MOOCs Can Save Students, Not Just Dollars

Baruch College's largest lecture hall which ac...

Baruch College’s largest lecture hall which accommodate roughly 500 students. It occupies 2 floors (4th & 5th) of the Vertical Campus building. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Response to The Trouble with Online College, NY Times

I think this article is right on the money about the challenges of online learning— namely that most students wash out and that there is not enough support for struggling learners. I’d like to propose some solutions.

See– somewhere in the public excitement over MOOCs is the implicit promise that we can educate many more people for much less money by packing them into massive online courses. This has been done before– remember your 500-person lecture hall “Intro to Whatever-it-Was”course? MOOCs are the internet-scale version of those massive, impersonal, and uninspiring exercises. In MOOCs and megalectures alike, the high skilled/ highly motivated students do well, the struggling students wash out, and most students just do what they have to do to get their money’s worth and pass the course. Of course, since many MOOCs are free, there is much less incentive to stick with the course until the end.

The massive lecture was not created because it’s pedagogically effective– it’s just cheaper. Even putting one teacher in a room with 20 or 30 is more of an economic compromise than a sound educational decision. MOOCs are great if you look only at the economics of them– paying one teacher to lecture at 10,000 students is much more cost-effective than having her lecture to just 500. You can fire those expensive faculty, replace them with interactive websites, and everybody’s happy, right?

Looking at MOOCs merely for how the they can save us money obscures the possibility of how MOOCs can improve education— especially for struggling learners who need extra support to successfully access higher education.

What’s missing in many MOOCs is the only thing that works with struggling students– relationships. Students with low skills are less likely to stick with a challenging task after a history of past failures, and they need a “caring demander” to continuously hold them to high expectations and provide frequent, timely support when they need help.

In fact, personalized timely feedback and frequent interaction with the teacher is more important to student success than the quality of lecturer, the quality of the textbooks, or the use of technology in courses.  Read that again. All that time you’re spending perfecting and delivering your lectures doesn’t improve student learning. Interacting with you, does.

What’s exciting to me about online learning is that it enables faculty to automate the less effective activities (lecturing, exams, grading) so they can spend more time interacting with students (discussions, online office hours, targeted interventions when students fail assignments.) In short, online teaching tools let teachers spend more time on students and less time regurgitating content.

Instead of continuing the myth that “lecturing is teaching”, faculty can organize readings, lectures, videos, and interactive assignments into thematic units so students can choose how they want to consume the required content. They can build multiple “formative assessments” into courses so students can continuously check their understanding and ask questions before taking “for credit” assessments. They can use discussion boards and collaborative documents to ask questions, share ideas, and contribute to a communal “knowledge base” for others to benefit from.

Learning Management Systems can generate a steady stream of data about student achievement that faculty can monitor to see when students are falling behind and schedule 1:1 or small group review sessions. As in MOOCs, the advanced students can work along at their own pace while struggling students have more access to real human beings who care about their progress, hold them to high standards, and give them the support they need to reach those standards.

Online learning tools do hold the promise of a high quality education for everyone, but only if the focus is on improving student achievement, not saving dollars. Approaching online learning as a strictly money-saving venture trades “good” for “good enough”.

Don’t “Do More with Less”– DO MORE!

While I’m re-imagining the education system, I’d like to see more caring adults working in tandem with technology to produce better educational outcomes than we presently see. While much of this article focuses on using online tools to lighten the workload on the teacher so they can focus on student achievement, I believe that our current “one-teacher-to-thirty-students” model has been broken for a long time. It seems even more inadequate when we consider upping the ratio towards one-to-hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands. Though it’s common for teachers to wear many hats, there is more important work that needs to be done in a  class than any one person can do. I know that I did many things right as a teacher but still experienced nagging doubts over the way my personal shortcomings affected student learning. Could this be why 46% of teachers leave the profession in their first five years? I think that courses should be taught by diverse teams with complementary strengths to improve overall outcomes.

  • A content expert, focused on creating and curating high quality educational materials and assessing proficiency in course objectives. Many higher ed. instructors are content experts first and educators second– people whose education has focused on the core content skills. Currently we expect each content expert to also master the tools of pedagogy, multimedia production, and interpersonal expert. What if this person was freed up to create rigorous online exams, write world-class lectures, and assess student mastery of achievement? Pairing this person’s valuable expertise with a solid support staff can help them (and their students) capitalize on their strengths.
  • An instructional designer, fluent in the tools of online learning and trained in effective instructional techniques. This person helps the content expert turn content into robust learning activities that are designed to promote higher order thinking skills, assess stated outcomes, and promote interaction. This person’s mastery of education pedagogy is matched by an understanding of which tools in the LMS are best suited for achieving specific objectives. This person collects and compares data on student achievement over multiple terms, comparing the effectiveness of a given learning approach on student achievement and recommending changes.
  • A multimedia producer, whose time and energy is focused on producing appealing videos, audio, and animated learning objects that can be reused, remixed, and shared across the university or the wider world. When teachers have to do this part of the job themselves, often the results feature garbled audio, ineffective visuals, and poor pacing due to the lack of editing. I recently took the “Think Again: How to Reason and Argue” course and it featured a full set of expertly produced videos which added clarity and appeal to the lectures. MOOC providers are investing in the “lights, camera, action” side of online learning, capturing lectures by academic luminaries using Hollywood-quality TV production techniques.  Even with the democratization of production technology, using these tools masterfully takes time and specialized knowledge and could/should be a job of its own.
  • An interpersonal expert, with highly-trained communication and mediation skills to promote interaction between students and faculty and to play the role of the “caring demander”. This person ensures that the course is personalized to students and bears the psychic load of staying emotionally invested in students’ success– even when it involves challenging meetings or explaining content multiple ways. In massive online courses, this person could also resemble a community manager– a social web-era job title responsible for keeping online communities productive, positive, and enjoyable places to be. Beyond the confines of a single course, this person could help students and faculty from throughout the university form communities around common areas of interest and promote interaction between disciplines.

I believe that more courses should feature all of these diverse skills– even if it means that it takes more than one person to deliver them all.  Ideally, this approach might make it possible to cost-effectively provide a higher level of service to a greater number of students by combining the strengths of the technology with the power of caring teachers. Even if it only improved outcomes for the same number of students at the same cost, it would be an unqualified win all the same.

If your school currently has a teacher to student ratio of 1:30, ask yourself if you could combine four classes together so that each teacher could play one of these roles for a group of 120 students?


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Written by

Ted Curran is a Learning Experience Designer/Developer for Autodesk. He is committed to empowering educators and learners to create transformational change through effective pedagogy and technology integration. You can follow Ted on Mastodon, LinkedIn or learn more at my 'About" page. These thoughts are my own.

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