Week 6: Quality of MOOCs: Keeping our promises!

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Claudia Bremer is head of studiumdigitale, the e-learning center at the University of Frankfurt. She counsels and qualifies teachers and trainers at universities, educational institutions and companies concerning the application of new media in teaching and learning processes and the development of e-learning and blended learning concepts and strategies.. 2011 she was co-facilitator of the first German MOOC on “The Future of Learning”, 2012 she ran her second one. At present she publishes about MOOCs and carries out research on MOOCs, learner activities and e-learning, collaborative and cooperative creation of knowledge, media competencies and organizational development.

Further information: www.studiumdigitale.uni-frankfurt.de and www.bremer.cx

Some personal words to begin with
When I was asked to participate in this series of blog posts, I said yes immediately, because I considered the idea so creative as a way to bring together people on one subject. Finally, when I sat down to write my contribution, I realized how challenging this task was because of the great contributions that have been posted up to now (thanks to all the other authors for their great ideas! ) At the end it seemed to me as the only way I could deal with the task was to share my very personal perspective on quality in MOOCs. And thanks to the facilitators: this is exactly what they wanted us to do!

Introduction and reference to former contributors
In contrast to the English literature, the phenomenon of MOOCs is still quite new in the German press and universities’ landscape. So most contributions are either found in blog posts or in newspapers. What I often find in these articles, is a very emotional debate about xMOOCs and cMOOCs . Many supporters of cMOOCs criticize xMOOCs, while the xMOOC makers and especially journalists seem not to be aware of the cMOOC community, and xMOOCs facilitators seem to be less involved in the discussion of MOOCs at all. So I am grateful to Grainne Conole that she is breaking up the xMOOC – cMOOC categorization and shows us a more differentiated picture of the MOOC landscape. (Nevertheless, I will still refer to those two categories in this article since they are helpful to use as reference points. Still, there is so much in between those two ends of a scale, which needs to be differentiated and made explicit).

A word on the variety of MOOCs
As one could guess by now, I do support the diversity and variety of course design, also for MOOCs. I do not think that we can define a certain type of MOOC as a MOOC of high quality versus another MOOC as of low quality just based on their underlying theoretical concept .We find many different learners, learners needs, motivation, styles, etc. One quality issue that matters is the transparency and consistency of course design , which does not exclude an evolution and adaption of the design during the course by learners and facilitators. But this should be communicated again in order to include those learners who have not kept track of all the changes and contributions made.

It’s a question of course design
I do agree with Grainne Conole’s approach to develop and categorize MOOCs by a certain set of design criteria – I think this is the only way we can raise and ensure quality in MOOCs. In this case, the criteria are not only used to describe a MOOC but rather used to design it. In addition to Grainne’s set of criteria and dimensions (use of media, certification, autonomy) I want to add the following:
• Target group
• Teaching and learning methods, social settings (the aspect of social setting corresponds with her criteria of “Degree of collaboration” and goes in reference to the methods applied)
• Tutoring, role of tutors
• Learning outcomes, outcomes intended
• Underlying learning theory or concept
• Course structure, duration, potential workload
• …
Let me give you some examples on how to apply a few of those criteria for course design.

Target group When we design a course, we always think of a specific target group we want to address and reach. This is the group we design the course for. Maybe we even know the group, we design the course for, otherwise we make assumptions concerning the precognition, time resources, motivation, learning styles, etc. It is like an author who thinks of his or her potential readers when writing. And also when we say that our course is open to everybody, we have – more or less consciously (hopefully more consciously!) – a certain group in our mind we design the course for. So we better share those design decisions and assumptions. This does not mean that the course is open for other participants than the ones we expected. But in this case we are aware of the differences and we deal with them. (This happened to me when I facilitated my first MOOC, a cMOOC, and had to realize that the participants who actively contributed blog posts were quite different from those I had expected – although the others participated, but less actively and openly. Being aware that I had expected different participants and text styles, I communicated this derivation to my co-facilitators and, more importantly, to myself! And only by this awareness, I was able to adapt the way I was tutorimg the course.)

Learning time
Another important issue is study time. Even if we facilitate a cMOOC, it is helpful for the learners to know how much time he or she needs to invest at a minimum in order to keep track. This time investments can vary, but it gives the learner some information on how to participate and what to expect. For example, in the case of our second (c)MOOC, we offered three different levels of study engagement to the learner, which they could invest in order to receive a certificate. And at any time they could change that level and document this in their personal badge page.

