What Have We Learned?: A Recap of “MOOCs and OOCs at NC State” Seminar

With staggeringly large enrollment numbers and millions of dollars invested thus far, the MOOCs (massive open online courses) movement in higher education has become impossible to ignore. The question for many institutions now is not “will we be involved?” but “how should we be involved?”

That question led nearly 100 individuals from across NC State’s campus to the DELTA-hosted seminar, “MOOCs and OOCs at NC State: Current Work and Lessons Learned,” held April 17 at the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation. (Please check back for a link to the full recording, to be available soon).

Dr. Tom Miller, senior vice provost for Academic Outreach and Entrepreneurship and vice provost at DELTA, opened the seminar asking what NC State’s place might be in the MOOC movement. Since the term was first coined in 2008, MOOCs have gained momentum and evolved considerably. Just last year, the American Council on Education (ACE) approved five Coursera MOOCs for credit.

“We need to start a campus dialogue going about this,” Miller said. “It’s not something that we can ignore.”

But while MOOCs hold the potential to streamline education and reach a worldwide population of students who may otherwise lack access, challenges remain. MOOCs are not yet fiscally sustainable, and granting credit for MOOC completion may cause confusion in higher education, Miller noted.

As the future of MOOCs and higher education continues to unfold, Miller emphasized that NC State’s vision should remain focused on engaging with these courses and continuing to use digital learning technologies to support student learning.

Forays into MOOCs at NC State

Already, NC State has taken steps to enter the MOOC sphere. In the summer of 2013, Dr. Paul Franzon, Alumni Distinguished Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering, partnered with DELTA to develop NC State’s first OOC (open online course), Digital ASIC Design. Nearly 700 students from around the world enrolled in Franzon’s course, logging in to the course Moodle from as far away as Egypt and India.

From an instructional design standpoint, the course overall was a success, with a rich variety of videos, quizzes, and assignments to help students engage with content. Although the move to an OOC still required extra work, Franzon had already developed much of the content while working with DELTA staff to “flip” the course earlier that year, making the move to an OOC somewhat more seamless.

“Flipping the course first was a really important step in creating the OOC,” Franzon said in his seminar presentation. “Whatever model we end up with for MOOCs, we should encourage the proper flip of courses first, and use that as the basis for online education.”

But MOOCs have a ways to go, Franzon emphasized. Only 50 of the nearly 700 students scored above a 70% by the end of the course, and only 30 students completed all of the course components. Only a few students opted to pay the $100 fee for a course completion certificate, with most students saying they were uninterested in converting the course to NC State credit because of the cost. Most of the successful students from abroad simply could not afford to come to the U.S. to continue their education, and when asked why they had taken the free course, 68% of students said it had been for personal interest.

The cost and time investment back at NC State were also significant. Three hundred personal hours went to developing the course, Franzon said, in addition to more than 500 hours from DELTA staff and an $80,000 development cost. The return on investment? A mere 10%.

“We’re at a point where technology enables this and there’s demand for these kinds of educational experiences,” Franzon said, “but we’ll need to get to the point where marginal cost is low for MOOCs to make universal sense.”

Despite the challenges and the remaining questions, Franzon said he found the experience an overall success—especially given the average of five student emails to answer each week, he said.

Behind the MOOC Scene

The DELTA team behind Franzon’s Digital ASIC Design OOC felt similarly, according to Cathi Phillips Dunnagan, lead instructional designer at DELTA, and Dan Deter, associate director of Systems Support at DELTA, who presented jointly about DELTA’s instructional and technological support for the course.

“What did we learn through this OOC experiment?” Dunnagan asked, laughing lightheartedly. “Well, we learned a lot.”

Rather than use major MOOC companies such as Coursera and EdX to deliver the course, DELTA decided to leverage its own Moodle platform to create an OOC, avoiding the “massive” scale for fear of overwhelming the university’s servers when students logged on to the course.

“With this set-up,” Deter explained, “we could run a limited-scale OOC with no degradation of our other services. Most students on campus probably had no idea there was an OOC going on at the same time.”

The most substantial time investments went to administrative and instructional design work, Dunnagan said, with the move to an OOC requiring focused attention on designing for global access and scalability. The course lecture videos hosted on YouTube, for instance, had to be copied into Moodle for students in countries where YouTube is unavailable.

