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By Dr. Gary L. Deel, Ph.D., J.D.
Faculty Director, Wallace E. Boston School of Business

This is the final article in a four-part series about the rise of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) as competition for traditional college education.

In the previous article, we looked at opinions and views on MOOCs from faculty and administrators. In this final part, we’ll look at perspectives from students and summarize conclusions from our overall analysis of the subject.

Student Perceptions of MOOCs

If we really want to know where MOOCs stand in relation to established alternatives, we ought to take into account the opinions of the individuals for whom educational products and services are designed — students. Researchers have revealed some polychotomous opinions surrounding MOOCs among students. While some students seemed able to succeed and experience satisfaction in a MOOC environment, others appeared to be frustrated by the overwhelming amount of dialogue and “interaction” that occurred among what was sometimes tens of thousands of learners in a class.

In another study, when the authors investigated student perceptions of MOOCs as expressed through public online blogs, they found even more discord. Of 21 online blog posts qualitatively analyzed, the study found that five were positive, two were negative, 11 were a mix of both positive and negative, and only three were neutral.

Looking more deeply at the data, one of the themes of both criticism and praise from blog authors concerning their MOOC experiences included the perceived efficacy and relevance of assessment techniques. As specific examples, some students felt that poorly designed quizzes were a joke, while others found well-designed peer- and self-assessments to be very engaging.

Other themes of strong opinions included the provision or lack of course materials, and learner interaction and engagement. Some students found the self-directed learning format with all resources provided for them to be enjoyable; others found the amount of information and interactions between students to be frustratingly voluminous.

Technology comfortability was also a predictable point of divide in student perceptions. Those with extensive computer and online experience enjoyed the courses and longed for even more digital interactivity, while less tech-savvy learners struggled to navigate courseware effectively.

Finally, students’ opinions seemed to vary even in their motivations for enrolling in MOOCs in the first place, shedding some light on theories expressed by MOOC providers discussed earlier in this series. The research identified three general themes of MOOC enrollment motives:

1) The trendiness (i.e. the desire to try a MOOC because it was perceived as the new “cool” thing that everyone is getting into)

2) The desire to explore, learn and develop oneself

3) The outcome of earning a certificate or college credit for completion of certain MOOCs

Student Opinions of Colleges and Universities

As for student opinions of colleges and universities, however, opinions have been equally varied. Students have shared dichotomous perceptions on topics including classroom design, inter-institutional transfer issues, mentoring resources, responsibility and academic preparedness, and other areas. In each of these, student perceptions were as varied and discordant as in the MOOC research. With the above analysis in mind, this area too is one in which a clear victor is not evident.

Colleges and MOOCs Are Both Deserving of Merit in Some Categories

Having looked at several points of comparison between colleges and MOOCs — growth rates, retention rates, student markets served, and the subjective perceptions of faculty, administrators, and students — we see that each side is deserving of merit in some categories, and in others a clear winner is not nearly as obvious.

Good arguments are available for each alternative. But there are also many other factors to consider, many of which are dependent on student-by-student specific variables like goals, budgets and time availability.

For these reasons, deciding a clearly superior option is an impossible task. However, there are some trends worthy of note that may be suggestive of the future viability of these different offerings.

First, growth rates among MOOCs are extremely encouraging. Demand appears to be incredibly strong for these affordable, accessible online models. So notwithstanding efficacy, this is an offering that should be developed in order to make the most — fiscally and academically — of this public interest.

Second, retention is appalling. So one of the primary focuses of MOOC development should be finding ways to retain the tremendous interest described here.

Third, MOOCs have an obvious appeal to nontraditional returning students who already have a college education. This is inspiring news for continuing education.

But MOOCs should work to attract more undergraduate interest and subsequently ensure that the offerings provide a viable path for the success of these students. Undergraduates make up the vast majority of students in higher education, so this is a market segment that MOOCs cannot afford to ignore.

Fourth, the disenchanted perceptions of faculty and administrators may prove a significant obstacle to the proliferation of MOOCs. MOOC developers should focus on the concerns of teachers and academic leaders about these novel concepts in order to earn their buy-in; it will likely prove necessary to long-term success.

Fifth and finally, student perceptions of MOOCs are mixed. MOOC developers should keep what is working — the interactive, connectivist environments — but get rid of what isn’t working. That would include the overwhelming quantities of information stemming from massive enrollments and a lack of teacher accessibility.

There are still many other questions in this new field. How massive should “massive” online classes be permitted to get? How open should “open” be? How do educators assess the performance of so many students from so many different backgrounds and origins? How can schools prevent cheating or plagiarism in such learning environments? Should MOOCs be entirely free? Should college credit be offered? How should developers be compensated? And who owns the intellectual property?

These inquiries will be met with informed answers in time and through the development of best practices. However, notwithstanding the multitude of other variables, if developers in higher education focus on the needs identified above, it is quite possible that MOOCs may evolve into a very competitive alternative to traditional in-person education. If not, then perhaps they can at least become an effective supplement to traditional colleges and universities.