The MOOCs Completion Conundrum

Developing tools that empower professors and scale the best of teaching.

GUEST COLUMN | by Dror Ben-Naim

CREDIT SmartSparrow timelineOne of the great ironies of online learning is that a tool created to foster personalized learning is actually quite impersonal, in practice. It doesn’t have to be that way.

MOOCs (Massive Open Online Course) are based on a simple premise: deliver free content from the world’s greatest professors to the masses, and a global community of students could take the same courses as students attending elite colleges and universities. The hope was that broad-based access to higher education would enable unprecedented numbers of learners to fulfill the democratic promise of higher education, social mobility and professional attainment.

It is now clear that the hype surrounding MOOCs has outpaced the model’s ability to deliver on the promise of a revolution in higher education. Initial data demonstrates that MOOCs have lived up to their name in terms of generating massive enrollments; however, completion rates – including introductory, lecture courses – hover in the low single digits.

Our early adaptive tutorials, designed to teach threshold concepts in first and second year mechanics courses, resulted in reductions in the student failure rate from 31% to 7%.

These findings should not be surprising. MOOCs combine a set of existing tools that can be useful instructional supports, such as online lectures, social networks, and quizzes. But few professors would consider these technologies, together, as a substitute for the course experience.

Last month, Columbia Teachers College released a MOOC progress report, which took a close look at implementation challenges and barriers to success. The report stated that “while the potential for MOOCs to contribute significantly to the development of personalized and adaptive learning is high, the reality is far from being achieved.” To get there, “a great deal of coordination and collaboration among content experts, instructors, researchers, instructional designers, and programmers will be necessary.”

Charting A Different Course: Pedagogical Ownership

The quality of MOOCs raises two fundamental questions: Is the traditional lecture experience worth replicating? Can online courses do better – informing teaching and learning or, perhaps, rethinking the approach entirely?

The question of quality is a tough one for those of us who have worked in academia to answer honestly. For centuries, the lecture model has persisted, despite lackluster results.

But the old way of teaching is now being questioned – and with good reason. Completion rates for nontraditional learners and first generation college students are disappointingly low, even at the world’s most revered institutions. If MOOCs simply repackage and extend the lecture format, it’s easy to see why students would complete them at alarmingly low rates.

Thankfully, alternatives are emerging. Professors, like Arizona State University’s Ariel Anbar, are rethinking what an online education might look like if it was “born-digital.”

Anbar was frustrated that lectures failed to engage students or teach them how science really works. He used the transition to online as an opportunity to smash disciplines and rethink the format of an entry-level science course entirely.

The result? Engaging, simulative, digital content powered by pedagogical approaches that move beyond the one-size-fits-all lecture to individualize the learning experiences for each student.

Habitable Worlds was designed to satisfy the science requirements of non-STEM majors. Rather than silo disciplines into comfortable buckets – chemistry, biology, physics – Anbar designed an integrative curriculum centered around a big scientific question: are we alone in the universe?

As students move along customized learning paths, they use logic and reasoning to solve problems and deal with uncertainties. At every step, they receive instant feedback, followed by learning opportunities tailored to their level of understanding.

The design decisions underpinning Habitable Worlds stem from the thesis that online courses should be more effective than a face-to-face lecture course in teaching scientific reasoning and promoting positive attitudes toward STEM. Habitable Worlds has now been offered to more than 1,500 students and is the focus of a $600,000 NSF award designed to further its development and objectively assess its effectiveness.

Anbar isn’t a coder and didn’t raise millions in venture capital. He utilized an authoring tool called Smart Sparrow that we developed at the University of New South Wales. Just as products like iMovie and Photoshop brought design and editing capabilities to a wide creative audience, Smart Sparrow was designed to give professors and instructional designers the tools they need to unleash their pedagogical creativity and design their own rich, adaptive, personalized courses.

The goal of this technology is not to replace teachers. Rather, Habitable Worlds illustrates the power of technology that lets teachers exert pedagogical ownership over online teaching resources. Pedagogical ownership enables professors to:

  • Develop and deliver content to learners;
  • Establish feedback loops that allow teachers to reflect on the effectiveness of that content; and
  • Quickly adapt content to the specific needs of their students.

The results are striking. Our early adaptive tutorials, designed to teach threshold concepts in first and second year mechanics courses, resulted in reductions in the student failure rate from 31% to 7%.

George Siemens, the “godfather” of the MOOC, was recently quoted in the New York Times in December 2013 saying, “the next challenge will be scaling creativity, and finding a way that even in a class of 100,000, adaptive learning can give each student a personal experience.”

Professors like Ariel Anbar are already taking that challenge head-on – and we can’t solve the problem without them. The challenge for technology is developing tools that empower professors like Ariel and, in turn, scale the best elements of truly great teaching.

Dror Ben-Naim, Ph.D., is the founder and CEO of Smart Sparrow, an edtech start-up pioneering adaptive and personalized learning technology. He previously led a research group in the field of Intelligent Tutoring Systems and Educational Data Mining at University of New South Wales.


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