.org (revealed during an interview at Wharton College at the University of Pennsylvania), “Our target audience is people who are primarily working adults and are not currently candidates for traditional forms of education.” In terms of assistance in employability, according to an interview in January 2015, “… Coursera is currently the second biggest credential supplier on LinkedIn (see linkedin.com), after Microsoft, which is incredible since we’ve only been operating for about 2.5 years. This suggests that prospective employees are seeing value in the credentials” [sic]. This is promising news for those who take online courses, especially those who complete them and plan to use their new knowledge to seek employment.

 

The fact that courses are free is one aspect of their appeal, as well as the certification that students can get, which is often coupled with a small fee, which ultimately verifies their participation and completion of the course.

559px-Gartner_Hype_Cycle.svg 

Figure 3: Gartner’s Hype Cycle, 2016. This shows the potential reason the retention rates of MOOC’s are so low

 

The impact of MOOC’s on education today

Understandably, the establishment upholds the “traditional teaching is best” point of view, which is wholly valid and supported by Ofsted, the Department for Education and other institutions throughout Britain. However, this does not give the credit due to the entrepreneurs and pioneers of online learning. The fact that these individuals made courses available to anyone with access to the internet and a web browser is highly commendable. In turn, the means they created to increase the catchment for education, or more accurately, the opportunity for learning for the general population is much greater than a school or college could have ever achieved independently. With this in mind said, the poor retention rates of MOOCs are telling of a system that is, in terms of integration within the existing education system, yet to be proven.

Since 2012, Katy Jordan has collated data generated by a number of course providers (see figure 4). To illustrate how retention rates could be better for MOOCs, I have found two surprising examples. A course run by Harvard (through edx.org) entitled “Introduction to Computer Science” (part 1) from 2012 over 24 weeks. Of 150,349 learners who enrolled on the course initially, only 1388, equivalent to 0.9%, completed the course. Despite the fact that this course had zero cost, this example highlights the difference in retention between traditional education and courses taken online. Another course, Social Psychology, run by Wesleyan University through Coursera in 2013 for a much shorter period of 6 weeks, had retention of 8000 (only 3.2%) completing the course, out of a total of 200000 students who enrolled on the course. These figures may not seem the most promising, as these statistical results are becoming the norm across these platforms. The average completion rate across the majority of MOOC providers is around 15%, this is also taking the monetised and University credit approved courses into account.

Figure 4: Katy Jordan, 2016: data showing retention rates of courses vs assessment methods

Data collated from across a number of course providers.

 

These data must be seen in the light of the fact that there are many more participants than there would have been had the MOOC’s not existed at all. Take Anant Agarwal’s TED talk in 2013, ‘Why massive open online courses (still) matter’, where he succintly describes the worth of MOOC based learning: “…about a year and a half ago, 155,000 students from 162 countries enrolled in this course. And we had no marketing budget. Now, 155,000 is a big number. This number is bigger than the total number of alumni of MIT in its 150-year history. 7,200 students passed the course, and this was a hard course. 7,200 is also a big number. If I were to teach at MIT two semesters every year, I would have to teach for 40 years before I could teach this many students.” This single example from one provider alone proves that MOOC’s are beneficial to a great number of people who would otherwise have missed out on a learning opportunity.

** Supplement ** In my own teaching setting, in particular the creative media department, there is a trend that is moving towards the incorporation of MOOC’s; or at least using aspects of certain courses. There are not many tutors who feel comforatable with using them on a regular basis, and this is due to a few factors. Firstly, they (the tutors) are unsure what content the courses contain precisely, and often they do not have the spare time to undertake the course themselves to find out what is included or omitted. Secondly, these online courses often do not fully align with unit requirements in the creative media courses; they are quite specific and learners often complain about the heavy workload. Managers are willing to allow tutors to incorporate online courses, as long as the content is directly relevant and most importantly it does not take away from the course outcomes. Sometimes, online courses may contain extra content that will add to learners progress, however these courses need to be caerfully checked as they can lead learners off track. On the whole, at my college, there is not a great deal of incorporation of online courses, but there are certain areas that will be attempting to include them in the capacity of flipped learning. For some of my own courses in future, I will be using certain courses as a prerequiste requirement in order to start a course. This means I know what content the new intake will have covered, and ensures that all learners start at the same point.

