Looking ‘Under the Hood’ of MOOCs

Looking under the hood of a car, an analogy to an examination of MOOCs.There’s lots of excitement about MOOCs (Massive Open Online Course); new business models and prestige for education institutions, new opportunities for people from around the world to access learning. I’ve been a university student and lecturer, I’ve trained tertiary teachers in online design and facilitation, and I’ve been a guest presenter in MOOCs. Online learning has been around since the 90’s, so frankly I don’t get the hype that MOOCs seem to be causing. Maybe because, ‘under the hood’ of your average MOOC are the same old issues. Let’s take three perspectives:

The Student’s perspective

Broadly speaking, students require:

  • Motivation to join and complete the course. Motivation is about ‘what’s in it for me’. If the course lies more in the ‘nice to do’ than ‘required to do’ category, then it is less likely the student will complete. In real terms, the course needs to provide a qualification or ‘evidence’ that is meaningful to the student’s career aspirations.
  • Stimulation to engage with the content and activities. Stimulation is the opposite of boredom. If the content or instructional technique is repetitive rather than fresh and inspiring, then there is a problem. As a colleague recently pointed out to me, 20 hours of the same teacher delivering content via video is boring.
  • Simplicity is about ease of use. The MOOC needs to be intuitive to access, navigate and ‘do’ things in. Generally speaking, a cobbled up MOOC using freeware is not going to ‘cut it’ because it wastes student time and looks unloved.

Remember, learners will always ‘travel the path of least resistance’ i.e. they will do the minimum required to attain the qualification. So, ensure what they are required to do is meaningful, relevant and interesting – a ‘value add’ learning experience.

The Teacher’s perspective

There is no more overstretched fraternity I know of than that of tertiary teachers. They are under tremendous pressure to unlearn what they know about inspiring face to face facilitation, and embrace online design and facilitation. It’s a huge transition, and generally under-resourced and under-appreciated by the executive.

  • Online learning design is not about slapping classroom PowerPoint into Articulate Presenter
  • Online learning design is not about uploading classroom handouts into a resources tab
  • Online learning design is not about videoing and uploading a 60 minute lecture

It’s not about any of these things!

Student dropout rates will continue if the executive do not provide teachers with adequate skill development opportunities to understand the online learner, online content design, and techniques for writing activities for online collaboration. And, the disengagement of many good classroom teachers will continue.

Good online design and facilitation does have some foundation in the experience and intuition of the teacher. However, I argue it is also logical and procedural in nature. A technique I use successfully is to provide teachers with scaffolds, templates and contextual examples to guide them through their online design and facilitation journey, done to a project plan that is generous of time, with ad hoc coaching available along the way.

The Institution’s perspective

I don’t have expertise advising large educational institutions. I can only surmise reputation is a main motivator, and so a positive student experience is paramount. Online students feeling frustrated or ‘ripped off’ have far reaching voices.

What I do have is experience advising organisations transitioning into online learning, for internal or external audiences. Many are motivated by automation and economies of scale, expecting the online learning solution to cost less than traditional learning delivery. Ultimately, it usually does begin to cost less and drive new efficiencies. But an investment of the following is required:

  • A learning platform, such as a Learning Management System or Learning Portal
  • Multimedia tools to develop content
  • Teacher training in:
    • understanding the psyche of the online student
    • online learning design for webinar, video documents, website layout
    • synchronous (chat, webinar) and asynchronous (discussion forum) facilitation for self-directed and collaborative learning
    • new questioning and assessment technique
    • multimedia tools and techniques
    • LMS administration
    • project management
  • New marketing techniques to find a global audience. The audience may be individuals or groups, such as employers or syndicates
  • New types of contingency plans
  • ‘Finger on the pulse’ for emerging technologies, design trends and learner trends

For institutions and organisations engaging in MOOCs for the first time, trusted advisors or partners are a good idea to minimise project risk. An environment needs to be nurtured where the project journey burden is shared, lessons are learnt, and iterations and refinement to design and skill is allowed.

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