Wednesday, March 11, 2015

“One Format to Rule Them All,” Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the MOOC

Among the myriad battles that comprise the existential wars over the fate of higher education in the 21st century, the controversy over Massive Open Online Courses—or MOOCs—seems to have all the elements of a Tolkienesque epic. Like the protagonists ensconced in the mighty fortress of Helm’s Deep, many traditional universities view their educational way of life under assault from massive hordes of the untraditional, unadmitted, undegreed, and un-sold on the trappings of higher education as it has previously existed. Instead, these “students” opt in and out of vast online courses designed by professors and other specialists, but piloted by armies of teaching assistants and adjuncts. They engage in the learning process until they acquire the competencies they need, freed from Byzantine admissions processes, majors of dubious value, years’ worth of tuitions, and the seemingly unending parade of fees that often finance services that these students neither want nor need. Indeed, advocates of MOOCs may very well argue that their approach is truly “one format to rule them all.”

But, bad Lord of the Rings parallels aside, the arguments against MOOCs are numerous and well-publicized. As Justin Pope noted in The MIT Technology Review, efforts to establish and sustain MOOCs have encountered faculty resistance, suffered from low completion rates, high dropout rates, and the general inability to make MOOCs a financially viable concept. Equally problematic, studies have indicated that males, younger students, students of color, and students with lower grade point averages were particularly at-risk of failure in MOOC environments.  No wonder, then, that many in higher education began to consider MOOCs to be an idea whose guaranteed demise had yet to come, relegating the idea to the proverbial dust-heap of failed educational concepts.

Perhaps, however, critics may have been too hasty in heralding the MOOC’s demise. While there are arguably issues with which MOOC designers and students must contend, MOOCs have great potential in terms of the capacity of such courses to individualize learning to meet the particular needs of the students enrolled, their competency-based orientation, their scalability, and their potential for cost effectiveness. Ironically, one need only look at educator preparation and educator professional development as an example of what the future may hold for MOOCs. The Friday Institute for Educational Innovation at North Carolina State University has engaged in initiatives with university faculty, as well as local and state educational authorities, to create “MOOC-Eds” that are designed to enable P-12 teachers to obtain the professional development needed to master the curricular, pedagogical, and technological skills required for effective teaching and learning. Far from the “mega-course” environment where students work in isolation from the faculty who designed the courses, the MOOC-Eds are much smaller, “niche MOOCS,” designed to meet the needs of a particular audience of students. Such is the value of these more personalized MOOCs that the Friday Institute has received interest and support from organizations as diverse as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Harvard. In addition to the immediate benefits for the educators engaged in MOOC-Eds, the courses also demonstrate how MOOCs can enable education preparation programs to meet the technology standards embedded in the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation and other accreditation and regulatory bodies. Thus, the concept of flexibility and nimbleness may be added to the potential benefits of MOOC education.

Finally, through partnerships such as the one between MIT and Harvard, MOOCs are entering into the K-12 environment. Under this joint program, high school students who are preparing for Advance Placement exams will have access to 26 MOOC courses offered by 14 institutions of higher learning, including MIT, Rice, and the University of California, Berkeley.  As is the case in higher education, K-12 education finds particular potential in MOOCS that engage in competency-based learning which embed interactive experiences for students that they may not otherwise have in traditional classroom settings. Although the spread of K-12 MOOCs has been slow, the course offerings are expanding, and organizations such as edX appear to be committed to facilitating the growth of MOOCs into the primary and secondary educational environments.

It would be naïve to argue that MOOCs will spell the end of the university as we know it. Helm’s Deep will not fall. It would be equally naïve, however, to dismiss the potential that MOOCs have to make education broader, deeper, more democratic, and more accessible-all the while providing students a more personalized, optimized, and intimate learning experience. Over time and with continued dedication to improving how MOOCs are developed and delivered, these courses can provide an innovative way to ensure that higher education and the institutions that provide it stay relevant for the near and distant future.

Scott T. Grubbs is the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (C.A.E.P.) Coordinator for the James and Dorothy Dewar College of Education and Human Services at Valdosta State University. Scott is a Ph.D. candidate in Educational Policy and Evaluation at the Florida State University and is a 2013 David L. Clarke National Graduate Student Research Seminar participant. His research interests include educational politics, educational program evaluation and accreditation, and applied professional ethics.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I agree! MOOC discourse seems to have been dominated by hyperbole. Critics were often afraid, I guess, and proponents were perhaps over-exuberant. In spite of all that, when the smoke clears, we still have something with great potential. Good job.