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A Leading MOOC Advocate Reconsiders His Position

Gamification Course Verified Certificate - SmallIf you’re following the discussion around Massive Open Online Courses (or MOOCs) and how they fit (or don’t fit) into higher education, you might find a September 3rd article from the Chronicle of Higher Education interesting.  It concerns a leading MOOC professor, sociologist Mitchell Duneier of Princeton, who decided to step away from the current MOOC environment when Coursera approached him about licensing his content for use by other institutions.  His chief concern is that this kind of “franchising” of MOOC content could encourage states to cut funding for traditional colleges.  And he’s right to be worried.

I admire the integrity of Professor Duneier’s decision. In both academia and corporate America, we’re all still figuring out how MOOCs fit into the blended learning picture.  And at this early stage, every high-profile decision could set a precedent.  As I noted in my recent blog post and podcast, I certainly agree with those who advise caution about the naive notion of viewing MOOCs as a “magic bullet” to reduce higher education costs.  But education costs are steadily rising, and in this economy being able to afford a quality education is a problem that seems likely only to worsen.  Given the advent of MOOCs and the persistence of economic challenges in America, the current educational model does need to change.  And after all, evolution is the most natural of processes.  So, what should we do?

While I respect Professor Duneier’s intentions, I don’t think that stepping away from the discussion is the way to move things forward. The conversation around governance needs to happen now.  Logically, when new policy needs to be shaped, we look to our leaders.  And the instructors who are most in demand are likely to have the strongest voice in helping to shape protections around how MOOCs should best be leveraged in academia–including how to protect funding for brick-and-mortar colleges (and their professors) at the same time.  Lawyers can always be engaged down the road as needed, when it comes time to formalize the wording of the protections.  I hope today’s leading (and let’s acknowledge it: pioneering) MOOC instructors can be persuaded to come together and form an independent governance board or amicus curiae consortium that will help shape recommendations for the much-needed guidelines.  It won’t be easy taming such an amorphous subject.  But it needs to happen.  I would certainly nominate Professor Duneier and also Professor Kevin Werbach of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania to such a group of academic superheroes.  MOOCs represent  enormous learning potential–we just need to work together to manage that potential responsibly for the greater communal good.

Whatever your position on this question, the article from the Chronicle of Higher Education makes for thought-provoking reading.  Click here to read the full article.  Add a comment here to let me know what you think!

What MOOCs Should Mean To You

Gamification Course Verified Certificate - Small

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I disagree strongly with a recent article about the purported “dangers” of Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, on slate.com. The author’s generalizations about MOOCs, and the overall tone of the piece, are especially disappointing coming from a professor.  Many of the Comments after the article are far more enlightened than the article itself. The author sounds like someone afraid of inevitable change, worried about his own job, and blind to the real benefit that MOOCs can represent–including to him.

I’m not saying every MOOC is a winner. Heck, I’ve only taken one such course so far, and I’ve heard from colleagues that some are complete crap. But you know what? That happens at brick and mortar colleges, too.  Even Ivy League ones.  And there, it costs a lot more.  I can only say that my first MOOC experience was excellent. The video lectures were engaging and interesting. I actively debated the wording on some quiz questions in the discussion forums, and received an answer from the professor himself.  He disagreed with some of my points, but eventually agreed to regrade one of the questions based on the feedback. There were even a few “open house” video hours where the professor met with a handful of students from the class to discuss specific aspects of the main topic (which was Gamification, another oft-misunderstood topic in education). Best of all, the three homework assignments were genuinely thought-provoking, and I had a great time completing them.   I’ve posted them individually on this blog, in fact, if you’d like to explore them.  True, the peer grading system for the course I took was imperfect, but it worked well enough, and having graded my share of undergrad papers while in grad school, I found it all very manageable.  Oh, and the course was free.

The author of the slate.com article paints a nightmarish vision where MOOCs will put classroom professors out of work, or at least greatly diminish their pay, and also rob students of the richness of a real professor-student relationship, not to mention a good education.  I earned my undergrad degree from Harvard. In the larger lecture courses, the well-known professor showed up at the podium and gave his canned lecture (in fact, one fellow was famous for reading from the same dog-eared index cards, jokes and all, that he had apparently used for over twenty years; and no, the jokes weren’t particularly funny).  In some cases, if he was in a particularly giving vein, a professor might take a few questions before heading back to his House for lunch.  That was it for professor-student contact for the big lectures.  For those larger courses, the real learning happened in the subsequent House-based breakout sections with the teaching fellows and classmates, and the learning effectiveness rose or fell based on the quality of the section leader and the student’s own level of participation.

