A funny thing happened to me on my way to hear Sebastian Thrun speak in October. Thrun, you’ll remember is the (former) Stanford Artificial Intelligence professor, whose free online course went viral last year, starting the frenzy over Massive Open Online Courses, known by the acronym MOOCs. These are super-large enrollment non-credit courses offered for free. Thrun’s AI course attracted around 160,000 enrollments. What is seldom added to that fact is that around 133,000 dropped out of the course. Nonetheless, 28,000 students are more than Thrun would ever reach with his in-person lectures during his lifetime.
As I walked into the ballroom at the Sloan-C conference to hear Thrun’s keynote address, I was prepared to hate the conversation. The hype surrounding MOOCs, the ego it would take to assume that your course materials would be of value to 160,000 students at one time, and the doom and gloom prediction for “traditional” higher education, all seemed a little much to me.
What happened was the exact opposite. I loved his message and style. He spent much of his time explaining how he got into this effort primarily to provide students a more effective and successful learning experience. He demonstrated the online learning tools Udacity—his startup company—is developing to improve learner interaction and assessment. It’s not really about numbers—it’s more about the quality of the course. How can you effectively engage learners without live intervention of an instructor? How can you keep them on task until they have mastered the content? Being able to scale to larger student numbers is a by-product of the quality engagement effort. If you can effectively engage a student online without being face-to-face in classroom, you can naturally increase the student numbers. Obviously it would be naïve to ignore the underlying effort to establish an effective business model for these massive courses. However, as I have said about our Extended Campus efforts here at Oregon State, it’s not only about the money—it’s about the quality of the learning experience.
So what’s with the hype of the last year surrounding MOOCs?
The Education Advisory Board in Washington D.C. has done an analysis for us (see link below.) They suggest there are four reasons for excessive interest:
- Brand Enhancement—your institution is considered a player if you’re involved;
- Fear of Missing Out—we don’t know where this is going but we can’t afford not to be involved;
- Improving Pedagogy—Drew Faust, president of Harvard says, “Through this partnership (EdX) we will not only make knowledge more available, but we will learn more about learning;” and
- Public Service—all of us who recognize that our mission is to provide enhanced access to the knowledge base of the University can see MOOCs adding opportunity to that effort.
Items 1 and 2 are the crux of the hype. However, it’s items 3 and 4 that deserve the most attention—improving the pedagogy of online learning and increasing access. Wherever this interest in MOOCs takes us, it’s these two aspects that will provide us all—students and faculty—the most benefit.
A year into MOOC-mania, what’s in it for Oregon State?
We are involved in two immediate efforts. One is to look at what it will take to develop courses—both online and blended—here at Oregon State that would be open to large numbers of students in some of the bottleneck classes that historically have high failure and repeat rates and require significant amounts of remediation. We are currently reviewing possible courses that might fit this category and offer the best opportunity for development of a prototype.
In addition, OSU has been asked to join a collaborative with West Virginia University to develop a MOOC that will focus on Instructional Design. Both of these are intentional efforts to understand what online learning tools and embedded analytics are needed and possibly available to enhance learning in the massive online environment.
Of the three current and most well-known players in the MOOC market, Udacity, Coursera (also a Stanford spin-off) and EdX (the Harvard/MIT initiative,) it is with EdX with which I think we at Oregon State have the most affinity. EdX’s stated purpose is improving access, and it is an evolutionary outcome of the MIT Open Courseware efforts of the last 10 years.
Reports are that Udacity is spending in the six-figure range just to develop the interactive material for one of their MOOC-sized courses and Thrun was asked about access to those tools. He said he was open to the idea that these tools be available for us to apply in our courses, MOOC-sized or not, although it would be at least six-months out. At the same time, however, there are other initiatives around the country focused on developing embedded analytics and interactive tools similar to Udacity, except in the Open Source environment. Most notable is the Open Learning Initiative (OLI) at Carnegie Mellon. We are following these efforts so that we can begin incorporating those capabilities into our OSU courses and learning modules. The analytics we’re talking about provide faculty the ability to see student progress in a much more granular fashion, allowing the instructor to spend more focused time with students who have specific needs.
At Oregon State we will launch a program of our own called the Open Educational Resources (OER) Learning Module Initiative just after the first of the year.
We are developing a prototype for open learning modules that focus on single learning objectives. These learning modules will be developed as original efforts, as well as adapted from existing online courses. They will be heavily branded with the OSU name and will be made available free from an online repository here and at other national sites. They will be used to enhance both on campus and fully online courses here and at other online programs around the country; they will be available to enhance learning in K-12 schools attracting high-achieving students to campus; and they will be available with some adaptation for international learning opportunities. Most recently we are in discussion with a multi-state collaborative to develop OER learning modules in the engineering disciplines.
Faculty involvement in instruction during MOOC-size classes can be intense with clearly identified start and end dates and much interaction with students and their work in between. For faculty wanting to see what it might take to develop a truly massive online and open learning opportunity we are suggesting a start with the OSU OER Learning Module Initiative. Over time a set of truly interactive learning modules could be assembled into a high quality open online course that might attract significant interest. The difference, of course, is that they could also be valuable for customized learning opportunities assembled for individuals or small groups of learners.
As they’re currently configured, MOOCs from national sources are not a competitive factor for on-campus credit and degree-based programs at Oregon State or other public universities. However, they could become a disruptive force among the online programs like our Extended Campus. Whether they become more disruptive for all involved—including on-campus credit programs— will depend on how the current effort to offer credit for the massive courses evolves.
Multiple ideas are floating around about how an institution might offer credit for a truly massive course.
The common factor tends to be that credentialing might be separated from the instruction process. For instance the American Council on Education (ACE) is considering validating MOOC credits. Will Oregon State (or any of our peer institutions) accept that credit as transferable? That is the question that will define the political impact of MOOCs on higher education.
Some suggest that some universities might be trying to leverage their so-called elite status to reach out even further to more diverse audiences at extremely low cost to the students. This could cut into growth trajectory of others in higher education. If basic introduction-level courses are offered in a massive environment from Harvard, Stanford, Berkeley or others, will colleges at Oregon State see merit in accepting those as transfer credit? And if we do, what impact will that have on our programs that currently teach introduction courses on campus now? That’s just one example.
At this point the jury is still out. But watch for these issues to continue to surface.