Open@VT

Open Access, Open Data, and Open Educational Resources

Tag Archives: MOOCs

Book Review: MOOCs

MOOCs

Jonathan Haber, MOOCS. The MIT Press Essential Knowledge Series. Cambridge, Mass. : The MIT Press, 2014.

I read Jonathan Haber’s book MOOCs a few months ago, and am glad to finally offer some thoughts. Despite a remarkable cooling of interest in MOOCs, there are still plenty of reasons to consider what role they might play in higher education. Haber, perhaps best known for his year-long MOOC experiment to obtain the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree, here offers a readable and balanced account of the MOOC environment.

Haber begins by outlining the history of MOOCs (massive open online courses), pointing out that “open” was an earlier driver than “massive” with MIT’s OpenCourseWare initiative for class materials (begun in 2002), though many of those courses lack video lectures. The first real MOOC came along in 2008, “Connectivism and Connective Knowledge,” taught by Stephen Downes and George Siemens. In the connectivist model, class size became an asset, not a liability (p. 39):

For the bigger the connectivist “class,” the greater the potential for the quantity and variety of nodal connections that define success for networked learning.

However, as MOOCs evolved, most were not designed around a specific pedagogical method, and Haber notes how different the learning experience is between connectivist and non-connectivist MOOCs. A tool for student connection common to both models is the discussion board, though they can be overwhelming to students, resulting in low participation rates. Scheduled vs. on-demand MOOCs have different types of discussion, with the latter focusing more on test and assignment support rather than on general course topics. Haber provides an interesting analysis of other ways that scheduled and on-demand MOOCs differ (p. 78-79).

In his chapter Issues and Controversies (p. 89-131), Haber first focuses on the low completion rates of MOOCs (a problem shared by a MOOC I wrote about last year). He argues that MOOC sign-ups are due mostly to curiosity rather than commitment. Still, though completion rates may be low, the raw completion numbers are still very large, and Haber quotes a professor who remarks that the number of students completing his MOOC is equal to all of the students he has taught in his career up to that point. Problems such as course demand level, cheating, plagiarism, and student identity are being addressed in a variety of ways, such as Coursera’s signature track identity verification.

On the positive side, there’s evidence that the shorter lectures used in most MOOCs are more effective, and that the ability to change speed, pause, and repeat lectures has a pedagogical impact. The interaction of older and younger learners common in MOOCs is rare in traditional education. The modularity of MOOCs is increasingly being utilized, and MOOCs have been successful in blended learning, rather than as a substitute for the classroom. Indeed, edX material is used at MIT to flip courses, and there’s extensive discussion about how MOOCs can fit into the flipped classroom model (p. 156-161). On the whole, MOOCs have raised the bar for online education in terms of production value, creativity, and risk-taking.

In these days of corporate open-washing, anything claiming to be open bears further examination. Haber notes that “open” tends to be interpreted by the public as “free,” despite the need in some MOOCs to purchase materials in order for the student to benefit the most from the course. Haber offers solid discussions of intellectual property (beginning on p. 118) and openness (beginning p. 122). A central problem has been that academic libraries license content for their campuses which cannot legally be shared with large numbers of unaffiliated students. Additionally, educational use is not automatically fair use (a common misunderstanding). Options for using external material include a full fair use analysis, obtaining permission (often at a cost), linking to content, and/or using openly licensed resources. And of course, most MOOCs are not openly licensed themselves. However, edX seems to be upholding open values and thriving, according to a recent article.

Haber also covers the difficulties involved in getting credit for MOOC courses from institutions of higher learning through programs like high school Advanced Placement (AP), the College Board’s College Level Examination Program (CLEP), and the American Council of Education’s (ACE) CREDIT program, which accredits courses for college-level equivalency. Publicity and incentives for the one-off alternative credit are not sufficient, which may explain why there were no sign-ups for either an ACE transcript for a MOOC or a Udacity-Colorado State course in computer programming (p. 106). Yet the future of MOOCs for younger learners, Haber says, may be alongside these existing programs.

