Can MOOCs Become Part of Best Practices in Online Learning?

By: Yoram Neumann

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have captured the headlines in higher education in the past year. These new platforms were developed to enable both open access and large scale participation in online courses. Many top tier universities are joining the MOOCs bandwagon, afraid of missing an important piece of the Web-based phenomenon. It is our goal as educators to assess whether or not they can become a best practice in online learning.

A MOOC course is typically structured as a pre-recorded lecture divided into segments. A weekly assignment is designed to assess a student’s ability to solve a well defined problem with a precise solution. The problem with this format is that no student support services are assigned to the course and the student gets very little, if any, feedback on their assignment. No faculty-student interactions are part of this scenario, which is crucial for the success of online education. In one instance, an MIT MOOC course included 155,000 registrations but only 7,157 successfully completed the course.

The grading system has also presented a problem in assessing student’s true capabilities. Coursera, one of the developers of MOOCs platforms, is using a peer grading system to deal with the size of the programs and encountered numerous cases of alleged plagiarism. Right now, the business models for the various initiatives are somewhat obscure; it is difficult to show how participating institutions can financially benefit from these collaborations. Of course, learning institutions must have successful business models.

Current courses do not carry academic credit although several initiatives (e.g., the Gates Foundation Grant to American Council on Education) will examine this option. Present courses are offered individually and are not part of any curricula let alone derived from any systematic program learning outcomes. In order for MOOC courses to become successful, they will have to meet the student’s needs, which are academic credit and advancement in their field of study.

To be fair, these observations, while critical albeit true, can be found in the first generation of testing new innovations by the market. Next developments will tell whether this becomes an invaluable and transformative contribution to quality online learning or another “dot com” fad.

Best Practices in Online Learning

Online education has been practiced for almost two decades. Like any new paradigm, the start was as murky and many of elite institutions that were first to jump on the bandwagon failed miserably. Slowly but surely, institutions that employed a more strategic approach and persistently invested in the development and continuous improvement of their practice, succeeded in meaningfully shaping the new virtual education landscape.

Various studies reviewed the “Best Practices in Online Learning,” and there has been a high level of consensus as to what these best practices represent. The most important best practices’ facets include:

  • Systematic development and assessment of the degree program curricula based on program learning goals (competency based education, if applied correctly, can be part of it);
  • Effective student orientation into the online degree program;
  • The selection of an appropriate online pedagogy and learning model;
  • The provision of a variety of learning activities to attain student learning outcomes for each course (e.g., interactive learning via threaded discussions, problem based learning, and project based learning);
  • A high level of student engagement and faculty participation, which also includes a focus on the quality and immediacy of the faculty feedback on various assignment;
  • A proactive program of assessment of learning outcomes (at the course, program, and institution levels);
  • User friendly learning management systems that fully support the learning model and assessment, proactive and supportive student administrative services;
  • Proactive and supportive online student advising and retention services.

The aforementioned facets are part of an emerging consensus regarding the best practices in online learning leading to high student retention, success, and sustainable learning.

MOOCs and Best Practices

There is still a long way to go for the current MOOCs to adopt the best practices and provide a quality of online learning experience resulting in maximized retention and lifelong sustainable learning in a coherent degree program. However, MOOCs can play an effective role of supplementary learning or continuing education without entering into degree granting arena. If this path is selected, MOOCs will have a valuable role to play but it will not become part of the core activities of institutions of higher learning.

MOOCs can adopt the best practice domains of online learning and become formidable players in this growing market but to achieve that, the companies will need to develop much more concise business plans to attract the amount of investment needed for this task.

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