The Coursera MOOC I took certainly qualified as a large lecture course.  Initially, almost 10,000 students enrolled–although that number diminished significantly by the end of the course, once people realized there was a genuine workload involved.  The professor delivered enthusiastic video lectures, but also dipped into the online discussion forums pretty regularly, and his teaching fellows answered the rest of the questions in a variety of active forum discussions.  In other words, the teaching model and the student experience were not all that different from what I experienced on campus at Harvard.  MOOCs might seem most threatening to a professor at a small college, perhaps, where there can be closer regular contact with professors.  I certainly experienced that in some of the smaller courses I took at Harvard, and yes, it was more satisfying.  But even there, I think such a professor at a small college complaining about MOOCS would be missing the point.

I don’t think anyone expects or intends for MOOCs to replace brick and mortar education. Any brick and mortar institution out there telling itself it can downsize the teaching staff in any significant way in favor of MOOCs as a budgetary “magic bullet” is kidding itself.  But I would also say that any Professor who dismisses MOOCs is also not facing reality. MOOCs are evolving as a result of the global need for more, and more affordable, just-in-time, location-agnostic learning.  We all need to keep pace with the ever-faster rate of change and the ever-increasing level of competition in the world around us. I would suggest that MOOCs should be viewed as simply another optional component of a blended learning solution.

Already, the job description for “college professor” in many cases is evolving to include teaching at least some content online, if not in a MOOC, then in a private online course.  MOOCs are still finding their audience, and learning how to deliver their product for maximal impact. MOOCs are also still finding their price point.  After all, some MOOC creators are for-profit organizations.  If the purveyors of MOOCs become too greedy, MOOC use will quickly become self-limiting.  But if the one course I’ve taken so far is any indication, the audience is out there all over the world, and the potential learning benefit is enormous. Like any other form of education, ultimately, you get out of it what you put into it.  As Hamlet says: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”  I think MOOCs are both inevitable, and full of potential.  It’s up to us to shape that potential and make it what we need it to be.

The Gamification course I took was with Professor Kevin Werbach from The Wharton School at UPenn via Coursera, and while Coursera (unlike Harvard’s EdX) is for-profit, the course I took was free. Professor Werbach will be offering it again on Coursera this fall; I heartily recommend it to anyone in any business.  The author of the slate.com article needs to step back, calm down, and find his new place in the current, tech-inclusive bigger picture of education.  Because MOOCs represent an opportunity to learn for both students and professors.

If you want to read more on this topic, I encourage you to check out this recent lengthy article from the New Yorker magazine.

MOOCs and Coursera and Games–Oh, My!
My MOOC Classroom

My MOOC Classroom

If you’re visiting this site, chances are you’ve already heard something about MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), and in fact you may be way ahead of me in taking advantage of them.  My undergrad alma mater, Harvard, has partnered with MIT, Berkely, and other notable institutions to offer free courses on their MOOC site, EdX.  And lots of people all over the world are already taking advantage of the free offerings on Coursera, as well.

Granted, MOOCs may not be for everyone.  Completing a MOOC offering may bring you a certificate, but it does not translate to any form of college credits or formal degree.  So, it depends on your needs.  I’m fine with that “learning for learning’s sake” model.   Many offerings tend to run for a few weeks, like a continuing education class.  If you have been curious about the possibilities of  MOOCs, the price is certainly right to find out if they will work for you.  I was seeing some good buzz online for a Coursera session about Gamification, taught by Professor Kevin Werbach of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.  Gamification is the process of applying the motivational principles typically used in gaming (video, online, etc.) to other environments (like business or education) to motivate learning and behavioral change.  (It does not mean literally turning everything into a game.)  I have always tried to incorporate subtle elements of gamification as a means of engaging learners in the eLearning courses I develop.  Some organizations are more open to it than others, but I think more are finally starting to catch on to its potential.  I came by my own knowledge of gamification principles by osmosis over many years of being out there creating eLearning courseware, playing the occasional game, and being a professional actor (which is all about playing freely and intuitively).  But I hadn’t formally studied the history and psychology of gamification, so it seemed an ideal topic for exploring the MOOC experience itself.

