For MOOCs to Work, We Need to Talk

Online courses have proven they can attract thousands of students, but then almost all of them drop out before finishing the course. Well, guess what? Sitting at home alone and staring at a pre-recording lecture is just about the most boring thing ever, as Geoffrey Fowler writes in a Wall Street Journal article published on October 9, 2013. Learning scientists have known this for years: we have decades of research showing that engagement and social interaction result in more effective learning.* Fowler reports that MOOC developers are re-discovering the same thing:

“The most important thing that helps students succeed in an online course is
interpersonal interaction and support,” says Shanna Smith Jaggars, the assistant
director of Columbia University’s Community College Research Center. She has
compared online-only and face-to-face learning in studies of community-college
students and faculty in Virginia and Washington state. Among her findings: In
Virginia, 32% of students failed or withdrew from for-credit online courses,
compared with 19% for equivalent in-person courses.

Learning scientists have also known for decades that getting students to talk to each other, while they are learning, results in better learning.* MOOC developers are re-discovering this solid finding, as well:

One way to provide personal interaction at mass scale is to get students talking to each other. Several studies suggest that many students who spend more time contributing to course discussion forums end up performing better. More than answering specific questions, the boards send a message, says Mr. Ng [a co-founder of Coursera]: “You are not alone.”

A study of the online-only version of edX’s course Circuits and Electronics offered in the spring and summer of 2012 found a mild correlation between the number of posts people made in the discussion forum and their final grades. Some 52% of the students who earned a certificate for the course were active in discussion forums, according to the study by the Teaching and Learning Laboratory at MIT and Andrew Ho, an associate professor at Harvard.

I’ve been arguing that educational technology developers need to work more closely with learning scientists, so they don’t keep reinventing the wheel. (And even worse, reinventing the wheel after they spend millions of dollars first trying ineffective shapes like squares and triangles.) In the new master’s degree program I’m creating at the University of North Carolina–in educational innovation, technology, and entrepreneurship–we’re going to make sure students get a solid grounding in the learning sciences. That way, ed tech innovations will be much more likely to result in solid learning outcomes.

*Sawyer, R. K. (2006). The Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences. Cambridge University Press.

The Future of College

I just watched this fascinating 30-minute interview from June 2012, discussing potentially dramatic innovations in higher education. The on-stage interview was part of the Wall Street Journal’s “D: All Things Digital” series, and the host was the Journal’s legendary technology columnist, Walt Mossberg. The two guests were knowledgeable, brilliant, and well-spoken:

  • Salman Khan, creator of the Khan Academy web site (with its instructional videos)
  • John Hennessey, President of Stanford University

There’s a lot of serious change on the horizon. MIT and Harvard have teamed up to offer many of their courses online, for free, through EdX. Stanford has its own consortium of universities, also offering free courses online, called Coursera. These initiatives are called “Massively Open Online Courses” or MOOC for short. My employer, Washington University, just announced a partnership with ten top universities to offer online courses–but not for free, and only for students who meet admissions criteria.

Khan and Hennessey describe several potential futures. For example, maybe some students could get a college degree without ever setting foot on a campus. Maybe others would do a hybrid degree, with some courses on campus and others over the Internet. Khan proposed the most radical change: maybe employers will stop treating elite college degrees as a certification of your ability to do a job. Instead, your abilities would be certified by an entity that is unattached to any college, and anyone can take any test to demonstrate mastery of a specific ability or topic. It doesn’t matter how you learn it–on a campus, at home, in an informal study group with a few friends. If you  pass, you would get a certificate that today’s digerati refer to as a “badge” (by analogy with boy scout merit badges). Khan talks about “separating out the teaching part of college from the certification part.”

Also see my post “Will the Internet Transform College?” from May 31, 2012.

What do you think the future will be?