Tuesday, September 2, 2014

On the true significance of self-paced, online courses: the anytime MOOC

Last year I wrote about my experience in a self-paced online course in Artificial Intelligence offered on Udacity (http://cloudandcampus.blogspot.com/2013/05/better-preparation-through-moocs.html). The advantages of a self-paced course are most apparently in the flexibility it affords the student — a student can work their way through the course on their own schedule, taking educational detours along the way, as they see fit. Coursera is now offering self-paced (aka on-demand) courses as well ( https://coursera.desk.com/customer/portal/articles/1639240-about-on-demand).

The individual flexibility associated with technology-enabled self-paced courses is common in other areas touched by the digital revolution. In her introductory post (https://my.vanderbilt.edu/vidl/2014/08/sandra-arch-vidl-graduate-fellow-introductory-post/), VIDL Graduate Fellow Sandra Arch points to the same advantages of online-enabled flexibility in other working environments, but she also notes the broader, potentially negative cultural and societal impacts of individual flexibility:

"While these newer forms of work offer greater independence and autonomy to workers, enabling them to work from anywhere with an internet connection, they also reflect a larger trend of social isolation in the contemporary era, with its declining rates of membership in social, religious, and voluntary organizations." (Sandra Arch)

Slogging through a self-paced course all by yourself takes discipline, and completion among the isolated can be difficult (e.g., http://www.westga.edu/~distance/ojdla/winter84/nash84.htm).  But importantly, the freedoms of self-paced courses are NOT limited to individual students, but self-pacing can also be exploited by instructors.

Shortly after my post on my self-paced experience, I wrote about the anticipated ease of adapting self-paced online courses (which aren't really MOOCs in the conventional sense) to the campus experience (http://cloudandcampus.blogspot.com/2013/06/syncing-moocs-and-campuses.html). Herein lies the real positive significance, I think, of self-paced courses — individual instructors can adopt the “self” paced course so that it keeps pace with their on-campus schedule. Thus, the “self” in self-pacing is generalized to my on-campus student cohort, or synchronization with any local learning cohort for that matter (e.g., my after-school club, my retirement community).

How would adopting a self-paced OPEN Online course for my campus course differ from simply implementing what is called a closed instance, also known as a SPOC (a small, private, online course). In a SPOC, only the campus students see the content — the MOOC is essentially ported to a learning management platform that can only be accessed by the campus students. Wouldn’t that allow the instructor to move through the material at a pace that best suited the campus course? Yes, it would, but what would be missing is participation of students from outside the campus to take the course coincident with the campus students.

Why might I want non-Vanderbilt students to take a course side-by-side with campus students? For several reasons. First, because such students will bring international perspectives to my campus course. For example, two criteria used to accredit computing programs (http://www.abet.org/cac-criteria-2014-2015/) are "(e) An understanding of professional, ethical, legal, security and social issues and responsibilities" and "(g) An ability to analyze the local and global impact of computing on individuals, organizations, and society."  Might campus students taking a course with international students better appreciate these criteria, and be better motivated to excel at them? Its an open question, but worth exploring.

Second, we find that many students of take our MOOCs are professionals. Such students can be valuable mentors for our campus students (e.g., helping them to excel along with of the technical criteria of ABET, for example). This can be particularly so for underrepresented groups in computing (or other fields). Even if potential mentors from some groups are few on a campus, drawing from a global population can bring empathetic and enthusiastic mentors into a course, perhaps helped through collaboration with professional societies (e.g., http://www.nsbe.org/home.aspx; http://societyofwomenengineers.swe.org).

Third, in an open environment, “alums” and advanced students of the self-paced online course (or a corresponding MOOC) can continue to give advice to the current crop of students taking the course, including those who are members of the local learning cohort that an on-campus instructor can organize. In an open environment, it is indeed possible for an on-campus instructor to find some of the world’s best "teaching assistants" for the benefit of the campus population (http://cloudandcampus.blogspot.com/2013/05/finding-best-teaching-assistant-in-world.html).

As an educator, the potential of self-paced courses that I get most excited about is that I can “wrap” my campus course around the self paced course (http://jolt.merlot.org/vol9no2/bruff_0613.htm), thereby benefiting from those outside my course, but also in the self-paced course, I can actually invite outsiders to join my campus cohort to take the course synchronizing with my students — if enough decide to take the course with my campus students then I am essentially the on-the-ground instructor for an anytime MOOC. An anytime MOOC is the MOOC I most want to run. Perhaps I’ll have my chance in Spring 2015 when I next teach Introduction to Databases (https://www.coursera.org/course/db)!

