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MOOCs Transform Pedagogy

When Sebastion Thune speaks, we all should take heed. Thune is the founder of Udacity, a company in the forefront of developing MOOCs (massive open online courses).  Mr. Thune was the keynote speaker at the recent Sloan International Conference on Online Learning, held October 10-12. The link to his presentation is below.

http://events.mediasite.com/Mediasite/Play/82b693c44d94441ba4b9c08c75df31351d

The Stanford professor, who recently taught an online class with over 160,000 students enrolled, gave an inspiring and forward-looking view of the potential for online in higher education. He started his talk with some background of his company and the history of MOOCs.  His company’s focus is to solve the issue of scale in higher education, and with scale, to have a great impact in developing new methods and pedagogy in addressing teaching and learning.  His speech is well worth listening to.  Below I have summarized some highlights of his vision.

Student Empowerment

To have a high-quality course, offered online for a nominal cost, and be focused, laser-like, on student learning, is nothing short of revolutionary. Regardless of protestations to the contrary, traditional higher education is faculty oriented in terms of perks, schedules, teaching load, tenure, and many other factors. The idea that a massive online course, delivered to thousands of students worldwide, can be student focused, might strike some as a contradiction.  Yet, for those willing to throw out all the old assumptions, structures, and excuses, it is the starting point for a major paradigm shift in the education of adult learners.

Here are a few ways that a MOOC can be more learner-centered that a traditional course:

  • Accessibility—ability to reach students where they live and learn from home
  • Time flexibility—course delivered when students have time to learn, not when professor wishes to teach (typically Monday-Thursday from 10am-2pm)
  • Quality instruction—the “best” professors from elite institutions teach the course
  • Self-paced—untethered to a traditional 15-week semester, this course duration can be as long or short as needed for a student to master the material
  • Intimate learning environment—Thune reports that students often feel a greater intimacy with their professors than in F2F classes
  • Constant improvement—Ongoing improvement of course materials and assessments based on a large group of students
  • Data-mining –potential for discovering the most effective techniques, tools, and  approaches from the learning outcomes of thousands of students
  • PBL approach—many courses are structured with a problem-based learning dynamic, proven to be effective in teaching and learning
  • Simulations—use of highly evolved simulations to accelerate learning and substitute for many lab requirements
  • Student groups—students are placed into (or select their own) groups to work on problems, learn from each other and network
  • Low cost—Thune has lowered the cost-point in his classes to $1 per student/per class, making quality education affordable to the masses (given the difficult issue of student borrowing to finance their education, cost-saving solutions need to be developed)
  • Job placement—the potential for employers to work with course designers to create specialized training leading directly to employment
  • Learning is fun—the “gamification” of learning means that textbook learning is supplanted by more engaging, dynamic, real-life, structured learning experiences
  • Customized learning tracks—programmed branching allows each user to select the best path for their own learning based on algorithms from thousands of previous students (also know as adaptive learning)
  • Measurement of collaboration and social skills—a more advanced feature that can assess the extent of a student’s skills measured with the tools used for collaboration and presentations
  • Peer mentoring—the facility to have peers assist students with the material.

There are more advantages with MOOCs of the future, but the list above gives a clear picture that we are not talking about an incremental change in pedagogy, but truly transformative change. As Thune mentions, “we are re-inventing teaching in this online medium.” Although all these advantages have yet to coalesce in one learning platform, given the money and momentum in this educational sector, I believe change will happen rapidly. The impact of such “disruptive technologies” to the academy will be the subject of a future post.

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