Charlotte Flynn, graduate student at Syracuse University in the School of Information Studies (iSchool), first came to the attention of Education Unbound because of her April, 2013 article, "The iSchool’s First MOOC: Lessons Learned," which described her experience as a graduate teaching assistant for the iSchool’s first foray into the world of the MOOC. As readers of Education Unbound will know, I have a love/hate relationship with MOOCs – notably calling them the latest "Opium of the Masses," but also recently touting them as a good match for teacher ongoing professional development. But I thought it would be good to get an insider’s opinion on how a MOOC really works, the effort required to make one happen, and the real impact that it can have on higher education.
The iSchool MOOC, “An Introduction to Data Science with R,” enrolled 856 students, of which only 17 dropped out. Of that number 429 were active participants throughout and 91 completed all course requirements and received their certificates. That is 10.8 percent of the 839 students who stayed in the course (Stirling, April, 2013).
MOOCs: More Work Than They Are Worth?
One thing that arose from the interview, which may surprise some, is that MOOCs take a great deal of work to put together and run. In Flynn’s experience, far more effort is required to create and operate a MOOC than is required for an on-ground class and even more than the standard online course. There are, according to Flynn, multiple reasons for this.
For starters, the self-directed nature of the MOOC meant that most students in the iSchool course were online working late in the evening or on weekends. This meant that instructors and TAs also needed to be online at those times to answer questions and troubleshoot. On the troubleshooting end, this could actually present a problem for university IT staffing, where budgets may be limited and the MOOC model does not provide additional resources for staffing. The same can be said of faculty and TAs for MOOCs – who is paying their salaries?
In addition to the timing of staff participation, Flynn indicated that she felt it would be a slightly less, but still substantial amount of work to offer even the same content in a MOOC multiple times. The administration and management of such a massive effort requires a time commitment that may not be on par with the benefits gained. In the case of the iSchool offering, it was conceived largely as a marketing device to introduce prospective students to the university and the new data science certificate of advanced study (CAS). Given the perceived disconnect between actual participants and the intended audience, it may not have been an entirely effective tool.
Is There a Disconnect Between Intended Audience and Actual Participants?
One observation that Flynn had about MOOCs in general, and my own experience corroborates, is that those most likely to participate and fully engage in a MOOC are not novice learners, but rather experienced professionals who are interested in enhancing their understanding of a topic they already know. This was also the assessment of instructional designer Sharon Boller during her Education Unbound interview. This engagement of active professionals in a MOOC is encouraging from the perspective of knowledge dissemination among practitioners in the field, but is not hopeful for initiatives like that underway in California to use MOOCs to lessen the burden on a stressed educational system.
Flynn made this point and further elaborated that the self-directed, independent nature of MOOCs might be a particularly poor match for students who are just entering higher education or require remediation in order to become confident members of a university community. My own view of the major shortcoming of MOOCs is that they lack the potential for students to engage with a mentor. Finding a good mentor is one of the most important things that students in higher education can do to help guarantee their success in college and beyond. If MOOCs do not provide that opportunity, then they are a very poor match for students entering higher education.
MOOCs: Part of a Larger Educational Puzzle
Flynn and I agreed that, while MOOCs almost certainly are not a replacement for existing methods of higher education, they are a potentially significant piece of the overall future of higher ed. Flynn’s opinion of the place for MOOCs in the higher education landscape was as yet to be determined. The most likely best fit for MOOCs in the future is still in flux. There has not been enough research done on the efficacy of the medium to be certain if it works for students entering college. That research is underway, but meaningful results are still in the future. The most immediate and obvious use of MOOCs, according to Flynn, is as a supplemental resource which can be broken down into smaller chunks and parsed out as needed to enhance existing models of education, whether online or face-to-face.
The future of the MOOC is in doubt despite the intense focus on the model and the amount of resources being dedicated to them. In my personal opinion, the Syracuse University iSchool deployment of their MOOCs as test drives or advertisements for their programs is a realistic view of what MOOCs offer. There may be some residual value to educators who want to use MOOC-based resources for other purposes, or to introduce high school students to a college experience. Ultimately, however MOOCs are little more than a passing novelty that provide the illusion of education for the masses, without providing any of the real engagement or mentoring needed to make them a real education experience.
For any interested in the MOOC experience, Syracuse University will be offering another course this summer on Librarianship. Registration is open right now, so check it out.
Sidebar: Technology and Special Needs Students
Because of her past professional experience working with students with disabilities and her current study of information technology, Flynn was able to provide some interesting insights into the positive and negative effects of technology on students with special needs. On the positive she was hopeful that new technologies such as the iPad are being used to the benefit of students who need accommodations. On the negative side, she worries that technological innovations such as online education could be used to further segregate students with disabilities. The scenario goes something like – students with X disability can do well in eLearning so institutions could, in some cases, push students to online options so that they do not have to accommodate them on campus. This is a trend that deserves some attention and reveals yet another possible dark side of educational technology.