*Cross-posted on the Vanderbilt Institute for Digital Learning blog

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Deliberative Design of Online Content by Instructional Communities

An article was posted recently on Inside Higher Ed, speculating about behind-the-scenes maneuvering related to Coursera's  recently announced "specializations", which are MOOC sequences of which Vanderbilt is a pioneer. I posted a couple of comments in response to the article, one in a response to a flippant comment by someone that one company had possibly ripped off another, a view that doesn't recognize the naturalness with which things are unfolding (i.e., any reasonably smart person who is thinking about the issues a non-trivial amount of time will hit upon ideas and implementations, like MOOC sequences):
The idea of sequencing MOOCs undoubtedly began with students themselves, who were piecing together MOOCs that were developed independently at different institutions, but which were nonetheless elaborating well-trodden curricular paths inherited from traditional curricula. The first deliberatively-designed MOOC sequence that crossed institutional borders (that I am aware of) is a partnership between Vanderbilt and Maryland announced Sept 2013, and which has been since incorporated in the Coursera specializations. The idea of giving certifications for a sequence is a natural next step, and pretty soon students will be asking for "transfer" credit ("but I took an on-campus version of MOOC X in the sequence, so why do I have to take it again?"). I think all of this is pretty predictable. What I am so excited about in this space is not the very predictable elements of it, but that we have instructors crossing institutional boundaries to do teaching, not simply research. Trans-intitutional teaching communities are substantially new in my world, and quite welcome (e.g., see last paragraph of http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/warming-up-to-moocs/44022).
"Chuck" responded to me, asking about how instructors who were not Coursera (or edX partners) could participate in trans-institutional teaching. And here I recounted the experience that first got me excited about instructional communities, and very particularly, the idea that instructors can come together and design and produce individual courses together, putting up individual lectures that others can and will use:
Good question, Chuck. Even though I am at a Coursera partner institution (and I have also used the edX platform for my on-campus course in Artificial Intelligence), I am probably not going to do my own MOOC or MOOC sequence any time soon. That said, I do put my own content on Youtube and students who are taking other people's MOOCs (or other on-campus courses) come to my Youtube channel for remediation (and I can verify the former by going to the MOOC's discussion forum). In some sense I am a "silent partner" in an instructional partnership with the MOOC instructors.
But I could go farther too, and I could go through a MOOC and identify where I think that a subpopulation of the students will have problems (or wait for those problems to arise in real time during the MOOC, but I prefer to anticipate), and produce and post content that is deliberatively designed to remediate for that anticipated subpopulation, and additionally, I could produce advanced material that the MOOC would prepare some students to take. In both cases, I could post links to the remedial and advanced material. In this case I would be a less silent partner.
This idea, btw, extends to students too. For example, Vanderbilt's Center for Teaching is running the BOLD program , in which graduate students are mentored in their creation of online content to supplement on-campus courses. Graduate students and mentors could just as easily target MOOCs for such augmentation too, and in doing so, getting a worldwide audience, as well as (we hope) the attention of world-renowned teachers (i.e., the instructors of the MOOC)!!! I want to do this!
My response to "Chuck" continues:
But this possibility goes well beyond MOOCs; I use other people's Youtube content for my courses, and other instructors can certainly point to mine. But its currently very opportunistic. What if this material was designed in collaboration among a small group of like-minded profs (in say Artificial Intelligence), with the intent that they would co-teach each of their individual AI courses.
I don't see MOOCs as a required entry into instructional communities, though its exciting and it allows collaborations that are relatively loosely coupled. Collaborating across institutions by sharing deliberatively coordinated content on Youtube (for example), would require greater coupling between instructors, but its still an exciting possibility.
Our own students (albeit a very few of them) have been producing and sharing excellent instructional content online for years. Instructors are late to the party, but its never too late.

I had an opportunity to begin some of this deliberative design, running some of my AI course on the edX platform, but even more interestedly, using lecture content from UC Berkeley's AI MOOC (the same MOOC that had students visit my Youtube channel for remediation about 18 months ago), my own lecture content, and lecture content from elsewhere (e.g., University of British Columbia). This mixing and matching of content was easy to do on the edX platform, though I didn't have access to the platforms full functionality. It was an interesting experience on my way to more fully explore course customization possibilities -- exciting times for those of us who are teachers, and who so appreciate the idea of community too!