Let’s just be clear: Massive Open Online Courseware (MOOC) and Competency-Based Learning (CBL) are not the same thing. They both claim to be “personalized” learning, but that personalization is expressed in completely different ways. In the case of the MOOC, the personalization is in choosing courses that you’re interested in and being able to access those courses, regardless of where you live. In the case of CBL, the personalization is in the administration of the instruction; the learner‘s task is to master specific competencies by demonstrating skills to a criterion. The path to that mastery is adjusted based on the particular learner’s needs, thus, personalization.
This isn’t to say that a MOOC couldn’t use a CBL approach. But from what I know of them, they don’t. The more-or-less standard approach to MOOCs is this: video clips of the instructor lecturing, readings, and short, multiple-choice (sometimes fill-in) assessments. There are outliers, but for the most part, that’s the MOOC format. And it’s somewhat understandable, given that the goal of MOOCs appears to be quantity of students…and with 10,000+ students in a given course it is impossible for instructors to give meaningful feedback to individual learners themselves. So here we are: essentially the same problem that I had as an undergraduate in my Intro to Biology course, with 350 students in the lecture hall, writ large. But MOOCs do solve a couple of problems: they create a new channel for higher education institutions (thereby creating more revenue for those institutions and for individual instructors who make their own books required reading) and they give access to learners who might not otherwise have access due to where they live, the hours they work, or their incomes.
But here’s my concern: what do learners really achieve in MOOCs? Yes, I can complete a course…heck, I might even be able to earn a degree. But I’m not sure about the learning part. As I’ve written about before, I took two MOOCs recently…not so that I could write posts about them, but because they were THE big thing in edtech and higher ed, so I thought I should experience it myself. I was actually really excited about MOOCs. I liked the egalitarian philosophy of MOOCs, particular those provided for free by non-profits. And on a personal level, I thought it would be fun to take a couple of courses just to learn some new things (I know, I know, don’t I have enough education already??).
I took one course through Stanford and one course through the University of Maryland. The one through Stanford was first and it was about creativity. The course had videos, readings, and homework assignments (some of which were completed individually and some as part of a team). There weren’t any multiple-choice assessments, but we were required to provide peer feedback for our uploaded homework assignments. I kind of enjoyed the assignments, but I was frustrated by the fact that I never got any “expert” feedback on my submissions. After all, that’s why I take a course…to learn from an expert. So that part was pretty frustrating. I didn’t really know what skills I was supposed to be mastering or how close to mastery I was getting.
Little did I know, at the time, that compared with the second MOOC that I would take, the first one was AWESOME. The second MOOC, from the University of Maryland, focused on Entrepreneurism, something that is near and dear to my heart, of late, as you know. This course included about 40 minutes worth of video lectures each week and a short assessment to, purportedly, check our understanding of what was in the lectures. Well. I’m just going to tell you guys, the lectures were awful. This poor guy couldn’t have been more boring. He is the guy whose students sleep through his lectures in class. Academic colleagues, can I just tell you…if you are a terrible lecturer in person, please don’t think you’ll be any better online. And the assessments were equally bad. We had three “chances” on each quiz. So once I completed a quiz, I got my score and if I wasn’t satisfied with the score I could try again up to two more times. But here’s the rub: there was no feedback about which items I got right or wrong!! What the heck!! I didn’t like anything about it and I dropped out of the course.
Now, what about CBL? The focus is on mastery and application of skills. Here’s an example of CBL from Wikipedia: people learning to drive manual transmission might first have to demonstrate their mastery of “rules of the road”, safety, defensive driving, parallel parking etc. Then they may focus on two independent competencies: “using the clutch, brake with right foot” and “shifting up and down through the gears”. Once the learners have demonstrated they are comfortable with those two skills the next, over-arching skill might be “finding first: from full stop to a slow roll” followed by “sudden stops”, “shifting up” and “down shifting”. You can imagine a similar breakdown of skills in an academic area. As one or more skills are mastered, the learner progresses to additional, more complex skills. The achievement of the mastery is monitored by an instructor who provides critical feedback to help refine the learner’s performance.
So my question is, when and how will the current format of MOOCs and the principles of CBL bump up against each other? In K12 there is more and more of a focus on kids being able to demonstrate the application of skills in meaningful ways. Certainly I think most of us can agree that the old multiple-choice assessments aren’t good for capturing skill mastery and many of us (though not all by a long shot!) are hopeful that the assessments built to go with the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) will do a better job of it. Even when we look at higher ed there are institutions, such as Southern New Hampshire University, that are developing a new focus on students demonstrating skill competencies instead of completing “credit hours.”
Can MOOCs and CBL be reconciled? And if so, what will that look like? I have a thought about programmed instruction being part of the answer. So my next step in all this is to go take an online programmed instruction course…anyone know of universities that offer some? I’ll start looking. Stay tunes for the next installment of this quest…
- My First MOOC! (karenmahon.com)
- MOOC Students Who Got Offline Help Scored Higher, Study Finds (chronicle.com)
- Clearing Up Some Myths About MOOCs (hastac.org)
- How MOOCs and competency-based learning shaping the future of online higher education? (dreducation.com)