Monday, March 4, 2013

View of a MOOC

photo of Andrew Walker
Andrew Walker
At first, MOOCs, or massive online open courses, sounded like higher education's latest double-edged sword: A way for anybody to learn university-level skills for free. (One New York Times headline from a year ago: Instruction for Masses Knocks Down Campus Walls.)

But the concept isn't very scary for universities--or even all that new, according to Instructional Technology and Learning Sciences Associate Professor Andrew Walker. In February, he began teaching Utah State University's first MOOC. It is two things: an open, online class and a future research project.

Here's what Walker had to say in an online interview:

Q: Ultimately, do you see MOOCs as a help or a threat to higher education? Will the student of the future be self-taught AND well-educated--for free?

This is a great question to ask, and it's tough to answer quickly. At one level, we've been thinking along these lines for a long time. Back in 1995 before I started graduate school I worked for Washington State University developing distance classes. At the time we served rural populations. I'm going to date myself here, but we sent lectures out to students as VHS tapes because we were worried that they wouldn't be able to access videos over the Internet. By the time I left we were starting to offer online classes.

There was no small amount of panic about how offering distance classes might turn "brick and mortar" universities on their heads. If you could drop the overhead of buildings, faculty, and staff, and replace them with servers, why wouldn't you? I think we found out pretty quickly that we weren't in competition for the same students. Those who choose to not come to campus do so for a reason. They tend to be older and more of them work full time. They are more likely to have families. It wasn't about stealing enrollments from campus based classrooms, it was about broadening your audience to include learners who never would have come to campus in the first place.

All of those were fee based, and the open part of MOOCs is obviously different, but also not new. OpenCourseWare initiatives like the one at MIT have been around for more than a decade. Adding a massive number of students may be a somewhat new wrinkle, but it's on a decidedly established idea. In short, students of the past could already have been well educated for free. Free is a powerful price point, but it doesn't open certain doors. For better or worse, signing up for and even completing a MOOC doesn't earn you a degree. Depending on the class it may not position you for a recommendation letter, or build your social or professional network. As much as I'm trying to build student-student interactions in my class I can't replicate the experience of intramural sports, seeing a 1940s themed production of Henry V, or becoming a true Aggie on a full moon.

I think there will always be a place for the traditional university model, and I think there are ways for a MOOC to be a powerful means of supporting it. My class content changes every couple of years when a new version of the software comes out. I always tell my students that the materials are free and that students can come back to see what's new whenever they want. That's a service to alumni that costs me nothing more to offer than what I'm already doing for tuition paying students. It's also a potential feeder for enrollments. There are limitations to the work, but BYU tracked matriculated students before and after offering online classes for free. The number of matriculated students went up--among the population that already would not have come to campus anyway.

Q: Tell me more about the research aspect of this project. What will USU gain from it? How will it help you refine your methods as a teacher?

One of the great disservices we've done when we look at scaling teaching and learning is glossing over the existing expertise of students. In my class, for example, some students come in with a background in digital art. They know about layers, and vector vs. rastor images, color selection, and a ton of stuff I'm shaky on myself. Others have maybe gotten into web development and know about cascading style sheets. … All of them have been consumers of multi-media resources in the past--so before developing, they can think about their own experiences and expectations of what they should be able to get flash to do.  

At the heart of my proposed research is figuring out how I can get students to leverage each other's shared expertise. It's an extreme example that helps fill in the gap of me not being able to grade 500 assignments each week, and it's an open question for me--to what degree can students act as a resource for each other? Can they provide meaningful evaluation of each other's work? What am I doing in my on campus classes that is getting in the way of their learning experience?  What am I doing that is promoting it?  Although I haven't started data collection in evaluating the MOOC I'm already starting to see some patterns along these lines.  …If I can figure out how to motivate and keep the interest of students who paid nothing to attend class, that should have immediate implications for students paying thousands of dollars in tuition.

Q: What skill will people who take your course gain? What will they be able to do that they didn't know before?

The class has two different faces. It starts out with art and animation tools built into Adobe Flash. This is the true origin of the software and gives them a good sense for how to represent information visually, especially material that is best expressed in motion. For example, they are responsible for creating an animation that shows the face of the moon going through lunar phases while simultaneously showing a top down view of the moon orbiting the Earth. This stuff is really difficult to get across with a static image in a textbook.

From there the class changes into what I lovingly call a "gateway drug" for programming. We spend the last two thirds of the class using ActionScript. Students have to figure out how to create and program buttons, control timelines using actionscript, set up variables, update them, show data to users, create custom functions, use control structures, and detect drop targets among many other things.

Given that the class is meant for non-programmers it's incredibly empowering for learners to have those kinds of successes. Based on early open version of the class I've had students react in pretty profound ways.

Q: Do you know of other MOOCs offered in Utah?

One that springs to mind fastest is Introduction to Openness in Education, a MOOC on the broader topic of open education offered by David Wiley at BYU. Historically USU has been a leader in Open Course Ware, and David Wiley and Brett Shelton right here at USU are some of the true pioneers of those efforts. We also have some terrific alumni, such as Heather Leary and Seth Gurell, who are contributing to the scholarship in this area.

You can read more about USU's first MOOC in a press release and in The Herald Journal.

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