Thursday, February 7, 2013

MOOCs in Developmental Education

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For anyone who doesn't know, a MOOC is a Massive Open Online Course--education offered online, for free, to thousands and hundreds of thousands of students at a time.It's delivered the way most other online courses are: "A massive open online class is usually a series of video lectures with associated written materials and self-scoring tests, open to anyone" (Clay Shirky) People don't need to be enrolled in a school to take part in MOOCs, and some of the best schools in the country are offering them, including Yale and Stanford.

What about the possibility of MOOCs for Developmental Education? It's an appealing idea: provide free online courses to teach students the basic skills they need to advance to college level. It wouldn't cost them anything, and if they need to take more time or repeat lessons and even whole courses, it won't hurt their academic standing.

However, there is a downside. Because MOOCs are free and not for college credit, they require a great deal of motivation from their students, and they can be difficult courses with a lot of work involved. If a person finds herself overwhelmed with other things going on in her life, it can be very tempting to drop out of the class. Nothing would be lost except the time already put into the class. And as we know, at a community college, "life happens," frequently in a big way.

"Last year, Introduction to Artificial Intelligence, an online course from Stanford taught by Peter Norvig and Sebastian Thrun, attracted 160,000 potential students, of whom 23,000 completed it, a scale that dwarfs anything possible on a physical campus." (Shirky) The numbers sound impressive: 23,000 students completed the course. But they started with 160,000, making the completion rate 14.35%. And completing the course doesn't mean they passed it. For a required course, a completion that low would cause great alarm, and for good reason.

Another problem with MOOCs in Developmental Education is a lack of outside extra support. Because of their size, it's impossible to give students much individual attention, let alone offer them additional tutoring. The coursework in a MOOC relies a lot on students helping and critiquing each other. Peer review is a great pedagogical tool, but it can't be the only means of support for developmental students. They need, and they want, assistance from their professors and from tutorial centers. "...[T]he comprehensiveness of support services has long been linked to the success of developmental students.... A recent study by Scrivener and Weiss (2009) at two community colleges in Ohio reported that low income, first-generation students who participated in enhanced support programs were more likely to be retained than nonparticipants. This is not surprising given the diverse nature, needs, and learning styles of developmental students" (Boylan and Saxon 36). Providing diverse and well-coordinated support for thousands of students, on top of the thousands already enrolled at a given college, would certainly be difficult, if not impossible, for a community college.

Furthermore, with a MOOC one doesn't get a strong sense of community with or connection to the college offering the course. The students are fairly anonymous; they work with some of their classmates, but not all, and interaction with the actual professor is minimal. Connection with their college is a necessity for most college students, and in some cases it can give students the will to persist, even if they don't master the content right away. "Despite poor academic performance, many students persist because of their successful social integration and feelings of fit with their institution (Kennedy et al., 2000). Studies suggest that activities or programs that bring together students facilitate the development of social and learning communities and foster a shared consensus regarding institutional goals that promote persistence (Mangold et al., 2003)" (Lotkowski, Robbins, and Noeth 15).

Despite all of this, I'm not saying that MOOCs have nothing to offer Developmental Education. For students who place into a developmental level but simply need a "brush-up" on their skills, a MOOC could be an effective alternative. Offering in-house, online support that is peer-based is another idea Developmental Education can take from MOOCs. A system like that would be a great addition to developmental courses. In fact, simply making materials available online to anyone who needs them is a solid first step. More an more materials are already being offered online, and if students want to watch videos and do self-testing on topics that are covered in class, why not let them?

Lastly, the concept of "unbundling" education certainly has a place in Developmental Education. "The possibility MOOCs hold out is that the educational parts of education can be unbundled. MOOCs expand the audience for education to people ill-served or completely shut out from the current system, in the same way phonographs expanded the audience for symphonies to people who couldn’t get to a concert hall, and PCs expanded the users of computing power to people who didn’t work in big companies.Those earlier inventions systems started out markedly inferior to the high-cost alternative: records were scratchy, PCs were crashy. But first they got better, then they got better than that, and finally, they got so good, for so cheap, that they changed people’s sense of what was possible" (Shirky). As noted earlier, developmental students come from a variety of different scenarios with a variety of different needs. Classes cannot be one-size-fits-all. Offering lectures and materials online openly and for free allows a student's education to be more tailored to his or her own needs at minimal cost or extra work on the part of the college. Both students and colleges can then begin to re-envision their sense of what's possible for their futures.

Works Cited
Boylan, Hunter and D. Patrick Saxon. Attaining Excellence in Developmental Education: Research-Based Recommendations for Administrators. Boone, NC: DevEd Press, 2012. Print.

Lotkowski, Veronica A., Steven B. Robbins and Richard J. Noeth. The Role of Academic and Non-Academic Factors in Improving College Retention: ACT Policy Report. ACT. ACT, 2004. Web. 7 Feb. 2012. 2004.

Shirky, Clay. "Napster, Udacity, and the Academy." Clay Shirky, N.p., 12 Nov. 2012. Web. 7 Feb. 2013.