A Small, Offline and Closed (SOC) blueprint for Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)

Last week, the Government of Trinidad and Tobago and a number of partners including the University of Trinidad and Tobago and Coursera – one of the largest providers of Massive Open Online Courses – announced announced a multi-stakeholder partnership to create a Knowledge Network. The partnership will see the Coursera courses and learning materials, and learning resources offered by the Khan Academy, offered to all potential students free of cost.

What sets this partnership apart from existing implementation is the rich network of support – and value – that the students are surrounded with, enhancing the ‘tangible value’ that can accrue to the students and to the country. For followers of the MOOC phenomenon, the hope is that this partnership could create a blueprint to get MOOCs to deliver on their long-standing promise. What is interesting, however, is that the experiment that could create the blueprint for future success is itself small, offline and relatively closed (SOC for short).

The background first. (If you want to skip the background, please ignore the italicized part)

This partnership is significant, and for the proponents and detractors of MOOCs alike, couldn’t have come at a better time. The popularity – and instinctive appeal of the MOOC concept has never been in question – Coursera itself signed up approx. 1 million students in its first 12 months of operations, and today boasts of 9 million users. Hardly a day goes by without another university announcing its partnership with one or the other MOOC provider – including edX, FutureLearn, Coursera and Udacity. Over two-thirds of all chief academic officers believe that online learning is critical for their institution.

Yet, despite all the enthusiasm, there remain a number of concerns around MOOCs, and their potential to deliver the sea-change that we desire in terms of universal education.

First and foremost are the practical considerations that threaten to wipe out the gains promised by the open-approach. MOOC offerings continue to see very high drop-out rates and efforts to engage students have so far failed to significantly raise completion rates. The change of heart by Udacity’s Sebastian Thrun maybe the most visible ‘defection’ from the open, always-free vision that drove the idealism behind MOOCs in their early days, but his certainly isn’t the only voice. Universities that flocked towards MOOCs as a quick addendum to their course-offerings are beginning to flinch at the high up-front cost of developing the training materials, and professors are wary of expanding effort to develop materials they will not own, particularly when faced with the twin realization that the business model – or the business advantage to the universities themselves – is murky at best. Questions have been raised about the quality of learning that is possible with a MOOC-based education. Not surprisingly, empirical evidence suggests that people registering for MOOCs are generally people who already have college degrees, and are taking these courses purely for their own intellectual stimulation. In other words, they are serving an already privileged and educated community, and have done little to expand educational access as promised. Finally, with a remote educational model, assessment and student verification has always been a problem for MOOCs – which is why many MOOCs offer you a Certification of Completion – but very few allow this to be translated into a college credit; as this infographic explains, very few students see these certificates as a career-enhancing qualification.

Then there are the philosophical considerations — a problem of the educational experience itself. The initial proponents of MOOC were excited about the emergence of a new pedagogical construct, where the traditional role of a student and a teacher is blurred – the student is the teacher; the course exists to provide the connectivity and glue – while the participants continue to teach themselves and others as the course progresses. This vision of an open educational experience – commonly referred to as the cMOOC vision – was quickly overtaken by the xMOOCs paradigm, with its teacher-centric pedagogical model, where the only difference between a MOOC and a classroom experience is the ‘separation in space and time’ between the ‘teacher’ and the learner.

In, short MOOCs are failing to meet the high expectations that birthed them and are increasing beginning to look like the building blocks in what David Noble pejoratively called the Digital Diploma Mills. No wonder then that we are beginning to see the early signs of a revolt.

It is in this light that the announcement’s significance is further enhanced. Then why do I argue that the model is Small, Offline and Closed?

SMALL: Firstly, in the world of MOOC, where average class sizes are 43,000 and higher, the number of students who will participate under this program are miniscule. Given the population of secondary-school leavers in T&T, the maximum number of new students that could be pulled into university is approx. 30,000 students per year. The current enrolment of the University of Trinidad and Tobago (UTT) on the other hand is estimated to be about 10,000-15,000 students. Even if this initiative doubles the university intake, it would be a fraction of the average class-size for a MOOC.

OFFLINE: The Knowledge Network envisions Coursera content being utilized within physical classes held at the University of Trinidad and Tobago campuses – in a blended learning environment. Students will have teaching assistance provided by in-person assistants (as opposed to the remote course assistants that are associated with traditional MOOCs. It would be fair to point out though that Coursera itself has been experimenting with ‘Learning Hubs’ – physical centers that complement MOOCs – and now has a number of Learning Hubs across the world.

CLOSED: Because this rich learning environment will be available through the UTT, physical limitations mean that this will be a closed environment. Student will be required to come in physically so that their attendance – and achievement – can be verified.

It is this offline and closed nature – and the verification that is allows – that paves the way for what may become the most compelling element of the program for young students – the internship program. That program, open only to graduates of the Knowledge Network, will see 400 recent graduates of the courses being placed within local businesses. It will provide these recent graduates with real-world experience while at the same time increasing the organizational capacities of local business. The concept of internships for new grads is not new (organizations like CareerEdge have been doing this here in Canada for many years), but tying the internship program to the completion of the required courses will create a greater incentive for course completion, helping overcome a traditional limitation of MOOCs.

So, is Small, Offline and Closed another strike against MOOCs? Far from it. The SCO model actually represents the kind of holistic development approach that we should be taking for all technology-enhanced development perspectives.

By recognizing that technology is one component in a well-thought-out comprehensive initiative, the architects of this program could have helped us nudge towards a more successful and enduring model of MOOCs – even if it has elements of ‘small, offline and and closed’.