This book introduced me to Straighterline and the SPOC (small private online course- for example, CopyrightX, which I hope to take), but the MOOC environment is apparently so fast-moving that some interesting initiatives are now defunct, such as MOOCs Forum, MOOC Campus and mooc.org. Haber perhaps overstates the altruistic purposes of MOOCs (p. 187), and his statements about the cost challenge of MOOCs to residential education may be premature.

MOOCs is part of the MIT Press Essential Knowledge series, which notably includes Peter Suber’s Open Access and John Palfrey’s Intellectual Property Strategy (which I reviewed previously). In addition to an index and notes, it includes a glossary, additional resources, and a list of MOOC providers. It’s an enjoyable and informative read, though not one inspiring certainty, perhaps best communicated by one last heavily-qualified quote (p. 194):

But if MOOCs continue to embrace-or even expand on- the culture of experimentation and innovation that has already set them apart from nearly all other adventures in technology-based learning, if they continue to offer high-quality free teaching to the world while also serving as the laboratory where educational innovation thrives, then whatever MOOCs are today or whatever they evolve into, they are likely to leave an important mark on whatever ends up being called higher education in the future.

A New Issue of Virginia Libraries on “Exploring Openness”

Virginia Libraries cover

Virginia Libraries (cover design by Brian Craig)

Virginia Libraries, the journal of the Virginia Library Association, has recently undergone some significant changes. Formerly a non-peer reviewed quarterly, it’s now an annual peer-reviewed volume, with a first issue on the theme “Exploring Openness” (full disclosure: I was a peer reviewer for two articles submitted for this issue, and fellow blogger Anita Walz authored an article on OER). A broad range of open-related topics is addressed, but for the sake of brevity I’d like to highlight two standout articles (please do check out the full table of contents).

The hype over MOOCs may be past, but I think dismissing them completely is premature. In Just How Open? Evaluating the “Openness” of Course Materials in Massive Open Online Courses (PDF), Gene R. Springs (The Ohio State University) examines the status of texts assigned in 95 courses offered by Coursera or edX. Of 49 courses listing a textbook, 20 of these were freely available; of 44 courses listing or linking to non-textbook readings, 31 linked to or embedded only freely available resources. It’s great to have this quantitative data on MOOC openness. There’s much more data in the article, which is a welcome contribution to the MOOC literature.

The second standout article in this issue is Contextualizing Copyright: Fostering Students’ Understanding of Their Rights and Responsibilities as Content Creators (PDF) by Molly Keener (Wake Forest University). It’s important that students know about the bundle of rights known as copyright both as consumers and creators in the knowledge ecosystem. Keener’s information literacy instruction employs scenarios relevant to students (included as an appendix) and incorporates copyright-related aspects of popular culture. Clearly such instruction is needed:

Most students are unaware that they own copyrights, or that simply because a photograph is free to access online does not mean that it is free to be reused.

Every university should have this kind of instruction to help students understand the environment in which information is created and used. Keener’s article is highly recommended.

While there’s almost everything to like about the new direction Virginia Libraries is taking, one oversight by the editorial board should be pointed out. At the bottom of the table of contents (PDF) the journal states the following:

The Virginia Library Association firmly espouses open access principles and believes that authors should retain full copyrights of their work. The agreement between Virginia Libraries and the author is license to publish. The author retains copyright and thus is free to post the article on an institutional or personal web page subsequent to publication in Virginia Libraries. All material in the journal may be photocopied for the noncommercial purpose of educational advancement.

