What’s going on in MOOC world?

This is the original article (unedited) on MOOC that was published in Focus Malaysia on June 08, 2013. It was written under the name of Plantcloner, the moniker used by Dr. YN Chow who had a column with Focus Malaysia for a stint. The published article’s title was, “What is going on in the revolutionary MOOC world”.

A new learning phenomenon was born in early 2012. It is called Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). MOOC has revolutionized the learning world with class enrolments in the range of thousands with some going to over 160,000. The era of democratization of learning was created, so was the idea of separating learning from credentialization & certification.

Almost all the big names in Western academia have joined the MOOC movement. This has been followed by notable universities from Asia. In the USA alone, there are three prominent players in the MOOC world. The most popular in the number of learners signing up is Coursera which has over 3.7 million learners, 377 courses 80 partner universities. Udacity which provides a smaller number of courses, but with a much more “standard” format of quality learning content is perhaps best known as the pioneer of the MOOC world. The most elite club of all is perhaps EdX which was formed by MIT and Harvard but joined later by the likes of Stanford, UC Berkeley, & University of Texas System. EdX also has the elite members from Asia such as Peking University, Kyoto University, Hong Kong University of Science & Technology, and Seoul National University to name a few. However, Yale has decided to join Coursera in addition to National University of Singapore and a host of European and South American universities, making Coursera perhaps the most comprehensive in terms of member institutions, with the capability of 5 languages. Not to be outdone, 21 “redbrick” British universities, led by Open University (UK) formed Futurelearn in early 2013. However, to-date, there has been no offering from Futurelearn as yet.

Despite the revolutionary nature of MOOC, not everyone in the academic world supports it. Some academicians feel that MOOC does not provide sufficient learning experience such as student-to-student and faculty-to-students interactions. Others question the wisdom of spending scarce resources on a project that does not have a clear returns on investment. There are also questions raised on the lack of proctored examination for the various certification to safeguard academic standards and integrity. Some question the relatively low completion rate of learners of MOOC. Data from Coursera indicated that out of 100% of learners who sign up, about 70% will “turn up” for the start of the MOOC. Only about 30% would attempt the first assignment and 7 to 9% will stay and complete the course successfully. If we put this in the proper context, MOOC allows an institution to reach at least 1,000 times its classroom capacity in terms of learners. For a typical MOOC of 30,000 learners, 9% completion rate translates into a staggering 2,700 learners!

This author thinks that the detractors of MOOC have missed a very important point. That is, learning can now be easily segregated from certification & credentialization, an idea that was promoted by Salman Khan of Khan Academy (KA) fame (KA is one of the pioneered of MOOC but focus mainly on learning at primary & secondary levels). Thus democratization and massification of learning by MOOC has to be separated from credentialization and academic certification. Those who want to take up certification of their learning & knowledge attained via MOOC should have access to and be willing to pay for such certification. In fact this is precisely what both Coursera and Udacity have provided independently.

In Coursera’s case, it provides what it termed “Signature Track” where for a fees of US$49.00, a learner can have his/her identity digitally verified (using the latest webcam and other online imaging technology). Thus a “Signature Tracked” learner will have his/her identity authenticated thereby his/her certification by Coursera’s partner institution verified. How acceptable “Signature Track” is to the academic and industry worlds remains to be seen at this early days.

Udacity has gone perhaps in a more traditional direction. It has teamed up with San Jose State University (SJSU) to offer “College Credit” for US$150.00 per course. Thus anyone signing up for one of Udacity’s MOOC with “College Credit” will essentially, if he/she passes the online proctored examination, be given relevant college credit for that course. This opens up possibilities for any learners who may need the “College Credit” such as university students who may not have such a course offered at their college to take Udacity’s MOOC and earn the relevant credit. At US$150.00 for a course, it is a reasonably affordable fee. In fact the author’s son is taking Udacity’s “Elementary Statistics” to earn “College Credits” that he hopes to transfer to his degree program later. Of course, the key question is, how acceptable is SJSU’s credit by the university that finally award the author’s son a degree. As SJSU belongs to the California State University System and accredited by Western Association of Schools and Colleges this may not be a great issue. Initial feedback from this author’s 17-year-old son indicates that Udacity’s format of interesting and aesthetically pleasing video is gaining the confidence of this young learner.

Not every institution is geared to offer MOOC. If one has not planned the whole project well, the negative impact to the institution’s reputation is immense. This was  exactly what happened to Georgia Institute of Technology in February 2013. The course lecturer did not understand the scale of MOOC and used a free Google Spreadsheet to handle learners’ groupings. Google Spreadsheet has a capacity of 50 simultaneous “sign-ins”. With tens of thousands learners being told to confirm their grouping at the start of this MOOC the system just collapsed. The author was one of the learners and after struggling for 3 days to get on the course grouping, and before Coursera’s shutting the course down, he un-enrolled himself, fully disgusted with Geogia Tech for wasting his time and expectation on “Fundamentals of Online Learning: Planning and Application”. Needless to say, he will not touch any MOOCs from Georgia Tech with a barge pole.

Closer to home, Taylor’s University seems to be the first in Malaysia to jump on the MOOC bandwagon. The author has signed up and evaluated Taylor’s offering, “Entrepreneurship”. This maiden MOOC of Taylor’s attracted about 900 learners. However, the heavy reliance on recordings of “live” lectures has dampened the impact of this MOOC. It is very difficult to follow a lecture when you cannot see the slide presentation and having to follow the professor’s every movement in front of the cameras. Nevertheless it is a good start for Malaysia.

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