In terms of the affect on the wider world, there are plenty of examples that show the true reach and worth of MOOC’s, eLearning and virtual education. In Somalia, for example, there is the African Virtual University which was set up in 2012 and now operates across 29 sites, one of which is at the University of Hargeisa, where learners connect directly with professors from Indiana University. They use technologies such as Skype and WhatsApp to increase attendance in sub-Saharan Africa where only 6% of school-leavers attend university, the worldwide average being 26%. Initiatives such as these are creating a boost in edification in the most deprived parts of the world and will ultimately spread their influence and continue to grow.

Those who deemed MOOC’s a threat to traditional teaching have been proven largely incorrect, as the sentiment that the initial ‘boom’ of online courses was going to have a lasting, negative impact on University course uptake; however, this has not become apparent. According to Koller (2015), the President of Coursera, the majority of MOOC participants are those who have attained a degree already, 75% of learners online. Therefore, it would seem that this 75% are undertaking online courses in order to complement their learning and expand their career opportunities. This point however is somewhat moot, when one considers the fact that MOOCs stand for greater participation and access for all.

It could be argued that the remaining 25% are not necessarily going to go on to do a degree because they have taken an online course. In turn, it can be said that having ‘access to education’ and ‘learning’ are not the same thing. Increased access is a good thing, but something to bear in mind is that MOOC providers are always changing their methods. For example, Coursera is perpetually evolving to have even more ‘on demand’ learning, rather than the existing system that is dependent on faculty staff. The Khan Academy is creating organic courses that blend and fit with the individual learner — soon there will not be a specific course to take, rather than taking a prescribed course, one would create the course as you take it, changing your pathway dynamically as you explore and access more areas of study. This might mean that the outcomes of courses can become disassociated with the original subject matter, which for the casual learner is not an issue, it could however be for those who are aiming at a specific goal. This may mean that MOOC providers have tapped into novel methods of accelerated learning, something that is only possible through the use of computers; vast datasets are generated, collected and analysed continuously, thereby informing and perhaps altering the structure of the next iteration of the course, or even whilst the learner is undertaking the course. It also allows the provider to adjust the course delivery and/or content as the learner takes it, should the data show the necessity to change.

Therefore, trainee teachers and qualified teachers alike could, in future, evaluate online course structures and in turn evaluate differences across subject areas. Overall this would help the learning process behind creating the schemes of work, detailed lesson plans and longer term, year on year course structures. As the (a given) online course has potentially already been formulated, the optimal route for the average learner can be extracted and used, and the quality of the outcomes for courses can be increased.

The educators in further education are aware of the relative quality of the content being taught through MOOC’s, as well as the information retention of the learners is also in question. This is often in relation to the course providers being absent from any delivery, for example, students reading content alone at home with little to no external feedback. All MOOC providers have online discussion facilities, designed to allow fellow learners contribute to their understanding. Generally, these discussion boards are limited to a given intake of students on a course; for example, a course might begin in June, therefore this month’s discussion and peer assessment would be automatically limited to those who also started at the same time. This system will also allow learners to ask questions openly with tutors, which in turn means that future participants can gain from these responses from a larger audience. This saves tutors time as they would not always have the opportunity to answer what would potentially be the same questions repeatedly each time the course runs. In essence, they construct a frequently asked questions compendium as the course grows.

Some courses offer details of course tutors, often this is the team that created the course, and therefore, a means for students to interact and get feedback on questions they have about the course. The topic of feedback in regard to online courses comes in two forms; peer assessed, by those also doing the course, and ‘digitally marked’, also known as ‘auto marking’. Auto marking is the fastest and most accurate method, however, it lacks the level of feedback that would be given to learners directly from their tutors, had the assessment been in a classroom setting. The results from these tests could, if scrutinised the right way, highlight areas where learners need assistance.