Since the OOC relied on current campus technologies, substantially less time went to configuring and managing content, and more to research, consulting and design efforts. Running a full-scale MOOC at NC State would require using an external environment such as Coursera or EdX, as well as an enhanced internal infrastructure on campus, Deter said.

“There were high expectations for all of us for support and time,” Dunnagan agreed. “Now that we’ve created one of these courses, the administrative learning curve would be quite a bit lower, but the infrastructure would certainly need to be more robust.”

MOOC-ED for Educators

The seminar also highlighted MOOC efforts aimed beyond the traditional realm of the classroom. At the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation, MOOC technologies were harnessed to create the MOOCs for Educators (MOOC-ED) professional development course, which has enjoyed tremendous success with educators in North Carolina and beyond.

“Our big question with the MOOC-ED course was, ‘Can MOOC-like approaches be adapted to meet the professional development needs of educators?’” explained Dr. Glenn Kleiman, executive director of the Friday Institute.

The answer seems to be “yes.” Nearly 4,500 participants from all 50 states and 80 countries have registered in the two courses offered thus far. Moreover, because the typical student in the MOOC-ED course holds a master’s degree and tends to be more self-motivated, the self-directed MOOC format seems to suit the target population well, Kleiman suggested.

“We try to help individuals meet their own goals with MOOC-ED,” Kleiman said. “We provide many kinds of resources and many kinds of experiences, and we’re moving toward peer-supported learning where we can crowd-source best ideas and practices.”

Current work with the MOOC is exploring how participants’ differing goals affect how they move through the MOOC, and designing the course so that participants—many of them joining discussion forums while waiting in school parking lots and grocery store lines—can move through the course flexibly but still benefit from peer interaction components. There’s also the question of how to interpret the staggering amount of data available from the courses.

“We have demographics, web analytics, click logs, course surveys, projects and peer reviews, discussion forums—everything,” Kleiman said. “There are several dissertations sitting in here. If anyone wants this data, we’re happy to share it.”

The MOOC-ED course can be viewed at www.mooc-ed.org (user: guest1@mooc-ed.org; password: moocguest).

Beyond MOOCs?

MOOCs present new opportunities and challenges in themselves, but is it possible that these models stop short of what the future holds for education? What will education look like in the age of “big data,” where sensors and information are suddenly everywhere?

“We need to be rethinking MOOCs/OOCs entirely,” said Professor H. Christian Hölljes, visiting professor in the College of Design as part of the 2013-14 Chancellor’s Faculty Excellence Program in Innovation + Design. “You don’t put an eight-course meal in a lunch box, and yet that’s what we’re doing with MOOCs.”

Instead, Hölljes envisions for NC State what he calls “CoNCatenation”—an open framework for education, hosted by a company such as RedHat, where individuals could build their own frameworks for learning, pulling together modular content made available by the university to create personalized curricula.

“Google and YouTube are the real MOOCs right now,” Hölljes said. “The professional world wants to cherry-pick the great information that’s in courses like [Paul Franzon’s], so let’s create a system where people can pick and choose what’s in their courses.”

More significantly, big data is changing not only the way people learn and access information, but also the very assumptions we hold about educational structures, Hölljes suggested.

“We’re surrounded by data, and people are going to want to get that data—and get it fast,” Hölljes said. “The idea that professors know all just isn’t going to hold anymore.”

In a lively seminar discussion following Hölljes presentation, audience members raised important questions about the future of education in the age of “big data.” Several attendees noted issues of personal privacy, consumerism and the fragmentation of knowledge that educational models such as “CoNCatenation” might promote. Others asked how much of an improvement these models would be over current educational structures.

“Isn’t this kind of customization of knowledge what we’re already doing with degree sequences and learning technologies?” one audience member asked.

Whatever the future of MOOCs and education may be, the enthusiasm from seminar speakers and attendees seemed to make one thing clear—NC State is prepared to confront challenges and engage new opportunities that arise from MOOCs, drawing on what its faculty and units already do well.

“MOOCs are not just mapping the traditional classroom onto the online environment but leveraging what technology can do to make education better,” Miller said in his introduction to the seminar. “They are not a natural extension of things we’ve been doing, but a lot of things we’ve already been doing coming together in a new way. It’s really an exciting time.”

Please check back for a link to the full seminar recording, to be available soon!