The Wild World of Massively Open Online Courses

Would you participate in a class with 2300 other online students?

By Emily Senger

In a traditional university setting, a student pays to register for a course. The student shows up. A professor hands out an outline, assigns readings, stands at the front and lectures. Students take notes and ask questions. Then there is a test or an essay.

But with advancing online tools innovative educators are examining new ways to break out of this one-to-many model of education, through a concept called massively open online courses. The idea is to use open-source learning tools to make courses transparent and open to all, harnessing the knowledge of anyone who is interested in a topic.

George Siemens, along with colleague Stephen Downes, tried out the open course concept in fall 2008 through the University of Manitoba in a course called Connectivism and Connective Knowledge, or CCK08 for short. The course would allow 25 students to register, pay and receive credit for the course. All of the course content, including discussion boards, course readings, podcasts and any other teaching materials, was open to anyone who had an internet connection and created a user profile.

“The course was the platform, but anyone could build on that platform however they wanted,” says Siemens. “There’s this notion that technology is networked and social. It does alter the power relationship between the educator and the learner, a learner has more autonomy, they have more control. The expectation that you wait on the teacher to create everything for you and to tell you what to do is false.”

Course facilitators, Siemens and Downes, gave learners control over how they learned. Each student was encouraged to create their online networks, using the forum that appealed to them: Moodle (an online learning software) personal blogging, RSS feeds, Second Life, Facebook, podcasts, YouTube videos – if something was missing from the course, the course facilitators encouraged students to create it.

The concept was enough to lure in D’Arcy Norman, an educational technology consultant at the University of Calgary, who described himself as a “lurker” in CCK08. He was one of the 2,300 students who signed up for a free account that would allow him to access class documents, receive emails from the facilitators and participate in online class discussions.

In his day job, Norman helps U of C staff with technology and online teaching methods and he is researching educational technology for a master’s degree, so the course fit with his interests and he signed up out of curiosity after reading a blog post about it. When the course got underway, Norman did some of the readings, but he didn’t write any of the three assigned papers, nor did he complete the final project.

“Because I was one of the lurkers, it was come and go,” says Norman. “When you have time, you do the readings and then when you don’t, or when it doesn’t sound interesting, you just don’t do it. It’s a very free-form kind of thing. When you say you participated in the course, it might not be in the traditional sense.”

Norman was one of the more passive participants, while others participated fully, doing all the reading and the assignments, without receiving recognized credit for their work. The instructors only marked papers and the final project from for-credit students, but others were free to post papers on the course website for other students to view and comment on.

Siemens estimates about 10 per cent of those 2,300 students were active participants. Even with only 10 per cent, traffic could get heavy on some of the online discussion threads.

“At the beginning, we had quite a number of students feeling quite overwhelmed because you would get 200 or 300 posts going into a discussion forum per day and that’s just about impossible to follow,” Siemens says.

As the course progressed, the initial flurry of posts became more manageable, says Lisa Lane, a history teacher at MiraCosta College in Southern California who was one of the 25 registered participants in the class. Lane says she didn’t have a problem finding her niche in the online course, by using a blog, Twitter and the online discussion forum. Other students did the same, using the hashtag #CCK08 on Twitter to discuss and post links to their blogs.

“I’m really good at drawing attention to myself as needed,” Lane says, laughing. “I’m not exactly a wallflower.” But, Lane sees how other participants in an online course might have a problem finding their way, especially if they weren’t already familiar with the technology.

“You have people in there who were really interested, but they were afraid to explore the technologies that were being used and they got lost,” Lane says. “There were people who just disappeared because they couldn’t figure out how to get in the Moodle or how to set up their own blog.” The other challenge with learning in such an open environment, she says, is that people might be afraid to put their ideas online to, potentially, 2,300 students.

Even if students in massively open online courses master the technology and overcome their virtual stage fright, a third problem remains: how to recognize the value of a learning experience that isn’t for credit. Even through Lane is an advocate of open courses, she had to officially register for the course through the University of Manitoba in order for her credits to be recognized by the college she works at.

“If you’re in a business and you’re a young professional and you want to take an open class, how do you get your superiors to respect that, and say ‘Wow, that’s really good professional development. We should put that in your personnel file,’” Lane questions. “If it’s open and everyone can drop in and drop out, it’s just not seen in the same way.”

It’s a question that proponents of online education continue to grapple with. Even if a student in an open course gains from their experience, there is no guarantee that the boss, or a potential employer, will recognize their learning without a certificate or other official, institution-approved record to prove it.

Wend Drexler, a professor and grant administrator at the University of Florida who also took Siemen’s class as a for-credit student, says that as more professors are posting their content online, figuring out how to recognize non-credit learning will continue to be an issue. For example, much of the course material at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is available through its MIT OpenCourseWare site, which was named one of the 50 Best Websites of 2010 by Time magazine.

“You could really piece together a good undergraduate education based on what’s available out there, but how do you prove to an employer that you have done that?” Drexler questions. “I don’t know, but it’s something that everyone is trying to work through.”

For this reason, Norman says that open classes appeal to people like him who are self-motivated and ready to learning for learning’s sake, not because they are going to receive recognition at the end.

“It comes down to the motivation,” Norman says. “Are you intrinsically motivated person who does things because you’re interested? Or do you do things because you want the gold star. If you’re motivated by the gold star, then this probably isn’t interesting to you.”

Click here to see Wendy Drexler’s final project for Connectivism and Connective Knowledge.

6 Responses to The Wild World of Massively Open Online Courses

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