[ Back to EurekAlert! ] Public release date: 26-Sep-2013
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Contact: William Raillant-Clark
University of Montreal

MOOCs -- Revolution or just a passing fad?

Webcast international conference in French and English (with simultaneous translation)

What are massive open online courses (MOOCs) (cours en ligne ouverts et massifs – CLOMs)? And why have they captured millions of learners around the planet? Is it a revolution, or just another way to deliver university courses? Should Quebec's universities occupy this niche? Are they behind the times? Should we be concerned that thousands of university students across America are joining this quiet revolution? How can 10,000 students be taught at once? What are the real benefits, limitations, and functions of MOOCs? What do the graduation rates look like? Is it about philanthropy, profitability, or conspiracy? Free or cut-rate diplomas? Have MOOCs done away with school fees? What does the research have to say about MOOCs? These are just a few of the questions that will be addressed at an international conference hosted today, from noon to 1.15 pm, by Professor Thierry Karsenti of the University of Montreal's Faculty of Education. The discussion will highlights findings that will be published online at the conclusion of the conference in the International Journal of Technologies in Higher Education.

Media may attend on-site or via the Internet. Connection details can be obtained from William Raillant-Clark, International Press Attaché, +15145663813, w.raillant-clark@umontreal.ca

What: Webcast international conference about MOOCs (massive open online courses). Bilingual French/English with simultaneous translation.

Who: Professor Thierry Karsenti, University of Montreal, and other tech and education experts

When: September 26, 2013, from noon to 1.15 pm

Where: University of Montreal Pavillon Marie-Victorin, Salle B-328, 90, avenue Vincent-d'Indy. Internet connection details: contact +15145663813 or w.raillant-clark@umontreal.ca

Notes: The following information is provided free of cost and copyright as a resource for media. It is a translation of a document originally prepared in French but can be considered as a formal statement in English. The University of Montreal is officially known as Université de Montréal.

Question: In what way are MOOC free and open distance education courses? Thierry Karsenti: MOOCs may be considered a new kind of distance education, a kind that has taken universities in North America and elsewhere by storm. Since 2011, major American universities have hastened to join the new gold rush, and universities around the globe are increasingly embracing this innovative delivery mode. In fact, the numbers are troubling: Udacity, one of the three main actors in the MOOC arena, has enrolled 300,000 students in a course called "Introduction to Computer Science", a record-breaking number for a MOOC. Altogether, some 20 million students in over 200 countries have enrolled in a MOOC, and the trend is rising sharply. Do MOOCs signal the dawn of university democratization? The idea behind the MOOC is to offer to a virtual supergroup of students opportunities to participate—ideally interactively—in online learning. A MOOC normally includes traditional pedagogical resources like those used in university classrooms: assignments, quizzes, round-table discussions, lesson plans, schedules, assessment tools, information about the professor, and so on. It may also include—and this is a core feature of the MOOC—video lectures. These are usually PowerPoint or Keynote presentations in which the professor is giving a lecture to students.

Question: Who are the key stakeholders? T.K.: The three leading actors in the MOOC arena are generally thought to be Coursera (coursera.org), edX (edx.com), and Udacity (udacity.com). How do these programs work? They are much more than just distance learning platforms, such as Moodle. For instance, Coursera's vision is to partner with top universities and organizations worldwide to offer free, universally available online courses.

Question: How is it possible to teach 300,000 students? T.K.: Many are wondering how the thousands of upcoming students will be taught. This promises to be a thorny problem. Can these enormous numbers really be taught all at once? When there is no actual communication with the students, is it still teaching? MOOCs normally use flexible teaching, and there is little standardization (Shirky, 2013). Furthermore, some authors contend that MOOCs lack pedagogical rigor (Vardi, 2012), and that they are comparable to a huge knowledge marketplace. Moreover, whereas MOOCs are acknowledged to be innovative, even revolutionary, in concrete terms they include a range of collaborative tools that learners do not actually use. Instead, they most often end up watching video lectures, which are basically another form of "chalk and talk" teaching, only online and at a distance. The idea behind the MOOC is to offer to a virtual supergroup of students opportunities to participate—ideally interactively—in online learning. A MOOC normally includes traditional pedagogical resources like those used in university classrooms: assignments, quizzes, round-table discussions, lesson plans, schedules, assessment tools, information about the professor, and so on. It may also include—and this is a core feature of the MOOC—video lectures. These are usually PowerPoint or Keynote presentations, often of high quality, in which the professor is giving a lecture to students. In other words, and in very concrete terms, the MOOC is a derivative of the distance learning mode with the addition of video lectures. In addition, most MOOCs do not support much—or any—communication between teachers and learners. Thus, MOOCs make it difficult or even impossible to achieve interaction between teachers and learners, especially in view of the large enrollments. A survey by Kolowich (2013) revealed that for the 103 professors who developed MOOCs, their interaction with learners was limited to a commentary posted on the class discussion board, and only once a week on average. A weekly critique on a public message board: is this what university teaching has come to?