It’s great that authors can retain copyright, but a journal cannot “firmly espouse open access principles” without openly licensing the content. Peter Suber succinctly defined OA as “digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions.” This means content should not just be available but also openly licensed (many get the first part but not the second). Leading OA journals have published thousands of articles under a Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) license, which gives re-use permissions in advance. It’s also the license for this blog. Librarians should be more aware than most about copyright restrictions for sharing research, and Anita’s article in this issue gives a full list of Creative Commons licenses. Hopefully the editorial board will make Virginia Libraries fully OA by licensing future issues CC BY.

The co-editors of this special issue, Candice Benjes Small and Rebecca K. Miller, deserve praise for its quality and for helping the journal begin a new direction. Virginia Libraries is now seeking a volunteer to be the new editor (see the position description). Interested applicants should send a cover letter and résumé to Suzy Szasz Palmer at palmerss@longwood.edu by July 24, 2015.

The TechniCity MOOC: An Interview with Tom Sanchez

Last summer I wrote a brief post about access to scholarship in a MOOC co-taught by Tom Sanchez, Professor in Urban Affairs and Planning, shortly after the course’s initial offering. After TechniCity was offered again this past spring, I thought I would ask Tom more questions about the course.

Tom Sanchez

Tom Sanchez

The interview below took place via e-mail over a few weeks in late July and early August. Other than a couple of typos and linking text, no edits have been made. However, the order of the questions has been changed to make more thematic sense. Thanks to Tom for his patience with my questions.

First, tell us about the course and your goals in co-teaching it.

The course is about how technology is being used to improve cities through capturing and utilizing new sources of social, economic, and environmental information. Ideally this information will lead to better decision-making by individuals and their communities. Jennifer Evans-Cowley (at Ohio State University) and I both taught courses about cities and technology and while discussing online education at a conference, decided to combine efforts and teach a MOOC on the topic. Neither of us had taught a MOOC before, so it was also an experiment with the MOOC platform. Ohio State University is a Coursera member (Virginia Tech is not), so we co-taught the course on Coursera. We knew it would be a lot of work, so we decided to teach it together with the help of two doctoral students and an instructional technologist from Ohio State.

Can you give us some demographics of the course participants, and whether there were any changes in them from the first offering?

The first time we offered the course there were over 21,000 students signed up and the second time we had over 11,000. The locations of students were nearly the same both times with about 4% from Africa, 18% from Asia, 1% from Australia, 33% from Europe, 36% from North America, and 8% from South America. We only collected simple demographics like age, gender, and location. The average student age was 33 years old and most were male (65%). The students were from nearly 100 countries and nearly 60 percent of them living in cities with 500,000 or more people. These characteristics were similar for both course offerings.

How many students completed the course?

Like other MOOCs the participation rate was relatively high, but the completion rates were low. In the first class we had 343 complete the course and about 185 in the second class. Large numbers of students view most of the course videos and other materials as well as engage in online discussion, but assignments and projects tend to reduce the numbers of students actually completing the course.

Do you know if there were any course participants from Virginia Tech?

This past Spring we had students taking the MOOC for credit at Ohio State (about 25) and Virginia Tech (about 12). We created a separate Google+ Community for these students to engage with each other and discuss course topics and projects. The instructors spent more individual time with students taking the class for credit and provided direct comments on projects/assignments.

What support (technical, administrative, or otherwise) did you have here at Virginia Tech for co-teaching the course, and were there any areas where you could have used more support?

I received support from Anne Moore, Gardner Campbell, and Jennifer Sparrow (InnovationSpace). Unfortunately none of them are still at VT. Anne and Gardner provided resources for me to buyout a course to concentrate on developing the MOOC. Jennifer and InnovationSpace provided much needed help with video production. The technical help from Ohio State (Tom Evans) was invaluable because no one at VT was working with Coursera. It would have been impossible otherwise. If you’re going to build a MOOC you’ll need to know about video and I’m not sure if most universities are ready to help large numbers of faculty with this.

What is your sense of the interest from Virginia Tech faculty in teaching a MOOC?

A colleague in UAP, Jocelyn Widmer, has extensive experience teaching online and has expressed interest in MOOCs. Other than that I haven’t heard much discussion.

