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  • Impacts of MOOCs on Higher Education

    Originally posted on Inside Higher Education.

    An international group of higher education institutions—including UT Arlington, Stanford University, Hong Kong University and Davidson College—convened by learning researcher and theorist George Siemens gathered last week to explore the impacts of MOOCs on higher education (full list of participating institutions below).

    The takeaway? Higher education is going digital, responding to the architecture of knowledge in a digital age, and MOOCs, while heavily criticized, have proven a much-needed catalyst for the development of progressive programs that respond to the changing world.
    After sharing challenges, key innovations and general impacts, we were collectively awed by our similarities. Sure, Harvard and Stanford have larger budgets and teams, and the Texas system is, well, a system, while Davidson College enrolls a little under 2,000 students; yet, these fundamentally different institutions voiced similar challenges in their transitions to digital environments.

    During a wide-ranging, engaging conversation, participants focused on themes that have to do with organizational change, the state of higher education, and what it is we want our purpose to be—collectively—over the coming years.

    Here are a few of the effects MOOCs have had on our colleges or universities:

    Increased institutional consciousness around the future of digital. Not surprisingly, the most prevalent topic of conversation was that our institutions are increasingly thinking, debating and dreaming about the role of MOOCs—and digital education more broadly—in defining future models of higher education. Four years ago, many of our faculty senates and upper level administrations infrequently engaged deeply with questions pertaining to the higher education in the digital era. Today, those conversations populate strategy documents, capital campaign materials, and inform decision-making and exchanges between students, staff and faculty on a daily basis.

    Elevated appreciation for the profession of teaching. Research occupies a place of privilege at universities, but MOOCs have helped focus attention on the teaching and learning process on our campuses. Faculty creating MOOCs often emerge from the experience with a newfound appreciation, and understanding, of the tremendously rich body of research on course design and learning science. At one represented institution, a faculty member was moved to a tenure track role after teaching a successful MOOC. At another, the university president suggested that teaching a MOOC could be at least as important as publishing in “Nature” (if not more). On multiple campuses, creating MOOCs gave way to experiments with blended learning, a well-researched strategy for improving active learning in residential courses.

    Team-based course design. Creating MOOCs requires people across the institution to collaborate in ways not native to higher education. Instructional designers, software developers, learning researchers, librarians and videographers team up with faculty (the domain experts) to create each MOOC. The team-based approach to developing learning environments allows each specialist to contribute their expertise. For many of us, the move from teaching as a solo endeavor to a community-based effort has been rewarding, capacity building, and ultimately opened our minds to ways to apply team-based approaches to environments beyond MOOCs.

    Privileging institutional capacity building over outsourcing. Many of the represented institutions were members of the edX Consortium, and joined the consortium primarily because of edx’s focus on building each institution’s capacity to create and learn and reflect in a community of peers. Collectively, our experiences with MOOCs are building our capacity to conceptualize and drive subsequent change. To shape—rather than be shaped—by the digital era.

    Creation of new space for experimentation. Our group widely acknowledged institutional challenges, such as shared governance and extended decision making cycles, which, while having many important benefits, often render the institutions slower to experiment and change. Many participants found that the organizational structures designed around MOOC creation provided safe spaces for experimentation and innovation in teaching and learning. Separated from traditional organizational process and structures—and coupled with the team-based approach—teams at our institutions have begun to question inherited assumptions about higher education. It’s something about MOOCs, we decided, that gives us permission to imagine what’s possible along each vertical of the acronym—the massive, the open, and the online (or, digital). The MOOC hype may be dying, but its momentum has paved the way for increased experimentation with thoughtful and bold ideas for higher education in a digital era.

    As we enter fully into the knowledge age, the relevance of universities will only increase, provided that faculty and leaders are able to create a compelling vision for higher education that serves the needs of all learners in society. The specific tools, services and experiences of a traditional higher education will continue to be unbundled by a range of companies and startups. It’s up to colleges and universities—cornerstones of democracy—to rebundle and re-integrate these new elements in a way that embodies the high ideals of education with the practical life-long learning needs of individuals.

    The early impacts of MOOCs on higher education are a sign that this transition is difficult, but entirely possible. As the next waves of hype impact universities, likely in the form of adaptive learning and competency based education, the systems that are successful will be those that address the full spectrum of learning: liberal arts, vocational and life-long.

    (Full list of participating institutions: University of Texas at Arlington, Cornell University, Hong Kong University, Davidson College, Stanford University, Harvard University, Colgate University, Georgetown University, Universidad Carlos III de Madrid, and Athabasca University.)

  • What the DavidsonX Team Learned from LWMOOC14 Conference (Part 3)


    Multiple arrows pointing up

    Reflections from Erland Stevens, Professor of Chemistry and Author of the MOOC “Medicinal Chemistry”

    Many professional activities faculty members at liberal arts colleges engage in primarily benefit the faculty member. Textbook writing is an example. The faculty member gains the most, with limited benefit for the institution and its students. MOOCs may seem much the same. An instructor gains visibility, the institution enjoys possible outreach and the institution’s students profit very little (or not at all). In reality, however, I feel that all three parties―the instructor, institution and students―come out ahead with MOOC development.

    What the DavidsonX Team Learned from LWMOOC14 Conference (Part 3)

  • What the DavidsonX Team Learned from LWMOOC14 Conference (Part 2)



    Everything old is new again.

    Decades of educational research has produced loads of information about what works and what doesn’t. Richard Clark reminded those of us attending LWMOOC that a lot of very smart people have spent countless hours studying the cognitive science of learning. That research tells us that the best learning happens using methods that may seem counterintuitive. