Quality in higher education: MOOCs highlight the symptoms, are not the cure

[This post will be cross-posted at From the Dean’s Desk, the blog of my Dean, Marcy Driscoll. The theme of this post fits is with the topic of our upcoming FSU College of Education Dean’s Symposium, on October 7.]

Public higher education faces a variety of challenges. Funding has been cut in many states, and tuition has increased. Budgets are tight, and many would argue insufficient. Quality of education is a focal point for many, but how to achieve and measure that quality has been debated. Time to degree and attrition both remain concerns, as does access to and affordability of degree programs. These issues are highly interrelated (e.g., tuition increases prevent students from accessing a public education; budget cuts harm quality through larger class sizes, reduced services and resources, and brain drain and inability to hire faculty) and are nothing new.

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) – essentially, extremely large online classes in which anyone might enroll – have been offered as one part of the solution to these problems. In the last year, some universities have begun exploring how they might partner with MOOC platforms such as Coursera and Udacity, to allow their students to take MOOCs for course credit, with mixed results (see this story about MOOC completion and pass rates when San Jose State University took this approach, as well as this follow up story).

Still, the interest in MOOCs for college credit remains. The advantages of MOOCs in this context are clear and are related to economies of scale. To accommodate the potentially “massive” course enrollment, the courses are designed to require minimal student-instructor interaction. Similarly, the production values and technology used to support these courses may be more sophisticated than what would be used in a smaller, closed course. Automated assessments can provide instant feedback with no labor. Indeed, once designed some of these courses may only need administrators and technical support, and not instructional teams.

In this way, MOOCs highlight how technology can be used to deliver course materials at a large scale, and how computer-based tools, including simulations in the case of select MOOCs, can assess learning and provide students with interactions and feedback. These ideas are not new – corporations have been doing large-scale Web-based training in a similar manner for years – but these features (content delivered via packaged materials, automated assessments) become desirable if not necessary if institutions of higher education seek to increase class size.

As these highly designed courses become available to higher education, with potentially limitless capacity for student enrollment, it’s not unreasonable to have the discussion about how many “Introduction to Whatever” courses need to be designed. After all, most instructors select from among a relatively small pool of textbooks when designing their courses. Why not simply apply the same concept at the whole course level, with either students or universities choosing from among a pool of designed and approved MOOCs? Yet this approach neglects a key element of higher education: human interaction.

Online students, regardless of course size, may feel isolated and unsupported in their learning process without human interaction. The larger the class, the less feasible it is for individual students to interact with the instructor. Peer interaction may meet some of the learning interaction needs – but learners don’t always trust their peers, peers may not be able to diagnose their fellow learners’ problems as ably as an instructor, and peer networks often need instructor support and encouragement in order to develop.

Although it is costly to support and not easily scaled, the importance of the instructor-student connection should not be minimized. Learning is not just about content delivery, and assessment is not just about test scores. Many students struggle in large courses because they lack motivation, metacognitive skills, note-taking skills, or time management skills. Often these students need to feel that an instructor is their partner in the learning process, available to help as needed and monitoring their achievements in the course. True, most of us have achieved learning outcomes in courses where we had little or no instructor contact. However, if you ask someone to recall their best course experiences or the classes in which they learned the most, odds are there was a highly engaged instructor at the helm.

As someone who holds four degrees from three traditional universities, I have experienced some of the best and worst of classroom-based instruction. And as a researcher of online learning for the last fifteen years, I have observed some of the best and worst in that realm. Regardless of modality, the best classes consistently have involved solid pedagogy and instructional design, expert instructors, and a high degree of interaction and engagement among the members of the class community. The worst have suffered due to a lack of one or more of these elements.

Based on these experiences, I can understand how well-designed MOOCs look like an attractive solution to some of higher education’s problems. Frankly, I cannot argue that an impersonal course held in a large lecture hall with a “live” professor and multiple choice tests is any better than a MOOC. In fact, the MOOC’s recorded lectures, if well done, may be of greater pedagogical value than the live lecture since students can start, stop, and replay them at will. However, given the choice between the MOOC and a well-designed campus-based or online course with an accessible and knowledgeable professor who interacts with students, I’d pick the latter every time. I doubt I’m unique in that regard.

In short, I believe that MOOCs could have a transformative effect on quality higher education, but not in the same ways that many of the MOOC evangelists claim. It is my hope that we will use MOOCs to help us reflect on what quality higher education should be, to develop a greater appreciation for the interaction that occurs between students and instructors, and to strive for excellence in pedagogy and instructional design. Although this will not solve their financial woes, if higher education institutions can increase the quality of instruction where needed and better articulate and demonstrate this quality to their constituents, they will be taking a step in the right direction.

Note: The types of MOOCs to which I refer in this post are xMOOCs, and reflect the typical MOOC offered via the major platforms. cMOOCs, which support connectivist learning, are a bit different. For an explanation of the difference, I recommend this chapter by George Siemens.

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