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What can universities take from MOOCs?

The coronavirus pandemic has upended higher education as we know it. Over the course of two weeks, universities across the UK have had to devise methods to move all teaching online. A previous Boar article reported that students feel disadvantaged by online learning, and that it does not provide an effective solution to the problem of campus closures. Warwick’s plans for ‘blended learning’ for the next academic year, hence, faces questions regarding its ability to emulate classroom learning. Warwick is not the only university pursuing ‘blended learning’. Oxford, York, Newcastle, Durham and Cardiff are just some of the other universities adopting this method.

For years, many lecturers have opposed moving lectures online, arguing that in-class engagement is crucial for students’ learning processes. Students can, for instance, ask questions in in-person lectures immediately after a concept was introduced. Watching lecture capture does not allow for this kind of interaction. The need for social distancing, however, means that lectures are planned to be moved online. If universities want to maintain teaching quality, remote teaching needs a major overhaul. Perhaps universities could look to Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) as a potential model to follow.

Many lecturers have opposed moving lectures online, arguing that in-class engagement is crucial for the learning process of students

MOOCs are short educational courses designed by universities and organizations accessible to the public, generally for a relatively small fee, which can be audited for free. They are aggregated on sites like Coursera, edX and FutureLearn. MOOCs are similar to university modules in that they aim to teach a particular topic over a specified period of time, generally between 1-16 weeks. There is large diversity in topics offered, from languages, to computer science, to happiness – the latter made completely free in light of the pandemic.

What appears to be promising about MOOCs are how the courses are structured. While course structure heavily depends on subject material, MOOCs have broad similarities which universities can take note of in constructing online learning systems. Most MOOCs use short video lectures with questions embedded within the video themselves, or quizzes shortly afterwards, to ensure active learning. They also heavily rely on forums where students can ask questions publicly, obtaining answers directly from course instructors. Additionally, learning processes in MOOCs are somewhat gamified, as platforms such as Coursera track users’ progress and provide useful markers of completion.These three features might make learning in MOOCs much more engaging than traditional lecture captures.

Most MOOCs use short video lectures with questions embedded within the video, or quizzes shortly afterwards to ensure active learning

One of the most challenging aspects of delivering lectures is keeping student engagement up for the entirety of 50 minutes. A 2010 study discovered that students’ attention levels fluctuate during lectures, with ‘attention lapses’ occurring as students become distracted with things like checking the time, replying to text messages or engaging with another module. On the other hand, 50 minutes may not be enough time for educators to convey information in sufficient detail. As a result, lectures tend to end in hasty summaries as students rush from one class to another.

Hosting lectures online, on the other hand, provides lecturers with a variety of options on delivering lecture material. One possible way out is utilising MOOC’s model of short video lecture series. Instead of one 50-minute lecture, students may be able to access a number of lecture segments with questions at the end of each segment for students to consolidate their understanding. Some topics certainly are too complex to be covered in 15-minute chunks, but devising ways to break down lecture material into more digestible segments may improve long-term memory and deeper cognitive engagement with the material.

Hosting lectures online provides lecturers with a variety of options on delivering lecture material

The pandemic has also caused stress for many students, so some might not be in the appropriate headspace to sit through 50-minute lectures. Short lecture series, on the contrary, have the potential to deliver the same amount of material without the guilt of not being able to complete a 50-minute lecture in one go.

Kate Roll, head of teaching at UCL’s Institute for Innovation, and Marc Ventresca, associate professor at Oxford’s Said Business School, argue that moving teaching online does not simply mean transferring resources online. For online lectures to be effective, they have to be designed, built, and delivered to be online. This provides departments and individual lecturers with the space to radically reimagine what lectures can look like, outside lecture halls.

Another feature universities can adopt from MOOCs are the use of open forums. While some Warwick modules have utilised forums, such as in Economics, they are still not used to the extent of their usage in MOOCs. For these courses, forums are the primary means of communicating with the lecturer. Students can also learn from questions previously asked, minimising the need for lecturers to repeat answers to multiple students. Forums could be created on platforms like MS Teams, which the university has been using extensively in recent months.

Forums are not only limited to Q&A purposes, though. As forum usage becomes normalised, lecturers can encourage the use of forums as social spaces and to promote deeper engagement with module material. For instance, students may be able to share relevant news articles and academic papers with each other to stimulate discussion. With ‘blended learning’ presumed for the entire 20/21 academic year, it is more pertinent than ever to carve new social spaces and strengthen student communities.

MOOC’s use of gamification may provide some guidance to universities creating remote learning systems. While MOOCs themselves have not completely embraced gamified learning, there are some features on MOOC platforms which illustrate this potential. For example, when a user completes a task in Coursera, it is ticked off their list of learning tasks. Modules are generally broken down into small, manageable stages, and the platform shows how far users have progressed in the module. Users also have their own dashboards where they can view all the courses they have completed. Essentially, MOOCs offer users near-instant gratification, while still encouraging users to complete courses.

Developing these features, however, is not a cheap endeavour. Universities, which are already constrained financially, certainly need to prioritize which online learning investments are most crucial to sustain teaching remotely. Gamified innovations might not be feasible now, but is a pragmatic long-term investment for universities to capture student attention in an increasingly content-saturated world.

Universities certainly need to prioritize which online learning investments are most crucial to sustain teaching remotely

With this being said, a crucial point to note is that MOOCs have been largely viewed as unsuccessful in their aims to transform education. MOOCs might provide an alternative for students who would like to dip their toes into a subject, or for the delivery of niche, technical skills such as coding or data processing. However, research from MIT suggests that MOOCs have continuously had low completion rates – 3.13% in 2017-18 – despite ‘six years of investments into course development and learning research’.

The failure can be accredited to a lack of accountability, as students are not obligated to finish courses, and how courses are structured to be ‘too easy’. Furthermore, when students experience slight frustrations in learning, they can rarely expect a reply from the lecturers within an acceptable timeframe, so they drop the course. With university modules, these issues should not arise. Students need to complete modules to earn their required CATS, and lecturers spend a term or two teaching the module, and so would be available to answer questions arising. Hence, universities looking to employ MOOC features in their online learning systems should be aware that they are serving an entirely different audience.

One thing that MOOCs cannot address, and is perhaps the most important factor in successful online learning, is the maintenance of human relationships between educators and students. Face-to-face interaction in campuses not only allows lecturers to convey information to students, but also forge meaningful connections which support the learning process.

One thing that MOOCs cannot address, and is perhaps the most important factor in successful online learning, is the maintenance of relationships between educators and students

Roll and Ventresca suggest that video calls humanise both lecturers and students, and a feeling of getting through the crisis together has relaxed student-lecturer barriers. Methods which emulate face-to-face interactions as much as possible are thus important to remote learning. They propose ‘more regular email communications, concise and actionable feedback, and staff participation in online chats’ as some actions lecturers can do to reach out to students and ensure continued learning.

Incorporating online learning into universities is a tricky process. Departments are limited by time and money. However, perhaps universities can take notes of some features from MOOCs, whose original aim was to democratise education, to construct effective online learning systems. More importantly, the success of this entire process hinges upon empathy, human collaboration and the pursuit of maintaining meaningful relationships within the academic community.

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