Blinded by the MOOCs: Three Alternatives

rockstarSometime within the last two years or so, the term “MOOC” (massive online open course) has entered the lexicon of academics across the country. For some folks, MOOCS have become synonymous with “distance learning.”  The advent of MOOCs has created a disruption in higher education that has facilitated conversations about reform and the economics of higher education.  While these conversations are necessary given the increasing cost of higher education, discussions surrounding institutional participation in the MOOC wave can feel somewhat reactionary: ‘If THEY’RE doing it, shouldn’t we?’  The MOOC has been commended a sort of rock-star status: hundreds of thousands of followers, sexy analytics, shiny graphics, and prominent investors.

While MOOCs have been making their debut, though, more traditional forms of distance learning have persisted (though not nearly with as much fanfare).  The latest figures from the National Center for Education Statistics show that about 20% of post-secondary students take at least one class online.  Instead of (or in addition to) debating whether To MOOC or Not to MOOC, I’d like to propose three ways that e-learning can potentially enhance learning and increase accessibility at William & Mary.

Increased Learning Opportunities

Distance learning is already being utilized to support outreach to the greater William & Mary community.  Several of the grant-funded projects in the School of Education, like the VISTA project highlight in last week’s W&M news post, have a distance learning component.  While shrinking budgets may make it more difficult to bring folks to William & Mary for conferences and professional development opportunities, distance learning can make it possible to bring William & Mary to the community.

Distance learning technologies have been used across campus to expand opportunities for student interaction.  Academic Advising has utilized Adobe Connect to pilot a virtual academic advising program.  Jingzhu Zhang, PhD student in the School of Education, has leveraged distance learning technologies to facilitate the Virtual Conversation Partner Program, an initiative aimed at building communication competence and confidence for our incoming international students.

Course Redesign

Course redesign involves rethinking the boundaries of the traditional classroom. This image is a photograph of W&M's Wren building in 1902 from the Library of Congress's collection.

Course redesign involves rethinking the boundaries of the “traditional” classroom. This image is a 1902 photograph of W&M’s Wren building (the oldest building on campus) from the Library of Congress’s collection.

Last summer, along with Professor Judi Harris from the School of Education and Karen Conner and Sara Gividen from the Mason School of Business, I co-facilitated a summer professional development course for faculty who were interested in learning more about blended learning.  Faculty who completed last summer’s ePD course produced a redesigned syllabus and course plan.

During the 2012-2013 academic year, Karen Conner facilitated monthly meetings of the William & Mary E-Learning Community — an open group that provides a venue for having discussions and sharing ideas about e-learning at William & Mary.  In April we saw professors and support staff from all five schools attend the very successful Teaching & Technology Expo.

This summer, through a Creative Adaptation award, Academic Technology, Swem, and the Technology Integration Center in the School of Education are supporting a small group of faculty who are experimenting with blended learning.  We’ve been holding ‘Faculty Sandbox Sessions’ every Wednesday in the Kyle Collaboration Lab.  Our sandbox sessions allow faculty to experiment with technology, but also to share ideas, strategies, and resources.

Each of the events and projects I’ve listed here emerged as an exploration into e-learning. But here is what I think is really interesting: Invariably, while our conversations may begin with technology, they always end with teaching.  I’ve observed that having these conversations helps us to take a closer look at our own courses and teaching.  While most folks aren’t doing complete course overhauls, many are creating new project-based collaborative assignments, student-centered learning activities, or opportunities for rich media integration.

Regional Online Collaborative Courses

Last week we helped Professor Judi Harris deliver a keynote address to the iEARN Conference & Youth Summit in Doha, Qatar.  We used standards based videoconferencing technologies to connect Judi and some of our W&M grad students to an auditorium of 700 teachers from around the globe.  iEARN connects teachers worldwide and allows classes to explore problem-based projects and do project-based collaborations together online. During the session, I was struck by the passion with which educators from around the globe described their student-centered collaborations. Listening to these teachers share their Web-based projects reminded me of an idea I had a few weeks back in a casual conversation: the ROCC (Regional Online Collaborative Courses).

The ROCC is sort of like MOOC-light, and is based on problem-based learning.  Whereas the MOOC is often facilitated by a superstar professor, the ROCC works best with an interdisciplinary team of professors who co-teach.  Let’s take Virginia as an example.  ROCCs from Virginia might include courses designed around the sustainability of the Chesapeake Bay, or the traffic problems in our metro areas, or the rising tides.  (Other examples of topics can be found at the Virginia Issues & Answers public policy forum by Virginia Tech).  The problem-based course may be collaboratively developed and co-taught by experts from our four-year schools across the state.  And while our students may enroll, so too may other interested Virginians.  With a smaller scale open online course, it may be easier to manage the outputs and outcomes.  For example, a ROCC might culminate with something like a white paper or policy proposal.

The ROCC is just a musing, but one that incorporates pieces of pedagogy I have always found important as an educator: authentic learning experiences, debate and collaboration, and the opportunity to potentially make a difference in the world.

Keep Learning Front and Center

The advent of the MOOC has caused institutions that never even considered dabbling in distance learning to begin to have conversations about the future of teaching and learning with technology.  However, despite their rock star status, MOOCs are just one example of the many permutations and possibilities afforded by e-learning.  As we continue to have conversations about e-learning, I hope we can keep student learning front and center, asking ourselves how technology can improve student learning opportunities and outcomes. In so doing, we’ll likely find that the answer will not come in the form of a MOOC.

About April Lawrence

April Lawrence is the Academic Technologist for the School of Education. A high school English teacher for ten years, April also worked in online course design and development before joining the AIS staff. April is a doctoral candidate in Educational Policy, Planning & Leadership at William & Mary. Her research interests include exploring the intersections of culture, technology integration, and learning.