By Brian Fleming, Analyst
Ronald Legon’s recent Inside Higher Ed article, MOOCs and the Quality Question, brings energy to an important conversation that lately has grown a little stale. Executive Director of Quality Matters and longstanding advocate for online innovation, Legon offers a refreshing proposal for the evolution of traditional online providers into something he appropriately calls MOOC 2.0. This platform will usher in a new age of massively open quality online learning capable of serving the bulk of everyday students the current MOOC model, ironically, largely excludes. We generally agree, and want to extend the argument.
What Should Not Pass Us By
Legon proposes that in their present state, MOOCs lack the resources and practices needed to help the bulk of “typical students” succeed. A fair point, which he surfaces from some interesting observations about the current nature of MOOCs and their perceived limitations as platforms for long term effectiveness in online education.
- The “siren’s call” of MOOCs is about prestige, plain and simple. If you throw a party and invite a few hundred celebrities, you will draw a crowd. Whether that party lasts, now that’s another thing. This cannot be highlighted enough when it comes to MOOCs. What drives their popularity and recent success is good old fashioned star power. Especially under the guise of free learning from the world’s most outstanding schools and scholars, MOOCs offer name recognition, quality content, and access to a new and enticing learning experience from institutions once considerably off-limits to the vast majority of the world. Whether this model leads to effective pedagogy or a promising model of student success is another question, which Legon rightly takes on.
- MOOCs make little of established best practices in online pedagogy. Online education has come a long way, with programs reflecting commendable strides in pedagogy, student mentoring, outcomes measurement, inquiry-based learning models, and effectiveness in the use of collaborative learning tools. MOOCs, on the other hand, are shockingly austere, relying heavily on lectures, multiple choice exams, and threaded discussions with little sustained faculty involvement or guidance for learning. Legon raises the obvious concern that this model, enticing as it may be, simply cannot foster effective learning outcomes in the long run, at least for the bulk of students who may require a more hands-on, deliberate approach. Something else will need to emerge that, while equally massive and open, offers a better platform for student success.
- Online providers need to improve the “openness” model. With MOOCs, all are welcome but few succeed. Should MOOCs evolve into the mainstream, Legon reminds us (especially as credit bearing courses), higher completion rates will become more and more critical. Appealing to completion rates, which (however difficult to translate into the language of online retention efforts) estimate that around 10% or less of students actually finish a MOOC—not something that delights most educators, Legon expresses concern for the 90% who may otherwise drop out, stop out, or simply give up. What happens to them?
MOOC 2.0, Legon suggests, will offer a more deliberate and responsible approach for the good of the other 90%. He claims also that such a model is already underway through a groundswell of efforts among existing providers seeking entry into the MOOC market. Not sure who that may be, but we’re certainly intrigued.
Lingering Questions, Strategic Considerations
Eduventures maintains that regardless of how MOOC-mania pans out in the coming years (especially alongside existing online education), at this moment what is most clear is that MOOCs are unmasking “weaknesses in traditional online higher education” largely related to costs but also institutional brand and instructional quality and content (Eduventures’ Online Higher Education Market Update 2012/2013).
We propose, then, that rather than polarize the issue (online vs. MOOCs) our posture should be more about what online programs can learn from the success and relative appeal of MOOCs, and not necessarily what MOOCs may or may not be doing relative to online at the moment (because frankly, in this climate, that may all change tomorrow anyway).
What can online providers learn from MOOCs? A few thoughts…
- Institutional brand matters. Expertise, bold ideas, insight for learning from the best and brightest in the world, an education your friends and colleagues have heard of and respect—those things will matter more, not less, in the coming years. Many online programs, on the other hand, feel and will continue to feel marginal without better brand recognition. MOOC 2.0 will emerge among online programs capable of leveraging a brand and providing in a competitive market something people know about, find compelling, and view as reputable whether nationally or in a particular field or discipline. For existing providers, creating signature programs may be a great place to start, or leveraging partnerships with other more reputable institutions, organizations, or scholars in the field. While most schools may not be able to appeal to a 100 year old brand or five of their most popular Nobel laureates now interested in teaching online, chances are there is something worth appealing to. Whatever that may be, we say leverage your brand to help define your programs for the coming of MOOC 2.0.
- Faculty drive quality. MOOCs offer access to the best and brightest faculty in the world, many of whom are eager to teach with this new platform and willing to explore possibilities for its future innovation. That’s not insignificant. While most existing online programs can hardly afford to hire these Nobel laureates to teach online (if at all), these programs can hire and train faculty to bring more magnanimous MOOC-like enthusiasm to the online classroom and to produce more engaging course content. MOOC 2.0 programs will be driven, in large part, by quality faculty, supported no less by ongoing training and quality development initiatives, full time/part time mentoring opportunities, and a culture of online excellence that gets faculty enthused about the practice of teaching online. To enter the MOOC market, we say focus on your faculty, support and train them well, and allow teaching excellence to drive every aspect of your MOOC model.
- Lectures are still effective. MOOCs rely heavily on lectures and faculty-centric learning models, which people like Legon have been trying for years to help online education overcome. Problem is, while research shows student–centered models foster more engaging outcomes online than monotonous talking heads, the siren call of a good lecture will never cease to entice. When done well in an online environment, that is, lectures are still really, really effective. While the 90% need guidance, they also need content. MOOC 2.0 will not jettison the lecture but seek to improve it, potentially through shorter and more pointed sessions, humor, video clips, simulations, and real-time discussions on lecture content. When developing a MOOC, we say focus on the lecture, and explore possibilities for quality formats that drive enrollment, support retention, and further bolster your brand.
Time will tell how MOOCs evolve, and what role traditional online programs will play in this remarkable change taking place across higher education. At the moment, though, the siren’s call should warn (not congratulate) potential 2.0 providers of the competitive advantage MOOCs have brought to the table, and of the weighty reality that to succeed in tomorrow’s MOOC market, you will need to leverage your brand, focus on your faculty, and revisit the lecture.