No room for sloppiness in online classroom

No patience for mess. ted_major

When your classroom is a global one, filled with well-informed online learners, they don’t cut you much slack. Hundreds of people pore over every element of your course, making well-informed and sometime acerbic comments. Academics who run Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are finding that they can’t afford any sloppy reasoning, one-sided arguments, or narrow perspectives when teaching to a massive global audience.

As academic lead at FutureLearn, a company offering free online courses from UK universities, I’ve seen that this instant feedback can be eye-opening for course designers.

On a university campus, students stick around even though the teaching may be dreadful, because they need the degree qualification. In MOOCs they leave as soon as they lose interest.

So far, much of the debate in the United States about MOOCs has focused on the dropout rate. Typically, just 7-10% of students enrolled on a course from a US MOOC provider reach the end. But that assumes completion should be the goal of online learning, and that students who drop out early are failures. Much of the early publicity around free online courses focused on them as alternatives to an expensive campus university education. It’s hardly surprising that the simplest measure of failure, student dropout, has been picked up by commentators hoping to burst the MOOC bubble.

It’s now time to move on. The university system, which has seen plenty of social and technological change since medieval times not least the introduction of mass printing, is not going to crumble in the face of free online courses underpinned by questionable business models. Instead, something more interesting is happening. In 2009, the US Department of Education published an important study. It reviewed over a thousand evaluations of online learning and found that, on average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction. And, on average, those students who had a blend of campus and online teaching performed even better.

This lies at the heart of the new debate about online learning and MOOCs: how can we match online learning with classroom teaching, to create more relevant, engaging and effective education?

One way to do that is by extending traditional teaching online. Many universities are now recording lectures and making them available to watch later. Instead of just attending a lecture, making a few notes, then putting these aside till exam time, students are engaging in online learning outside of class, by reviewing the lecture and joining with other students in online assignments.

The other approach is through MOOCs. Because these are free and available worldwide (MOOCs are currently even available in China, a country that has blocked social media sites such as YouTube and Facebook), it isn’t surprising that they have attracted a wide range of learners. Most are motivated by curiosity and a desire to learn, rather than the need to gain a qualification. Some register to find out more about MOOCs in general, some only want a taste of the topic being taught, some skim through the material to gain an overview of the subject, and some engage fully with the teaching and with fellow students.

MOOCs will almost certainly not replace university campuses within our lifetimes. But they are finding a much-needed niche, with universities using free courses as a way to attract students onto postgraduate courses or to prepare students for undergraduate degrees. They are discovering how online learning can blend with traditional teaching. It’s not surprising that companies and public sector organisations are now looking to get in on the act of merging online and classroom teaching. It’s the participation that matters, not the dropout.

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