MOOCs after five years

3 minute read

Five years ago, I was just starting to prepare a massive open online course (MOOC). That course development would be an 18-month adventure for me.

Our team worked with the concept that technology can bring students who are learning outside the classroom even closer to the course content than students within the classroom. For a course in human evolution, that meant traveling to the field, bringing students to the sites where fossil hominins have been found. And it meant allowing real scientific experts to speak for themselves.

The course ran in the spring of 2014, with the title “Human Evolution: Past and Future”. People today can watch many of the course components on my YouTube channel, including some remarkable interviews and site visits.

I learned a lot while teaching the MOOC, which has helped me in many ways to develop other forms of public engagement. Many of the video presentations from my MOOC have been even more successful on YouTube than they were in the course with its 40,000 registered students.

Diane Lorillard and Eileen Kennedy, specialists in digital technologies and education, have a post in the Times Higher Education on massive open online courses (MOOCs) from today’s perspective: “Moocs can still bring higher education to those who really need it”.

Their post recognizes some of the ways that the MOOC scene has changed since 2012, and ends with a framework worth sharing:

Viable solutions to making online learning affordable and sustainable require an understanding of the true costs. What are the costs of a video to be shown over 10 runs of a course? What are the costs of facilitating a discussion for each of those 10 runs? How large can an online tutor group be? What combination of activities will produce the best experience for the learner?
More research on this activity-based costing approach will enable us to plan costs realistically in relation to the quality of the learning experience provided.
Online learning at scale has the potential to transform access to quality higher education. It also has the potential to transform what it means to teach in higher education. The question now is how can we make sure that this transformation is productive and sustainable for the future of higher education for all.

Initially, as universities began developing these courses in 2012, they were not driven by real sustainable motives. In the first couple of years, MOOCs were a way for premier universities to compete for status in a new area that was getting a lot of press.

What may have been less visible is that MOOCs were also a way for specialists in educational technology to test new platforms and methods of delivering teaching and interaction online.

My MOOC, for example, enabled the University of Wisconsin to train a large group of educational technology specialists in new technologies, at the same time that it gave more than 40,000 people the opportunity to learn about human evolution from the field.

Many people who were great fans of my MOOC ask, why don’t we do it again? I’ve been asked by other universities, also, to help develop MOOCs on similar subjects.

The truth is, doing a MOOC in anthropology well requires many people to invest time in those personal interactions, on the virtual forum, message boards, and giving personalized feedback on assignments. That kind of interaction may be less necessary in very technical fields, as very popular MOOCs in artificial intelligence and programming have demonstrated.

But to me, a course in anthropology is about the human interaction. That human interaction is labor-intensive. It’s hard to do at a large scale without sustainable funding.

Many institutions still see MOOCs as an inexpensive way to do education at a large scale. That’s not realistic in anthropology. A great MOOC may be relatively inexpensive for the scale, but it is not without substantial ongoing cost.

Still, MOOCs have a serious benefit: A huge population of people in Africa, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and rural areas of many other countries are underserved by local and regional educational institutions. MOOC-like courses can reach people where they live, on the devices that they use.

I dream of bringing those populations into the study of human evolution, where new discoveries are being made. Tomorrow’s generation of paleoanthropologists must represent the areas where tomorrow’s fossil discoveries will be made.

How can we empower people to be a part of this science? To me, that’s the big problem. My instinct is that we can build communities to make this kind of learning possible for people around the world.