Level and intensity of tutoring, role of tutors
I think it is important to plan our tutoring concept for our MOOC as part of the teaching and learning methods and that we make transparent to our learners how much tutoring they can expect. Especially in massive courses this can be an important aspect (for example, in one well know German talk on MOOCs, Schulmeister criticized xMOOCs for not tutoring the learners well enough. I am not saying course facilitators really have to answer every question of their learners. All I am saying is that course facilitators should communicate to their potential participants how much tutoring they can expect and how they see their own role as course facilitators and as tutors (these roles can change during the course and also this can be made explicit). While much has been written about drop out rates especially in xMOOCs and some suggest that many participants just register in order to have access to the material and never planned to complete the course, we still have a certain responsibility for those who want to complete the course, those who bring all the necessary prerequisites, and who invest the necessary time and try to complete all tasks properly. On the other hand, in cMOOCs which often tend to become widely spread in terms of number of tools, online places and inputs from participants, it can be an important role for course facilitators to provide one major visible track for those learners who cannot invest too much time and therefore tend to lose the overview but still want to keep track.

Additionally, a MOOC’s quality can be ensured by having well trained facilitators in the area of tutoring and instructional and course design issues who know how to design and online courses and also tutors who have experience of and are conscious about the specifics of online learning.

Learning outcomes
Even if in a connectivist approach, we do not want to specify the learning outcomes for the learners, we as course facilitators still have a goal in our mind about why we offer this specific course and this goal should be made explicit. In more formal approaches (Grainne Conole suggests to apply the level of formal learning as one of the design criteria – an idea which I support), we could communicate the level of outcome the participant can achieve if he or she follows a certain learning path, completes all tasks and comes in with a certain previous knowledge. This does not mean each MOOC must have predefined learning outcomes by the facilitators. This could also mean, that we want the participants to define their learning goals by themselves and we encourage them to do so. These learning outcomes can be adapted during the course for example if learners change their level of involvement (in the cMOOC OPCO12 learners could adapt the level of their actual and intended activity in their badge page at any time).

Communicate your course design
The above aspects have just been examples to demonstrate the meaning of design issues for MOOCs. Finally, it is essentially important to communicate our MOOC design to our potential learners so they know what to expect. This is what I mean with “Keep our promises”. As Oliver Tacke, an active German blogger and participant in many MOOCs stated in one of his posts where he described his participation in the MOOC “A Beginner’s Guide to Irrational Behavior” by Dan Ariely:

“Before course start there was much more information concerning the course than was provided in my first visit of to an xMOOC. (Es gibt bereits vorab deutlich mehr Informationen zum Kurs als bei meinem ersten xMOOC-Besuch)”

Although heavily discussed in terms of statistical methods Hattie’s study (Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement) underlines that clarity is one important factor for success in learning.

Final remark on the O of MOOCs
In order to keep the label MOOC, especially the second O (the openness) a course needs to be based on some levels and types of openness. It is either openness in the sense of open educational resources (using openly available material and making material which is produced during the course available to the public again) or allowing everybody to participate is the course when they meet some basic prerequisites in terms of self organization, media competencies, the required level of previous knowledge and the necessary technical equipment or access to follow the course. Otherwise the MOOC loses its MOOC license and becomes a MOC ;-)

5 thoughts on “Week 6: Quality of MOOCs: Keeping our promises!

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  4. Thank you very much for your open and honest talk on the Quality of MOOCs. I especially appreciate your opinion on “our” responsibility as teachers/tutors/facilitators in MOOCs for tending to those individuals interested in the course but who are inhibited in some way, “our” responsibility to coax them to participate. And by “coaxing” I mean trying perhaps to get people to help each other or to help themselves. Although very hard to achieve, especially in a MOOC, the empathy needed for this is probably inherent in many teachers. I for one would claim that were I to offer a MOOC, I would be deeply interested in seeing the participants enjoy the experience and take something with them.

    This point is made clear in your point on “Learning outcomes”. I apprediate your idea to leave the course open and invite the participants to diverge from the suggested learning pathway and explore whatelse they can find.

    Thank you again for your input!

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