Rebecca Griffiths leads Ithaka S+R’s online learning program. She is exploring how interactive learning programs can improve student outcomes and reduce costs within public institutions. Credit: Mary F. Calvert
Ask any observer to name one of the most important education stories of 2012, and a likely response will be massive open online courses.
MOOCs, if they haven't yet fully disrupted American higher education, certainly are giving academic leaders pause when it comes to mapping new — and viable — business models or determining the means by which students can earn degrees in the very near future.
The giants — Udacity, edX, Coursera — dominate the headlines and offer free instruction online, true to their MOOC moniker. They have found willing partners in companies such as VMware, which in October made copies of VMware Fusion and VMware Workstation 9 free to all students enrolled in an edX introduction to computer science course.
Many respected and reputable schools are rushing to take part in popular MOOC networks. Others are developing alternative online and distance learning models that could be considered hybrid MOOCs, but by definition aren't truly MOOCs, of course.
"Different people have different objectives for MOOCs, and what we find in informal learning generally is that people are successful through informal learning, insofar as it enables them to do what it is that they wanted to do," says Stephen Downes, a connectivism scholar and senior research officer at the National Research Council of Canada.
In 2008, Downes and fellow social network researcher George Siemens created and launched an open online course, "Connectivism and Connective Knowledge," for which 2,300 students enrolled. Dave Cormier, manager of Web Communication and Innovations at the University of Prince Edward Island, and Bryan Alexander, senior research fellow with the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education, coined the term "MOOC" in response to that course, Downes says.
Downes wrote an RSS aggregator that served as the initial platform. Since its release in the 1990s, it has undergone several iterations, the latest known as "gRSShopper."
When they started, Downes and Siemens' goal was simple: "We were interested in the model, and wanted to offer a course that followed the connectivist model."
What they offered was a course that was available across several dimensions. Not only was the course itself open to students webwide, its syllabus and curricula were posted on a wiki prior to its start, and students were invited to offer feedback on the course's ultimate direction. Course resources also were open, and Downes says more reading materials were made available than anyone possibly could have viewed or listened to. Even success was openly defined.
It is that ever-changing, or student-centric, definition that will inform MOOCs' development and that of all future online learning platforms, Downes says.
"People typically take informal learning, or use or interact with informal learning, if they have some specific objective in mind and completing that objective — as opposed to, say, completing the course — is what defines success," Downes says.
Despite the fact that a strong commercial element has grown up around the online education movement, he doesn't believe that a revenue stream will be the ultimate driver of online learning development.
"One overarching trend is toward openness," he says.
Rebecca Griffiths, program director of online learning at Ithaka S+R, is interested in how new online tools can save colleges money and "bend the cost curve" by restructuring the ways in which parts of instruction are provided, particularly quantitative courses that have a fairly common curriculum across institutions.
Ithaka S+R is embarking on a Gates Foundation–supported study within the University of Maryland system, "Informing Innovation in Higher Education: Evidence from Implementing the Latest Online Learning Technologies in a Public University System," to better understand professors' implementation challenges when using materials from a MOOC with traditional, enrolled students and also to gauge the learning outcomes from such hybrid instruction methods.
MOOCs were not originally designed for the purpose of providing high-quality, highly interactive online courses for common curricula across institutions, Griffiths says, "but some are moving in that direction, and they're attracting all the attention."
A tremendous amount of data and feedback is being gathered on student performance, and online learning tools generally are providing useful interfaces for the instructors who use them.
"This very well could be one of those winner-take-all games, where one or two dominant platforms emerge," Griffiths says. "We wouldn't want to see student data privatized in the way that Google and Facebook have ownership over such a massive amount of user data or individual behavior online."
Although the future of MOOCs is not yet clearly defined, Griffiths is confident they will have a role in most college learning infrastructures. "If I were in charge of an IT system on campus right now, and these MOOCs were on the horizon," she says, "I might hold off making a transition to a new learning management system, just to see how this is going to play out."
At least one San Francisco company is banking its business on a content-focused model.
Dennis Yang, COO of Udemy (founded in 2011), says his company offers more than 5,000 free classes, while others are available for a nominal fee. Udemy's distinction from other university-affiliated online systems is that it brings industry thought leaders' lessons to students.
"We have an open marketplace model, meaning any expert or passionate content owner can create a course on our platform," Yang says. "As a result, part of our core mission is really to find the world's experts and get them to teach the maxims."
From a technology standpoint, Udemy is working to improve its interface, to ensure the curation and merchandising of its massive amounts of content can be narrowed appropriately for online learners. That may mean creating individual, interactive learning pathways that offer a variety of course options to someone whose goal, for example, is to become a developer.
"We can say, 'Here's a set of front-end courses, here's a set of database courses,' making that as simple as possible," Yang says. "When you have a gazillion courses, people can get lost."