MOOCs: More Than Courses

8613376533_6a500513fa_zTwo years after Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) first emerged as free, online educational opportunities for the public, they are still a growing trend. Platforms such as Coursera, Udacity, and edX continue to add new courses, and participants continue to enroll in classes that feature university professors and industry experts as instructors. However, these courses’ strikingly high dropout rates hide in the midst of louder success stories in online education. Researchers from Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology calculated that approximately five percent of registrants for Harvardx and MITx finish their courses and earn a certificate. Less than half of registrants even makes it halfway through the course materials.

While high dropout rates certainly demonstrate that MOOCs do not retain students as well as traditional courses, they also raise the question of whether MOOCs should focus on retaining students like traditional education does. The question stimulates a broader conversation about the nature of MOOCs and how they should be used. Although they are called “courses,” many MOOCs actually occupy a different educational niche than traditional courses do. Harvard’s EdX MOOCs in particular can be thought of as a cross between textbooks and television that presents new opportunities for participants and educational researchers, in learning and pedagogy respectively.

Shunning the Term “Course”

While the MOOC “The Ancient Geek Hero in 24 Hours” involves professors, lectures, assignments, and assessments, its instructors avoid calling their class a course. As Leonard Muellner, Professor of Classical Studies at Brandeis University and the class’s co-instructor, explained to the HPR, “we kind of shun from using the word ‘course’ on what we do … we try to avoid the notion that it’s like a standard course.” To this end, Muellner and his colleagues also refer to class registrants as participants instead of students.

A handful of participants–about 25 percent for Muellner’s class–register but never access course content. On the other end of the spectrum, a few students watch most to all of the videos and complete enough assignments to earn a certificate. Others, dubbed “explorers,” engage in some class material but do not finish enough requirements to receive a certificate. If MOOCs were purely analogous to traditional classes, these registrants would fail the class and experience the negative consequences associated with failing–but they don’t. In fact, most participants walk away with rewarding experiences, regardless of their investment in the course. “Our experience really has been that explorers are people who selectively throw themselves into it, sometimes to a degree that is remarkable and life-changing for them,” Muellner told the HPR.

Muellner’s participants are usually adults with advanced careers, family commitments, and daily routines that are different from those of students. These participants often enroll in MOOCs with very specific goals; for instance, engineers might sign up for a class on circuitry to learn about one particular topic, or a librarian may sign up for a poetry class to see how a professor talks about one particular text. With goals and participation levels that diverge vastly from those of the conventional student, these participants illustrate that MOOCs fit a different societal niche than traditional education.

The Search for an Identity

If a MOOC is not really a “course,” then what is it? Some perspectives on this question focus on how MOOCs lack certain elements of a traditional education. MOOCs certainly lack real-time, hands-on teaching. Michael Parker, an Assistant Professor of Medicine and the Faculty Director of Online Learning for External Education at Harvard Medical School, described the difficulties of teaching Musculoskeletal Anatomy in an online format. On a practical level, it may be more difficult to learn anatomical structures online versus through hands-on experiences like dissections. Meanwhile, Parker emphasized that teaching anatomy via a MOOC provides an opportunity to explore creative approaches to conveying the material in a digital format, such as overlays on video or 3D viewing. “One of the interesting challenges in this course … is how to convey that sense of wonder, the privilege of being able to see the structures that make up the human body.”

MOOCs in the humanities, such as Muellner’s mythology class, are no exception to this challenge. “These courses are not a substitute for face-to-face education,” Muellner told the HPR, describing how the large number of participants prevents instructors from providing personalized responses to assignments. Meanwhile, Muellner also noted that participants of his MOOC received more instruction in one particular way than his students at Brandeis. While traditional on-campus students usually receive no more than individualized comments about his or her particular response to an assignment, they do not “necessarily get an idea of what the teacher would do to answer that same question.” In MOOCs, participants are often allowed to view the faculty-written “best answer,” and get a firsthand glimpse at how the instructor might answer a particular question.

A Living Textbook

While MOOCs do provide sourcebooks or study guides to go along with their video lectures, instructors are still determining how dense or technical these resources should be. Parker told the HPR, “MOOCs are still trying to find the balance between entertaining and educating … how much are they aiming toward a university course and how much are they trying to be the Discovery Channel.”  Although they should be educational, MOOC videos are also under pressure to be enjoyable and interesting enough for students to remain engaged.

To that end, videos are kept short, and often include engaging animations. EdX courses even have introductory trailers to generate enthusiasm for the course’s subject. Presentations also progress in a carefully linear format that more closely resembles a television documentary than a dynamic lecture; if the instructor were to miss a point, no office hours or extra help would be available to fill in that gap for students.

The thought put in behind these materials showcases that MOOCs are not merely courses that are presented to a defined set of students in a defined period of time; they have the potential to become timeless resources on a topic, much like a textbook or a televised program. Parker said that creating resources for MOOCs “does take re-thinking the way we teach, with the hope of creating an extraordinary end product–one that’s really a living textbook in a way.”

MOOCs as Experiments in Education

In addition to providing a wider and freer-ranging platform to create and display educational resources, MOOCs provide instructors and researchers with opportunities to conduct research about pedagogy. Many professors, such as Jim Ware, a Harvard biostatistics professor who teaches “Fundamentals of Clinical Trials” for HarvardX, find that teaching an online course helps them analyze their classroom teaching. Ware said that instructing online courses “does reveal some of the ways in which our in-person programs could be strengthened.” One of these ways is blended learning, a pedagogical concept recently on the rise.

Blended learning allows conventional students to learn through online delivery of content as well as in traditional classrooms. Various courses at the Harvard School of Public Health assign students videos to watch from “Fundamentals of Clinical Trials,” and later use the material covered in them as the springboard during class discussions and lectures. According to Ware, the advantage of such online material is that “the content can be provided very effectively, and it lets [students] learn on their own time when they have the energy and interest.”

Next year, Harvard students enrolled in the course “Neurobiology of Behavior” will watch videos from HarvardX’s course “Fundamentals of Neuroscience.” Christian Schubert, a postdoctoral fellow at Boston Children’s Hospital and the head teaching fellow for “Neurobiology of Behavior,” said that a major goal for the staff behind the online course is “to integrate it as much as possible with the actual on-campus course.” He also expressed hope that this integration could potentially “help a particular set of students that are much more visual learners and interactive learners” grasp course material more effectively.

MOOCs also allow researchers and instructors to improve education in a broader sense. “It’s a great learning laboratory,” Parker told the HPR. “The fact that you can continually make changes and collect data on these changes” means that you can “refine in a much tighter feedback loop.” In this way, MOOCs allow researchers to quickly amass data on how decreasing video lengths affects dropout rates, or whether incorporating assessment questions during videos affects participation.

Parker is optimistic that these opportunities might allow researchers to use MOOCs to further improvement in education. “I think we’re just at the cusp of being able to take that data and arrive at a point where we can have more effective teaching and more effective ways of engaging students.” In this way, MOOCs may pave the road to even more effective teaching tools than traditional courses themselves.

Photo credit: Nelleke Poorthuis

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Copyright 2017