It’s no secret that Massive Open Online Courses are the topic of the moment. Coursera, Udacity, and edX have sparked interest around the world by offering classes in such attention-grabbing subjects as applied cryptography and aboriginal worldviews and education.
Many of the MOOCs are geared towards students who are either familiar with the subject matter or have the skill set necessary to complete a college course. The gap between the skillsets of students, some of whom may be taking college level courses for the first time, has caused problems and raised ethical and pedagogical concerns in some of the writing-intensive MOOCs.
Laura Gibbs, a lecturer at the University of Oklahoma who blogged about taking a MOOC, has written extensively about the difficulty of attempting to offer or receive peer feedback to and from people who are not native-English speakers and are unfamiliar with the requirements of writing at a college level.
“Some students have freely admitted to using Google Translate…suffice to say that if Google Translate has left words in the original language not translated into English (a common enough occurrence), then the essay is certainly not ready for a peer to read and review,” wrote Gibbs. Gibbs has not been alone in her skepticism, George Washington University English professor and blogger Margaret Soltan coined the term “Click-Thru U” to describe the instructional model of a MOOC.
Some critics feel the MOOC instructional model turns professors into interchangeable parts, deemphasizes faculty interaction, and creates an environment where cheating is extremely common and difficult to prevent.
Some in higher education believe that, despite their flaws, MOOCs offer tremendous potential, which is why the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is interested in seeing if the model can be translated into remedial and introductory courses.
The foundation sent colleges and universities requests for proposals for MOOCs that are designed to teach the “high-enrollment, low-success introductory-level courses” that low-income, underprepared, and non-native English speaking students find difficult to pass, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported. As many as 10 grants, up to $50,000 each, will be awarded, and will allow the foundation to undertake one of the first serious analyses of MOOCs.
According to the Chronicle report, foundation staff members are interested in learning which students benefit most from MOOCs, which kind of classes translate best to the format, and how educators teaching a class with enrollment in the thousands can support students who are not self-directed learners.
One of the solutions that has been raised is scalability. Lawrence S. Bacow, former Tufts University president, and current president in residence at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, told the Chronicle that a “well developed MOOC that could be easily adapted and customized locally” could provide an answer to colleges and universities looking to increase student performance while finding ways to keep costs down.
Bacow’s idea of small-scale open course is not entirely unique. The University of Maine at Presque Isle has begun experimenting with little open online courses (LOOCs), Inside Higher Ed reported.
The courses are being offered through the schools’ OpenU project, which allows non-enrolled students to receive an experience identical to that offered to tuition-paying students. While the small size of Presque Isle’s experiment ensures it won’t be a threat to the larger economics of higher education, it will provide a chance for two to seven nonpaying students to take a course—in addition to the 15 or more paying students who are taking the class for credit.
Inside Higher Ed reported that the small size of the classes might allow researchers to address issues plaguing the open education movement, such as the importance of brand prestige in generating an interest in an open course and how student accountability and professor interaction factor into performance and attrition rates.
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