Online learning is now fully absorbed in the American higher education system.  More than 20 percent of all students currently enrolled in higher education are taking at least one distance course, according to the data from the National Center for Education Statistics.  The development of MOOCs – Massive Open Online Courses – has added a new layer to how online education puts learning into the hands of the student.  These courses, offered on platforms like edX, Coursera, and Udacity, are free and very low cost options for learning a variety of subject areas.  Lectures are delivered in a convenient pre-recorded video format that can be accessed any time.

Academia is a long ways away from having MOOCs replacing a traditional college education – if ever.  Many college professors and administrators are still skeptical about how well teaching via a MOOC using video can compare to in-classroom lectures.  But one thing is for certain: MOOCs are starting a conversation about whether the lecture model of instruction is still working, or if there are better alternatives (whether the alternative is a MOOC or not).  Prestigious universities like MIT and Harvard have had their hands on MOOCs from the beginning – as these schools are cofounders of edX, many of their professors are using the content from those courses in their traditional classes.  It’s an experiment in content delivery.  And so far, MOOCs have revealed some interesting findings about how they turn the traditional educational model on its head.


The role of the professor

educationThe college classroom experience most people have in common consists of sitting in a lecture hall listening to a professor talk for an hour or more.  With so much material to be covered, there is little time for discussion in most class sessions.  The role of the professor is traditionally the “sage on the stage,” there to impart irreplaceable wisdom and knowledge onto their pupils.  In a MOOC, this role is taken away, or at the very least, diminished.  The professor may still give their online lecture in a pre-recorded video, but the lecture is not the only, nor necessarily the primary, source of information for the course content.

The new maxim, “guide on the side,” describes the changing role of the professor in a MOOC setting, as one who facilitates independent learning and steps in when needed.  This format allows for greater flexibility with in-classroom activities.  The MOOC course format allows the professor to “flip” the classroom, pointing students to video lectures that can be watched outside of class, and spending class time on engaging discussion and critical thinking exercises.  The professor can in this way do less talking and more showing, which often leads to more learning.


Academic sharing and collaboration

155553143Sharing syllabi, assignments, and other course materials is an age-old timesaving strategy for many professors, as well as an opportunity for them to learn a thing or two from each other.  The virtual environment and open nature of MOOCs creates additional opportunities for professors to share teaching strategies, collaborate on meeting learning objectives, and contribute to each other’s courses.

As an example, the “Introduction to Psychology” course offered on Udacity is taught by three people: one professor, one lecturer, and one Udacity employee.  The result is a mix of teaching styles and methods that are applied when they best serve the students.  The Udacity employee was the youngest of the three, and brought with her the ability to identify with Udacity’s typically younger students.  The two professors ended up using the videos the Udacity employee created in their traditional classrooms at their respective institutions.  In this way, MOOCs are providing a built-in outlet for teachers to exchange material that could enhance their own pedagogy.


Control of the classroom

meetingProfessors are used to being the ones in control.  Not only do they stand at the podium and dictate what happens in class, but they also get to decide what students will learn, how it will be presented, and how they will grade their students.  Full oversight of course curriculum is changing in digital learning environments.  At some schools, particularly for-profit schools, using technology like pre-recorded videoconferencing to deliver courses remotely has resulted in the standardization of the curriculum that is more suited to online learning.  This takes some control away from the instructor, but it also takes the pressure off of them to plan everything themselves.  More time is available for them to focus on engaging with students and designing ways that make the content delivered remotely stick with them.

Adopting instructional videos made by others is another option made possible by MOOCs.  In one anecdote, an associate professor of computer science and computer engineering, decided to use lectures made by another professor for a Coursera class.  In this case, he willingly relinquished control, as he just didn’t feel like lecturing anymore and didn’t have time to record his own videos.  It was a source of freedom to be able to use someone else’s material but still teach his class in-person the way he wanted to.  And it was a big hit with his students, who got more classroom time for hands-on learning of database design.


Some things work better in video

Stack of movie films spool with filmIt seems clear that MOOCs are not replacing in-person instruction.  However, the broad application of MOOCs to higher education and the technologies used to create them suggest that there is a permanent place for them.  The video lecture model is working for many professors because it’s convenient to students, who more and more have busier lives filled with internships, jobs, extracurriculars, and other competitive endeavors.  It’s long been argued that sitting in a classroom for an hour or two listening to someone talk is a waste of students’ time.  Listening to a lecture is not when students do most of their learning; it’s when the knowledge is applied that they become proficient in the material.  Delivering lecture content in a pre-recorded video that can be watched whenever it’s convenient makes room for more of this applied, hands-on, critical thinking kind of work.

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Posted by Agnes Jozwiak

Agnes is the Brand & Communication Director at ClickMeeting.

Time to move your events online. Do it with ClickMeeting


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  1. […] Online learning is now fully absorbed in the American higher education system. More than 20 percent of all … Full oversight of course curriculum is changing in digital learning environments. At some schools, particularly …  […]


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