Will MOOCs beat Campus?

Nieuws | de redactie
18 juni 2013 | A year after their introduction, MOOCs might already be a serious alternative to campus-education, especially for students that can’t afford university. Above all, MOOCs present an opportunity for educational research and use elements in blended learning, research shows. “MOOCs have changed the nature of higher education.”

David George Glance, Martin Forsey, Myles Riley from the University of Western Australia conducted research to check whether MOOCs are yet as pedagogically sound as ‘conventional’ education. However, there are still a number of practical issues that need to be resolved before this happens.

MOOCs are, next to ‘massive’ also free and ‘open’. “Given that these courses are being offered by some of the most prestigious of universities, the potential disruptive nature of MOOCs was recognized early on. After all, if a student could take a course from Princeton University for free, why would they pay for an identical course given by their local (less famous) institution? Given the growth in availability of MOOCs, the question could be extended to why someone wouldn’t do an entire degree program in this way.

Are MOOCs pedagogically sound?

However, a more fundamental question has been raised on both sides of the argument. Namely, do MOOCs represent a pedagogically sound format for learning at a university level? Claims for and against the pedagogical foundations of MOOCs have been made by a variety of interested parties, but these claims have been backed with only a scant amount of evidence.

It looks like the pedagogical foundations that MOOCs claim follows on from their attributes and in part are justifications for those attributes. It has been argued that online learning is particularly effective because formative quizzes enhance learning through the mechanism of retrieval practice. Besides short video formats with quizzes allow students to achieve mastery of a concept before moving on to the next. MOOC-developers claim that short videos complement the optimal attention span of students and that discussion forums provide an adequate replacement of direct teacher–student interactions.

Quality with limited resources

“The principle feature of MOOCs is they largely take place online. The prevailing argument is that online courses are at least as effective as face–to–face courses. In many ways the comparison is fraught. Online learning offers flexibility of access to course materials from anywhere at any time which is not possible in a solely face–to–face environment. Face–to–face courses also become largely impractical when class sizes exceed available physical room capacities, but often aspects of online education are integrated in campus courses.”

Several studies found that online learning pedagogy may even be superior in the overall effect on student performance. Online learning is not without its disadvantages, however. “Some researchers argue that interaction and timely feedback, are quite often absent in online instruction. It has also been widely recognized that online courses experience much higher attrition rates than classroom based courses. Students must also display greater learner initiative as there is less supervision than in a classroom environment and there is also the potential for online students to experience social isolation.”

The study shows that “the majority of literature does support the notion that online learning is as effective, if not more so, than traditional classroom teachings. With class sizes increasing as universities try to rationalize the number of courses offered, online delivery is the only way of maintaining learning outcome quality with the available resources of space and teaching staff.”

First monday moocs pedagogical benefits table

Table 1 shows the pedagogical benefits of the most important MOOC characteristic (Glance, Forsey, Riley, 2013)

Delay MOOC-quizzes

A common format for MOOCs is the short video mixed with multiple–choice quizzes. These quizzes provide students with an opportunity for retrieval learning. This recalling of information from short-term memory would enhance learning.

Research by Karpicke and Roedieger demonstrates the fundamental role of retrieval practice in learning and shows that university students are largely unaware of this. Repeated studying after learning produces no significant effect on ability for recall, but repeated testing on the other hand, results in a large positive effect. However, it is also shown that tests given immediately after studying, as they are in many MOOCs at the end of videos, are nowhere near as effective as when tests are taken later.  

No lesser choice

“MOOCs are in essence a restatement of online learning environments that have been in use for some time. What is new is the numbers of participants, and the fact that the format concentrates on short form videos, self–assessment, forums and ultimately open content from a representation of the world’s leading higher educational institutions”. MOOCs have a sound pedagogical basis for their formats, but it remains unclear whether a collection of MOOCs could replace campus-education in all of its facets of personal development and education.

“To many people taking MOOCs, this point is moot. They simply do not have the opportunity to attend a university in person. Either this is because of a lack of access to necessary prerequisite qualifications, geographical access, or financial means.” For students that do have an option, MOOCs are not necessarily a lesser choice. What MOOCs present, however, is an opportunity to conduct educational research and examine the potential for use of its elements in on campus settings as a form of flipped classroom or blended learning approach. Whatever the outcomes, the nature of higher education will have changed as a result of this phenomenon.

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