The Netflix model of customized, easy to use selection could help revitalize the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) industry, according to Jonathan Keats at Wired. Since bursting onto the education scene in 2011, MOOCs have experienced both an increase in participants and in dropouts. As low as 5% of MOOC students are actually completing the courses that they have signed up for. This is a clear frustration for professors and producers who have put so much effort into developing this new form of distance education.
Keats suggests that MOOCs focus too much on job training, writing “the rapid retreat of MOOCs into vocational banality represents a squandered opportunity.” He cites inventor Buckminster Fuller, who presented an idea that “students would gain knowledge through ‘an intercontinentally networked documentaries call-up system, operative over any home two-way TV set'” in 1961. Keats believes that Fullers original vision was not about vocational studies but “generalism, to interest people in everything, so that they could grapple with complexly interconnected global problems.” This is how the Netflix model can save MOOCs. As Keats describes “recommendation engines like those employed by Netflix and YouTube” can “entice students to compulsively take up new interests.” A streamlined system of easy to view courses that are quick and simple to follow would allow students to study topics they are interested in, regardless of skill level and availability.
A number of MOOC enthusiasts remain confident that student-oriented improvements such as the one outlined in the Wired article –or other changes yet to be realized– will inevitably emerge. Stanford professor Mitchell Stevens, for example, remains optimistic. “I’m not disappointed with MOOCs,” Stevens reports to Stanford News, “We’re still in the horse-and-buggy stage.” Stevens is not alone when thinking that MOOCs have been successful despite their growing pains. Fellow Stanford professor (and co-director of the Stanford Lytics Lab), Candace Thille, explains that at least one major advantage of the recent experiments in MOOCs is that professors can now use this new form of online pedagogy to learn a great deal more about learning. Thille and Stevens, (along with John Mitchell) argue that the key to understanding the potential of MOOCs is understanding that they are not really “college courses. “They are a new instructional genre,” claim the authors in a recent op-ed, “somewhere between a digital textbook and a successful college course.”
This insight and other innovations (like the Netflix model that Jonathan Keats has been promoting) might well combine to infuse online learning with greater staying power in the second and third stages of its revolution. By having a simple, easy to use platform with access to a wide (almost infinite) range of compact subjects, lifelong students might eventually feel empowered to learn almost as easily as they channel surf. Of course, that means that MOOCs will have to develop greater humanities content and not just remain focused on the STEM and professional development fields that have so far been enticing the largest numbers of online registrants. Also, it might mean that online “courses” will have to become shorter and much more flexible in their commitment level, and most certainly less “massive” in their aspirations. Netflix, after all, succeeds in part because it understands the needs and habits of niche viewers. It might well be the ironic consequence of the MOOC experiment, that ultimately it proves to be transformative in our approaches to individualized learning.
“Higher education is just on the edge of the crevasse,” warned Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen in 2013. Pointing to the rise of MOOCs, or Massive Online Open Courses, Christensen argued that the emerging popularity of online learning would disrupt the traditional model of classroom-based instruction. Christensen even claimed that the most established institutions would be forced to embrace a “hybrid model” of blended in-person/online education and integrate the use of MOOCs with their more specialized in-person offerings.
Yet just three years after Christensen’s sensational warnings, the pioneering spirit of democratized, open education has waned among its former believers. While some critics blame technical difficulties, copyright and intellectual property issues, or high drop out rates for the fading enthusiasm, others argue that MOOCs have yet to meet the inherent challenge of online learning. Unlike traditional classrooms, online academic experiences lack the personal interactions between professor and student and between peers that is crucial to creating a collaborative and engaging community of learning. In research investigating the social elements of online learning, educational technology specialists Whitney Kilgore and Patrick R Lowenthal argue that MOOC users often struggle with the individualistic experience of online learning: “Students regularly report feeling isolated and alone when taking online courses. This potential problem is amplified in MOOCs where there are hundreds, if not thousands, of learners,” Kilgore and Lowenthal conclude. As MOOC developers face declining interest in their products, they must address this social gap.
A recent study from Pennsylvania State University’s Saijing Zheng, Mary Beth Rosson, and John M. Carroll discusses one potential solution. Presented at the annual ACM Conference on Learning at Scale on April 26, 2016, “The Role of Social Media in MOOCs: How to Use Social Media to Enhance Student Retention” analyzes how MOOCs can utilize social media platforms such as Facebook to build community connections among online learners. Analyzing peer-to-peer interaction through the quantitative analysis of digital responses as well as a qualitative survey component among students and instructors, Zheng, Rosson and Carroll studied three MOOCs offered by Coursera. The researchers discovered that while more students were included in the Coursera-based discussion groups, the quality of interaction was much higher in the Facebook group created for course participants. Measuring the number of comments and likes/votes, the researchers concluded that students and professors were more likely to successfully find academic help and social interaction by posting or commenting in the Facebook group rather than in Coursera forums.
Students and professors participating in the study confirmed these data findings: “At the beginning of the course, I frequently asked questions on Coursera but [received] no answers. After a while, I chose to ask questions on Facebook and it worked. Actually, I like answering question on Facebook, as least I received some thanks and we can have real interactions,” reported one student, stressing that conversations on Facebook felt like a more authentic connection. Both students and professors noted that the anonymity of the Coursera forums could be problematic. Students admitted to using fake names, leading to a lack of accountability that contributed to a more negative community environment. “You cannot imagine how painful it was when I tried to look through the comments,” recalled one instructor. By forcing students to use their real names and pictures, the Facebook group for the courses fostered “very effective and meaningful discussions,” another instructor reported. Overall, participants in the Facebook group were much more likely to finish the course than participants in the Coursera forums.
The study from Zheng, Rosson, and Carroll highlights the potentially significant role of integrated social media into the MOOC experience. The successful utilization of social media as part of the online academic experience raises new questions among those invested in the success of MOOCs. Could live-tweeting classroom sessions similarly produce authentic peer-to-peer or student-to-instructor interactions? Could the features of sites such as Facebook be replicated within Coursera forums for more success in these spaces? If the use of social media can foster a sense of community comparable to traditional classroom environments, MOOC developers should take note — the MOOC revolution may depend on it.
Noted filmmaker Jake Boritt is coming to Carlisle on Wednesday, May 7, 2014 for a special free public showing and discussion of his latest film, “The Gettysburg Story,” a state-of-the-art documentary about the pivotal Civil War battle narrated by actor Stephen Lang. What makes this film especially unique and cutting-edge is Boritt’s use of high-definition camera-enabled drone aircraft. His innovative project quite literally depicts the 1863 battlefield from a perspective that you have never seen before. You will be amazed at the visual spectacle and fascinated by Boritt’s discussion of how 21st-century technology helped bring to life this classic 19th-century American story.