Now that I’m nearing the end of the six-week session, I’m taking a break from working on my final homework assignment (yes, there’s homework!) to record my thoughts about the experience so far.  Right off the bat, I have to tell you that I’m having a blast.  Given that the number one element of successful gamification is FUN, I’d say the course is doing its job very well.  Professor Werbach’s video lectures are genuinely engaging, and interesting.  His sense of humor and enthusiasm for the topic are infectious, and his expertise is apparent in every aspect of the way the course is run.  Each week he releases two hours of lectures, broken down into manageable chunks of 8-12 minutes each.  The lectures include unscored quiz questions at instructionally sound intervals (roughly every 5 minutes) to make sure you’re getting–and retaining–the key points.  And then there is a scored quiz most weeks.  While I’ve done well on the scored quizzes, there have been a few questions I think could be better worded.  So, I took advantage of the course’s Discussion Forums to post my thoughts.  Despite having probably 10K+ students still enrolled by this point, darned if I didn’t receive a reply post from Professor Werbach himself!  I was extremely impressed by that.  It’s a given in MOOC-land that you shouldn’t expect or seek out direct contact with the professor–after all, the ratio of students to professor is astronomically unbalanced.  But I have seen Professor Werbach and his staff post responses to a number of items on the forum, reinforcing the conviction that while the student body is huge, and there is no brick-and-mortar classroom, there is still someone at the head of the class, keeping an eye out for student questions.  Granted, he didn’t agree with my suggestions about clarifying a couple of the questions, but that’s his prerogative.  He did acknowledge that a high volume of participants agreed with me on another question, and noted that it is under review for possible retroactive regrading. I know the professor understands that for a lot of his students, it’s not about the points, it’s about the clarity of the learning experience, and we all want to contribute to that.  What I love is that our exchange made us both think again.

In addition to the lectures and the quizzes, there have been a total of three homework assignments.  The first, 300 words maximum.  The second, 500.  The last, for which we have been given two weeks, is 1500 words.  Due to the course’s Honor Code, I can’t discuss the details of the assignments, but I have found them to be fascinating, and a lot of fun to complete.  Who grades all of these submissions, you ask?  In MOOC-land, because of the volume of participants from all parts of the world, homework is reviewed using a peer assessment model.  Each participant is required to review and rate five submissions from fellow students.  The grading rubric is somewhat simplistic, but it basically gets the job done.  And constructive comments are welcomed, which is great.  Having both taught and graded extensively while I was in graduate school, I’m no stranger to the task, and I take that grading responsibility very seriously.  I have not had a lot of comments on my own homework, but have been getting top scores, so I guess I shouldn’t complain.  A couple of the comments have been a bit disappointing, however; they made it clear that the reviewers were not reading as attentively as I would hope.  But then, once in a while I had harried Teaching Assistants do the same thing on my papers at Harvard!  Taken all in all, the peer assessment system works well enough.  I confess that I did enjoy one comment on my second assignment: in the section for “What would have made this submission better was…” the reviewer responded simply: “if the author had been paid for his work!”  I like the sound of that.

There are definitely pros and cons to MOOCs, and from conversations I’ve seen online, it sounds like there’s quite a range of quality from one course to another, so be sure to shop around.  If you’re dependent on face-to-face learning, MOOCs don’t offer that with the teaching staff per se, but you do often have the option of participating in local meet-ups with other enrollees.   I haven’t had the free time to do that, but it looks like plenty of others are taking advantage of it.  And for this course, Professor Werbach has also done three “Office Hours” videos where selected students pose questions of general interest and he responds.  Otherwise, as I’ve noted, you have to post your questions to the Discussion Forums.  But at least in this course, as I mentioned, I’m seeing the Forums get a lot of attention from Professor Werbach and his staff.  And yes, it’s true that the peer review and grading rubric of the homework assignments could be more in-depth.  But then I remind myself of the pricetag for this learning experience: IT’S FREE!  So, honestly, who can complain?  If you’re in the Learning profession, or in any business, and are curious about how the principles of gamification might benefit your processes, I encourage you to keep an eye on Coursera’s listings and jump if Professor Werbach repeats his course in the Fall.  It’s well worth the time you invest.

Another reason I’ve found this first MOOC experience working for me is one of the same reasons I enjoy creating eLearning for my own clients: it’s great when learning can be truly self-paced, and self-motivated, taken from anywhere at any time that the learner finds convenient.  So my garden has become my classroom, and that suits me perfectly.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to put out a few sunflower seeds for the chipmunks, refresh the nectar tray for the orioles, and then get back to my homework!