Has co-teaching the course affected your teaching at Virginia Tech?

The course has changed my outlook on teaching. It was much more work than I anticipated, and I learned quite a bit in the process. I think our course is well-suited to the online format, but may not work for other types of courses. And not all students care for distance learning, online courses in particular. I believe online courses will improve over time as we adapt technologies to different learning styles. The key is learning how to learn, regardless of the platform.

The TechniCity e-book (PDF) is a nice resource to make available. Was it intended mostly for prospective students?

The e-book is a good way for us to show prospective students what the course is about. I think it is also a good way for us to document what we’ve accomplished. Because the course is about rapidly changing technology it will be interesting to build a record of topics and activities. Assembling the e-book is a good way to reflect on course structure.

You have an article in press about the course- does it include the results of the post-course student survey?

Yes, we include summaries of the pre-, mid-, and post-course surveys in the article (forthcoming in the International Journal of E-Planning Research). These were valuable sources of information as we made changes to the course. The post-course surveys help us to gauge interest in particular topics, activities, and overall structure. One of the challenges is that because the course is free, if students don’t like it they can just stop participating with no penalty. We have a survey for those who un-enroll but the response rate isn’t too high. These are the people we’d really like to get more information from to improve the course because those who finish it tend to be the ones who liked it.

TechniCity

Last year we communicated briefly about the difficulty of ensuring that the course materials were openly available to everyone, which can be a problem for peer-reviewed articles in an international environment. What was your experience this time around?

We mainly relied on open and accessible materials available on the web. In our course, many of the case studies and recent research has not been published in peer-reviewed form yet, with the best resources already available for free on the internet. With so much free information available, we have plenty to cover our topics.

Do you think MOOCs have influenced the need for openly available information?

I’m not sure, but so far I haven’t seen any evidence of it. Many of the MOOCs that I’m familiar with are relying on video/lecture, assignments, and discussion, rather than “reading” materials from books, journals, etc. So much is already available online so in many cases there seems to be plenty of options.

Course ownership has been a faculty concern with some MOOCs. Who owns TechniCity?

Jennifer Evans-Cowley and I consider the course materials to be openly accessible even though Coursera isn’t necessarily open (unless you sign up for a course). We haven’t run into a situation yet where we had to tell someone we couldn’t share information from or about the course. That I know of we have not had any situations where Coursera restricted us from doing so either. The question of “ownership” hasn’t come up.

MOOCs are often cast as a disruptive innovation that could threaten higher education– what is your take?

In my opinion MOOCs are just another form of online education. Perhaps the disruptive aspects are the scale and cost. The issue with new models of education is that both the instructor AND the learner need to understand the process and expectations. I think we should actually be teaching more classes about learning, knowledge, and discovery – but unfortunately you don’t see those words used on job descriptions so we don’t make them priorities. The only threat to higher education is higher education itself. In many cases these are very slow moving institutions that are more than happy to keep doing things the old way. I think the university business model is in dire need of change.

Looking at the syllabus, open data seems to play a large role in this course—how would you summarize the challenges and opportunities for cities in providing it?

The challenge is to organize the huge amount of data generated by and within cities, and make it available in meaningful and useful ways for residents, businesses, and entrepreneurs. I think cities can provide the data and have the crowd come up with innovative ways to use it. This is especially exciting when it enhances transparency and accountability. An example is the City of Baltimore (see: https://data.baltimorecity.gov/). The site makes data available as well as analytical tools, maps, and other visualizations. There are some great research opportunities as well.

Do you think students were well prepared for interaction with data, or do you see a need for more training in the use and manipulation of data?

I think this is a particular need in the field of planning, especially with the rise of “big data” and associated analytics. Planning programs tend to require quantitative methods, but usually in the form of statistics and not really “data science”. Many students coming to planning have design interests so data analysis isn’t of particular interest. There will continue to be more and more demand for data experts.

