Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Will MOOC’s Change the Course Development Model ?

The course is in some sense the fundamental organizational unit of undergraduate education and the predominant mode of course development is the Sole Practitioner model. Most of the courses offered at American universities and community colleges are the unique work product of individual professors working alone. Though the typical course may leverage chapters from one or more published textbooks, the lion's share of the course -- the syllabus, the lectures, the assignments, the activities, the assessments -- are typically developed by the professor alone, or by the professor and a small group of her colleagues and perhaps a teaching assistant or two.

The rise of the Internet and the spread of personal computing devices over the past two decades has brought with it a rising expectation that courses somehow make use of these technologies to "improve" them. Nearly all U.S. institutions have made investments in learning management systems and other tools with the goal of helping individual faculty members incorporate technology within their courses as these individual professors see fit. A relative few have embraced the trend with abandon while others have adopted these new technologies only reluctanly, if at all. Most use technology to streamline administrative functions -- to metaphorically “pass the papers out at the beginning of class, and to collect them at the end”.

But whether the SolePractitioner is an early adopter or laggard, the fundamental scale for course development and improvement has remained unchanged. Courses today are still primarily developed one instructor at a time, and make use of technology to the degree that the individual instructor -- sometimes aided by an institutional support person or two -- can muster on their own. This limits how much intellectual and monetary investment any one course can receive.

In the past year, the sudden rise of the Massively Open Online Course (MOOC)  has presented a challenge to this SolePractitioner model of course development. In a MOOC, responsibility for course development lies not with the SolePractitioner but instead with a team of subject matter experts, instructional designers, videographers, content developers and technologists who work together to create and then continuously improve a complete course designed to teach not 10's or 100's of students at a time, but hundreds of thousands or even millions of students at a time.

At this new scale of instruction, the amount of monetary and intellectual investment that can be directed at the development and continuous improvement of the course may be orders of magnitude greater than what any individual professor could ever muster working on their own, even over the whole of their academic career.

Do these team-based, higher scale development models represent a lower cost, lower quality alternative to the Sole Practitioner model? Or are they the leading edge of a wave of change that might bring with it increases in effectiveness?

What effect will these emerging model have on institutions and faculty over the next 5 years? Can we expect major changes? Something more gradual? Or are MOOCs and Master Courses a fad?

Some of the strongest educational brands -- Harvard, MIT, Stanford, etc. -- have moved aggressively in the past year to champion these new models, lending them a strong air of academic credibility. Are MOOCs only the province of the elite? What implications do they have for other kinds of schools?

What are the inherent advantages of course development at scale? Which things can be done better? Were these models to begin to seriously displace the Sole Practitioner model, what would be gained? What would be lost? Can they be effectively combined to create something superior to the current state of the educational art? Or do they threaten to destroy a tradition of quality?

How might MOOCs be similar to textbooks? How are they dissimilar? How might they be better? How might they be worse?

If these new models spread, what effect will they have on today's institutions and faculty? What opportunities will they create? What might they destroy?

How are things like Open Educational Resources, the Khan Academy and the Flipped Classroom model related to the MOOC?

At present, MOOCs are offered at high scale (serving tens to hundreds of thousands of students at a time) but at no cost. While in the early stages, venture capital funding has allowed intensive investments to be made -- in the long term this is unsustainable in the absence of new business models. What is the role of the market in facilitating this move to scale? How can such a market develop? What changes would faculty, institutions, and education companies have to make to foster such a market?

Are these new approaches suitable for only certain disciplines? More appropriate for lower division than upper division?

If complete digital courses do become available, what would become of the university bookstore? Are institutions prepared to deal with the disruptions a transition from print to digital might entail?

 As a faculty member, what do these new models mean for me? Can I safely ignore them, and continue on as I have? Do they create any new opportunities for me? How might they change my role in instruction? If they were to bring about significant change in how courses are developed and delivered, will I like my job better or worse?

Clearly there are a lot of issues that this raises and I hope we can get a lively discussion going around the possibilities.