 

Recommendations for the future

            Online courses and MOOC providers ought to be embraced within traditional teaching environments, particularly in further education settings. The wealth of accessible, up to date and searchable knowledge that is generated from just one course is plenty to fuel a learners desire to progress onto higher levels of learning, specialising in subjects, as well as enrolling on courses provided by further education colleges. In some settings the use of online courses can be incorporated into the development of autonomous learning. Instances of ‘flipped learning’ — prescribed progression of a course outside of the classroom — can be increased and more readily tracked through online systems. Homework tasks can be utilised to allow teachers to continue teaching beyond the usual bounds of the classroom, therefore extending tutors reach and increasing engagement time with learners.

Exercises such as the example in figure 1 (the Khan Academy’s maths learning continuum) are ripe for involvement during the allocated time in the classroom. These methods often employ gamification, (the use of an incentivised reward system that compels learners to do more work), and they are accurately tracked, identifying (on behalf of the teacher) any issues or areas to focus on in the future for each individual learner. The careful, moderate and targeted use of these types of exercises could be key to cracking the harder to deliver topics in some subject areas, for example, an introduction to algebra, computer coding or learning a foreign language, which are known to be notoriously difficult to breach.

Online courses could be used in conjunction with teacher training programmes to help illustrate and clarify how courses are structured. This process could help inform the first schemes of work that trainee teachers would produce during training, having been used as a foundation of understanding.

There is perhaps, in the longer term, the possibility that colleges, schools and individuals who run regular courses could create their own MOOC style learning and testing systems. Systems such as Moodle and Blackboard are, for the most part, limited to merely providing a platform for files and links to other resources rather than complete course workflows. These systems are adequate for internal use, but they lack the flexibility that fully developed websites could provide. It would be a shrewd move for institutions to begin exploring the possibility of creating online courses for their own use specifically. This can potentially boost uptake of classroom-delivered courses through the creation of taster courses, to show a portion of the content of a longer course, or to prime students for enrolment.

Additionally, with careful planning, they could theoretically be used as a prerequisite or condition-of-entry for certain courses. If colleges created something with similar tiered outcomes that Basic and Key Skill Builder tests (BKSB tests) produce, which are widely used across further education colleges, apprenticeship schemes and by training providers, they could help develop additional methods of screening. In essence, these initial online diagnostic assessment tools could complement and corroborate evidence given at interview, and if a suite of them are created, could cover a wide range of courses. They could potentially aid tutors by exchanging time that would otherwise be used in the initial weeks of a course from initial diagnostics to actual subject delivery, accelerating learning and shortening courses by a significant margin. This is before including any online course based flipped learning.

To summarise the results of this exploration of massively open online courses; MOOC’s are in essence a good thing for education, albeit being a somewhat unknown quantity with mixed results. Their usefulness in a college setting is somewhat limited at this time, perhaps due to the inflexibility of departments, or due to the limited knowledge and methods of how to incorporate them into the classrooms.

In years to come, MOOC’s might well become a relied upon component for learning in certain departments. For now, compared to traditional teaching methods, assessment methods and feedback systems, they are still in the testing stage of development, hence the perpetual evolution and new iterations of the courses.

If educators were to employ these methods; be it as flipped learning, homework, prerequisites for courses, they would be well advised to ensure they stay in line with curriculums, outcomes and criteria that are stipulated by awarding bodies and specified by Ofsted as requirements. In turn, the Department for Education will have to develop a strategy (if they are not already working on one) to allow or disallow online courses to be used within the education sector. If they are not allowed, there would have to be some sound reasons for this decree, however the value of these resources is too great to be left untapped. The more colleges do to embrace the tide of change in favour of online learning, the less of a negative impact there will be in the long term, and the more positive results will be for individuals who come to learn.

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