Do you plan to teach the course again next year?

Yes, we’ll be teaching it again, probably in the Spring. This will give us another opportunity to improve the course using feedback we received from students so far.

The Open Knowledge MOOC

Registration has recently opened for the Open Knowledge MOOC, a course that introduces the concept of openness and covers open access, open science, and open education, among other open movements. Hosted on the OpenEdX platform by Stanford University, this is a semester-long course that runs from September 3 to December 12, 2014. The course material for Week 12, “Student Publishing: Lessons in Publishing, Peer Review, and Knowledge Sharing” was selected or developed by librarians at Virginia Tech, in collaboration with our partner library at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology in Cape Town, South Africa.

Open Knowledge MOOC

I’m a member of the team at the University Libraries that worked on the “Student Publishing” module, along with Anita Walz, Paul Hover, Jennifer Nardine, and Scott Pennington. A brief presentation describing our work, “Student Publishing: An Open, Global Learning Module” was made at the Dean’s Forum on Global Engagement in March 2014. The module includes readings, videos, assignments, and classroom activities (for the blended version offered by several universities around the world). If you take the course, we would love to hear feedback about ways to improve the module.

During his visit to Virginia Tech last October, John Willinsky told us about planning for the course, and suggested that we contribute to it. We chose Student Publishing for our module, planning to reach out to student journals on campus to strengthen ties to the library. Due to time constraints, that outreach is still in progress, but one potential outcome would be hosting through our e-journal publishing services. Student journals are challenged by frequent transitions in their editorial staff, with a resulting loss of information and expertise. Library hosting would ensure that proper transfer of administrative information happens, and librarians can also advise on indexing, copyright/licensing, and preservation.

The vagueness of the term “open” combined with a lack of critical examination leaves plenty of room for openwashing, and MOOCs are no exception. Given its subject, it is particularly important that the Open Knowledge course embody open practices rather than merely suggest them. This course is different from traditional MOOCs in its connectivist approach (see xMOOC vs. cMOOC), its Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (CC-BY-SA) licensing, its crowdsourced content, and its emphasis on the re-use of existing openly licensed educational resources. In addition, course modules will remain accessible afterward, unlike proprietary MOOCs. It’s as open as we could make it, so I hope you’ll give it a try.

A MOOC at Virginia Tech

The participation of a Virginia Tech faculty member in a recently completed MOOC has been well documented in the Virginia Tech news, a Roanoke Times article, and in a blog about the course.

Tom Sanchez co-taught the TechniCity course with Jennifer Evans-Cowley of Ohio State, which has an agreement with Coursera. Thinking of Kevin Smith’s recent post in which article archiving saved the day for a Duke professor’s MOOC, I e-mailed Tom about the availability of course materials and he was kind enough to respond.

Naturally, materials (like journal articles) that might have cost the students money were avoided. Negotiating for copyright permissions or digging up previous versions were both deemed too time-consuming. The course did use some archived articles (the suggested readings on the course page links to two articles by Evans-Cowley from SSRN). Tom also noted that “we have a Mendeley group set up for the course topic(s), which is also a source of the content.”

While MOOCs are currently dependent on open content (and therefore provide an incentive to archive articles), that may be changing soon. Around the time the course was taking place, Coursera entered an agreement with publishers to provide licensed content to students (with many caveats, as the article notes).

I also asked Tom about the issue of course ownership. University ownership of MOOC content is viewed as a threat by the American Association of University Professors, as recently reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed. Tom replied, “from what I’m told by the Ohio State people, we are free to use all of the course materials however we’d like. We used several ‘guest’ presentations and Coursera didn’t ask for copyright releases for these. I can imagine this will change over time.”

Thanks again to Tom Sanchez for sharing some of the behind-the-scenes details of the course.

[Update: see my interview with Tom Sanchez in August 2014 that goes into more depth about the course.]