Question: What are the success rates? T.K.: Early data suggest a 2.45% success rate. And what about schools that do not disclose their success rates? Could they be even worse?

Question: What are themain impacts of MOOC?

T.K.: The first impact is the greater visibility of universities that have embraced the MOOC. The MOOC has proven to be an unprecedented marketing tool for universities. But universities can also go beyond the limitations of this role, and they can avoid derivative forms that approach fraudulent status.

The second impact concerns people's perceptions that universities embark on this type of enterprise for philanthropic reasons. This impact is perhaps related to the origins of the MOOC and to initiatives to develop open education resources online.

The third impact is that vast numbers of new students have been recruited, students who will eventually enroll in other courses offered by the university that offered the MOOC.

The fourth impact, which is connected to the third, is the possibility of recruiting better students. For instance, universities can choose the top performers within a population of thousands of students who took an online quiz. Why recruit computer science students at random when you can select the 100 best among the 300,000 who took a certain course? These virtual students, if they are genuine, represent safe investments for the university.

Fifth, MOOCs could also be used to try out online teaching and learning methods as well as new, computerized assessment methods.

MOOCs could also be used to determine the popularity of new curricula and course contents that would eventually be offered to non-virtual students. In addition, MOOCs could allow the university to diversify its education offer, for instance, through continuing education programs.

Many studies have indirectly demonstrated that MOOCs also enable students to develop certain skills and competencies (e.g., autonomous learning, computer skills) that would be highly useful for distance learning. MOOCs would therefore help students prepare for distance learning programs.

MOOCs have also made distance learning programs more popular, and this trend will only increase in future. No, MOOCs do not herald the end of distance education. In place of a dichotomy between traditional face-to-face teaching in the classroom and distance learning, whose reputation is more difficult to defend, MOOCs have shifted the debate and helped boost the reputation of distance learning.

MOOCs, like all forms of distance learning, enable learning from any place, at any time. This is an undeniable advantage in terms of mass access to a university education. Formerly, it would never have been possible for some people to take a course at Harvard, Stanford, and MIT over a single summer. Financially and time-wise, the advantages are even more evident. Thanks to the MOOC, all this becomes possible, wherever you live, for rich and poor alike. Despite the pitfalls and challenges, MOOCs have provided a universal entry point to a university education. However, we must not forget that MOOCs could also end up widening the gap between the major and minor universities. The fact that the most world-renowned universities are investing heavily in MOOCs is worrying, because of the potentially negative effects on smaller universities, which are funded mainly by students' fees. Do the universities that offer MOOCs really have a vision of democratized education? We will have the answer only when the universities' business models reach a certain maturity. In the near future, MOOCs will also wield an impact on the legitimacy of certain university degrees and training programs. Within a very short time, employers will be asking job candidates if they got their qualifications through a MOOC or at a "real" university. If the teaching quality remains as uneven as it is now, MOOCs are liable to acquire the stained reputation that correspondence courses used to bear.

MOOCs could also better prepare young and not-so-young students to live in tomorrow's world, in the information society, where technology reigns.

Finally, even though MOOCs have not yet gained full academic recognition, MOOCs enable students to develop new skill sets, and consequently to improve their personal and professional lives.

Question: Can the MOOC become an agent for change in university education? T.K.: There is no doubt that the existing university teaching models will have to change with not only the ascendance of MOOCs, but also the momentum that they have given the distance-learning population. Do MOOCs really foster greater academic equality, or will they act to worsen the disparity between the techno-rich and the techno-poor, and between elite and run-of-the-mill universities? Are Quebec's universities prepared for this change? At least, we must acknowledge that MOOCs have arrived in Quebec, thanks to the EDUlib initiative by HEC Montréal and a number of other projects that will be launched in the coming months. The most important idea to take away from all this, in our opinion, is that these initiatives should be made in a reflective manner, taking current research in the field into account. It would also be important to keep uppermost in our minds that neither technologies in general nor MOOCs in particular will foster successful university careers. Instead, it is the use that the students will make of them. MOOCs have a place in higher education only if they are aligned with the university's mission. Nonetheless, the growing popularity of this innovative delivery system suggests that it constitutes a necessary risk. This technological innovation has extraordinary potential, both for student recruitment and for testing distance-learning schemes. It has become clear that the MOOC will be a transformative influence in our universities, even if the transformation may not be smooth."


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