Test Driving MOOCs

I have been researching Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), compiling best practices and other good ideas that I sought from a variety of colleagues.  I recently completed the first lessons of three courses on the best-known MOOC sites:

  • Coursera course: “Chicken Behavior & Welfare”
  • edX course: “Dinosaur Ecosystems”
  • Udacity course: “Design of Everyday Things”

All three courses provide lessons composed of a series of 1-3 minute video clips, interspersed with short exercises and a multiple choice quiz at the end.  All three have forums where students can interact with the instructor(s) and other students.  All three are reasonably engaging.

Forums are like streams of emails or texts, rather than real interactions.  It may be that younger students find this quite acceptable as their daily lives are laced with these forms of communications.  Something like a multi-person Skype might feel more personal, although that would be cumbersome for some courses where large numbers of students are enrolled.  I suppose Skype could be limited to student-teacher interactions, although instructors with hundreds or even thousands of students could be totally overwhelmed.

Ashok Goel of Georgia Tech, working with IBM, created an AI teaching assistant, Jill Watson, to field the 10,000 student questions his MOOC receives each semester.  Obviously, there is much repetition in these questions, which greatly enhances the feasibility of this approach.  Students responded quite positively to Jill, not imagining she was other than human.  This kind of automation has been used in industry for some time to respond to customers’ questions about services being provided.

The production quality of the short videos varies greatly, some being very professional and others looking a bit like home movies.  Some are easy to consume, while others provide enormous detail.  I suppose I could have taken notes, but I would have had to repeatedly stop and restart the videos.  Navigation in each of the three MOOCs can be a bit confusing, but I expect one will quickly get over this.

My sense is that highly polished, well-done MOOCs will increasingly succeed.  Simply posting PowerPoint slides online, with recorded audio lectures, is not engaging, and will eventually disappear.   Such stale offerings do not leverage the engagement potential of online technologies.  Greater engagement can compensate for some of the limitations noted above.

An important hurdle that must be surmounted to succeed is the cost of highly polished, well-done MOOCs.  One very credible estimate is 1,000 hours of design and development time per course.  Those that can make such investments will attract thousands of online students.  Once the credentials associated with success in these online courses are acceptable to employers, it is easy to imagine a massive shift away from traditional classrooms.

Everyone will take the course on any particular topic from the very best instructor of that topic.  For example, everyone will take physics from Richard Feynman and economics from Paul Samuelson.  The fact that these luminaries are no longer with us will not be a hindrance.  Technology will enable them to teach new developments in their fields, despite never having heard of them during their lives.

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