Learning with the masses

Massive open online courses make their way to the U of A

We live in an age where people have more educational opportunities than ever before. There are infinite choices of what to learn, how to learn and when to learn.

The traditional route is seeking out a university or college education, sitting through lectures, reading textbooks and writing tests to earn a diploma. And the nontraditional route depends on students taking greater responsibility for their own education. In the last few years, the latter form of learning has picked up steam, particularly in the form of MOOCs—massive open online courses.

A MOOC, unlike a typical online course, is open to large-scale enrollment from around the world, whether the student is enrolled in the host institution or not. For example, someone in Brazil could sign up and participate in a MOOC facilitated by a professor at the University of Alberta. Of course, participation requires a reliable Internet connection and a student with high digital literacy, as the courses are taught online, using multiple digital platforms and resources.

The first MOOC was created by Stephen Downes and George Siemens and appeared in 2008. The course, “Connectivism and Connective Knowledge,” was offered for credit to 25 tuition-paying students at the University of Manitoba and was also open to the general public free of charge. Ultimately, it attracted 2300 participants.

“To me it's miraculous that we got 2300,” Downes says, a connectivism scholar and senior ­research officer at the National Research Council of Canada. “We were really niche. We got 2300 people for a course that you might get three people in if you offered it at a college.”

To accommodate so many people, Downes and Siemens created a “network course” that allowed students to participate on any number of platforms like Facebook, Blogger, WordPress, Second Life and any other open, online software. Then, to keep students connected, the posts they made were aggregated into a newsletter, allowing each student to find the posts they were interested in rather than having to wade through one forum with hundreds or thousands of posts.

Since that first course, MOOCs have taken off in a big way. In the last five years a number of private course providers—Udacity, Coursera and edX, to name the giants—and multiple universities have created their own courses with incredible results. Some courses have even attracted hundreds of thousands of students. (It's important to note that although huge numbers of people enrol, completion rates often hover between five and 10 percent.)

Here in Edmonton, the University of Alberta has jumped on board, announcing last October a research partnership with Udacity—a company founded by Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford professor and vice president of Google. The U of A's relationship with Udacity is about creating alternatives for students, says Mark Gierl, an educational psychology professor and the director of the Centre for Research in Applied Measurement and Evaluation.

“Students expect a lot more options than they used to and it's important that we attempt to provide those options,” Gierl says.

The university's partnership with Udacity will result in the development of various methods for delivering, measuring and assessing online courses and experiences. It will also result in the development of a few courses in the Faculty of Science that will be offered through Udacity, with at least one being offered for credit.

There are currently very few MOOCs that can be taken for a university credit, but there is a movement in that direction. Earlier this month, The American Council on Education recommended five courses that should be offered for credit. The courses—two from Duke University, two from the University of California and one from the University of Pennsylvania—are already offered through Coursera.

Gierl says figuring out how to offer free courses for credit is one of MOOCs unresolved issues. “But I can assure you administrators are spending many long hours and many heated discussions trying to figure that out,” he says.

Half of the problem is how to give a credit for a course that is generally free, and the other half is how to evaluate a student's knowledge when there isn't a way to know the true identity of the person being tested.

“Those are kind of important things that are administrative in nature, but important in the outcome and, most certainly, the evolution of these courses within a structured environment, like a university, and nobody really knows how to deal with this right now,” Gierl says.

If you ask Downes, authentication and credits aren't the important issues, nor are they the future of MOOCs. Rather, he sees a future where these courses will allow people to bypass the traditional system—a future where university credits and diplomas are no longer the only way to recognize learning.

“I think that approach has more long-term legs because if we can recognize somebody who doesn't have a degree as having the equivalent of a degree, we can bypass the whole system and people can just learn on their own, and if people can learn on their own that is incredibly empowering.”

The key to this approach is openness online, Downes says. So rather than having a degree, people will have an online portfolio demonstrating their knowledge and skills. “It's almost like your creative work becomes your degree instead of your degree being your degree,” he says.

In Gierl's view, a movement toward less credentials isn't one he sees swooping in anytime soon. “I think we still very much live in a credentialing world in North America, where degrees matter and increasingly having lots of degrees matters, so I don't think that shift will occur anytime soon towards less credentials.”

But Gierl does see a middle ground with MOOCs. “People hunger for learning and hunger for opportunities to better themselves and sometimes they want credits and sometimes they don't,” he says. For the people who don't, there is an opportunity for them to use their knowledge to demonstrate their qualifications for a job. “Sometimes credits show up in very strange ways.”

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