How can we save the Mooc?

As most universities digitise all their teaching, they are finding it very difficult to deliver education online. Gorgi Krlev offers three challenges to conventional wisdom

June 4, 2020
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We may need to rethink many of our assumptions about Moocs

Massive open online courses (Moocs) have become notorious for their failure rates. Of those who register, considerably more than 50 per cent do not access even half the available material and under 5 per cent actually complete a course. While some commentators suggest how learners can still extract value from a Mooc, others see this as a sign of their complete failure or have called for Spocs (small private online courses) instead.

Yet to advance higher education in an era of digitisation and the coronavirus, small-scale solutions will not work. So we need to ask ourselves: how can we save the Mooc? As a contribution to the debate, I will describe here how we designed the #AirMOOC: Accelerating Investment Readiness Mooc as part of the European Union’s Interreg project Finance4SocialChange, and how we departed from conventional wisdom in three ways (although we still don’t know how successful it will prove).

The first was to try to promote thinking instead of understanding.

Many educators already do this in the classroom, but they tend to do it even more in online teaching. Because they don’t receive any immediate feedback, lecturers think that online content needs to be neat, simple and clear. I believe the opposite is true: the more remote the setting, the more challenging the content and style of presentation must be.

When I was taking methods courses during my PhD at the University of Oxford, I found I learned most when a concept was introduced in just enough detail to grasp its essence, but not so much as to make me think, “Yes, of course – that makes total sense.” That is when we assume we understand something, only to discover later that we haven’t thought the whole thing through.

In designing our Mooc, therefore, our aim was to leave learners with more questions than answers, so they critically assess what they have heard and dig deeper on their own. Does this carry the risk that they feel confused and overwhelmed? Yes, but I believe a slight sense of being overtaxed is more productive for learning, especially in online environments, than having everything spelled out.

Our second goal was to promote striking insights even in the absence of fancy material.

Since Moocs can be money-spinners, their production has become highly professionalised. One recent estimate of average costs is $22,000 (£17,500) per hour of online content. On that basis, another estimate of $250,000 per complete Mooc seems on the low side. Although I would have loved such a budget, we had hardly a quarter of that amount available, with less than €15,000 (£13,300) to spend on technical realisation. My only hope was that management wisdom about how “cutting the budget in half will double your creativity” would prove true.

Obviously, we abandoned the idea of shooting with a professional team or placing lecturers in front of green screens in order to insert special effects. We used a graphic recorder to create visual content in a live session and combined this with a simple voice-over. We self-recorded statements and interviews, which meant being speaker, camera operator, cable guy and sound recordist all at the same time. We even switched to recording interviews on Skype. Although this has consequences for the quality of the video material, it doesn’t necessarily make it any less engaging, given that some of the most successful content on YouTube was self-recorded by individuals on their laptops.

The biggest unexpected upside of conducting interviews online was that it forced everybody to be quick and to the point. Online conversations get tedious very quickly; short recordings lower the risk that a video is too long-winded for viewers to take in. An eye-opener for me was when one interviewee wished me luck in cutting down his 45-minute recording to “a compelling three minutes”.

Our final aim was to promote learning instead of the reproduction of knowledge.

To check whether students have learned something, online courses often include a number of devices: polls, short quizzes or multiple-choice questions. Yet these formats soon get boring and do not promote the interactive type of engagement seen as critical for genuine learning.

What we do instead is prompt learners to tackle rather complex reflective exercises, such as outlining their organisation’s effect on society, and post their responses to an online forum for peers to comment on. There is a high risk that little interaction takes place, but in my experience students learn best when they can share and build on personal experiences, knowledge and expertise. To enable this, educators need to move from assessing whether an answer is right or wrong to judging whether students’ ways of thinking and communicating are more or less effective. This often involves providing prompts for further reflection or additional resources that could help them refine their arguments.

This may be a harder way of assessing student performance than through a series of multiple-choice questions, but let’s stop pretending that ticking the right box is an accurate measure of knowledge, creativity or the ability to solve complex problems. And isn’t this what we should aim for?

Gorgi Krlev is a postdoctoral researcher and project director at the Centre for Social Investment (CSI) at Heidelberg University in Germany, where he focuses on social impact, entrepreneurship, innovation and finance. His co-edited collection, Social Innovation: Comparative Perspectives, won the 2019 Best Book Award from the Public and Non-profit Division of the Academy of Management.

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Reader's comments (5)

One of the problems with online learning is failing to generate any kind of a sense of community. Back in 2012, I took a MOOC course called "Internet History, Technology and Security" taught by Dr Chuck Severance on the Coursera platform. I found it fascinating and stuck with it to the end. However I was startled to receive an e-mail saying I was one of the best students and inviting me to join an interesting innovation, a team of 'community TAs' whose role was to retake the course and hang around on the discussion boards supporting the other students. This programme continued for, I think, 4 repititions of the course and seemed to help students to engage more... It was quite time-consuming but suggested that you cannot just record your material and sit back; and led to concepts I have brought to my teaching on Degree Apprenticeship modules about ensuring the personal touch. Student feedback shows that they enjoy things like the 'weeknotes' - weekly messages not just talking about what they should study next and upcoming events, but chatting about things of relevance, perhaps news items or innovations in the area being studied. This has also spun off into more conventional 'on-campus' teaching... and stood us in good stead when we've had to take the full-time students online.
Not sure you'll see my reply, if it's not a direct reaction to your post. Just to let you know I have reacted to your thoughts in a separate post.
It's a difficult time going across world, people want to learn but they have so many distraction in their lives and negativity to concur getting through news channels, friends and even some are actually going through pandemic conditions. So I suggest in the beginning and in the end of every course create some intentional effort to keep students attached, motivated and keep looking up for better future. Bcz now no one talks about better future, we r in the middle of the crisis, people know what to do but they don't have courage to do it, just remind them of the competition they have to face after this crisis, walk positively and happily throughout the course they will get attached and continue till the end.
Not sure you'll see my reply, if it's not a direct reaction to your post. Just to let you know I have reacted to your thoughts in a separate post.
Hey M. Robertson and Preeti, Thanks so much for your comments. Some reactions: M. Robertson: I think we already see that we are failing quite miserably in the "posting and discussion" part of #AirMOOC. Part of this is due to that we are lacking resources and struggling with finishing up every module just in time (still are), so that we are putting too little into activating students. We still get good feedback. Another factor is the asynchronous nature of the MOOC learning and the mixed background of professionals, which might make "opening up" on issues that relate directly to one's venture difficult. Also, using the strategy within Uni courses has proved to work much better, because then you have a joint schedule and a more cohesive (and partly coercive) setting. I love the "successful students as tutors" model. Maybe we'll try that out as we go. For some participants we'll have the blended learning part to make up for it and engage them more. Preeti: A lot for the contents we focus on actually strike that cord, so you might like them. You can register on the platform, or check out the resources on our YouTube Channel: Thanks again both! Gorgi