Dear MOOC, It Gets Better: Advice from The Open University

Dorothy Jones-Davis
Jan 5, 2014

If you don’t know what MOOCs are yet, you’re probably living in a remote village without internet, and therefore, you probably aren’t reading this blog post. MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses, have been around for about two years now, and have simultaneously been touted as “the end of Higher Ed as we know it” and the “solution to the US student debt crisis.” While the true impact of MOOCs lies somewhere in between these two extremes, it is fair to say that the Year of the MOOC in 2012 has led to the Questioning of the MOOC in 2013. The question is, “what will 2014 bring for the MOOC?“

In the December 20, 2013 issue of Science (p. 1450-1451), Patrick McAndrew and Eileen Scanlon, from the Institute of Educational Technology at the Open University in the UK, give advice to American MOOC providers, who some may argue are the US counterpart to their UK institution. They provide four easy steps to creating a better future for open education and MOOCs:

Step 1: Build on distance-learning pedagogy. 

On the surface, McAndrew and Scanlon’s first piece of advice seems a bit like instructional heresy, as they advise the MOOC providers to improve the MOOC cyberinfrastructure in such a way that reduces direct contact between the teacher and learner; their advice is quite the contrary. If you delve deeper into their strategy, you realize that the cyberinfrastructure improvements create a more personalized learning experience, and instructors can actually do a better job of engaging students in the material and in the learning experience, this can be done on a massive scale, and without placing an onerous tax on the instructor.

Step 2: Plan to help learners that need support

McAndrew and Scanlon make a key point here: “‘Open’ is not the same as ‘free’.” Many will agree that MOOC-mania has opened up the floodgates for content to be placed online without the appropriate instructional support. The data shows that the students who do best, who complete MOOCs, are primarily well-prepared students who already possess a degree. If you truly want to make an “open” learning experience, you must open up the experience to anyone who wants to learn, and then focus on retaining those learners who are most likely to drop out.

Step 3: Design your assessment well.

The authors pick up on a key weakness of MOOCs to date. The primary emphasis in current MOOC development is generally on the instructional content, with too little thought placed on program assessment. There are a few notable exceptions to this, Coursera’s peer-grading pilot is one. "Open" University suggests a system that encourages learners to act as real learning data scientists, the system simultaneously empowering and engaging the students.

Step 4: Ensure quality by working together.

The final recommendation examines the downside of the "Open" in MOOC. McAndrew and Scanlon acknowledge that “working in the open means that mistakes happen in public.” They urge that interdisciplinary teams which include media, educational technology, learning scientist and academic specialists are necessary for quality control of the MOOC experience. This is not a novel concept, and in fact, Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative has been doing this for quite some time in the US. However, this is still a suggestion that warrants attention.

Although McAndrew and Scanlon are not providing any truly novel advice to MOOC providers, the best part of their article is that (unlike other recent commentary on MOOCs) the authors bring to light the benefits, opportunities and promise of MOOCs, while respectively acknowledging the concerns – and they suggest a roadmap to future improvement for this promising educational technology. Perhaps 2014 will be the year of MOOLE – the Massive Open Online Learning Environment - a new and improved model of education that effectively reaches, teaches, and fosters learning in all learners.

*The author would like to thank Trey Lathe for his critical reading of and positive feedback on this blog post.

*The "#edcmooc Cuppa MOOC" image was created by Cikgu Brian, and is licensed under CC BY 2.0 


Dorothy Jones-Davis


This blog does not necessarily reflect the views of AAAS, its Council, Board of Directors, officers, or members. AAAS is not responsible for the accuracy of this material. AAAS has made this material available as a public service, but this does not constitute endorsement by the association.

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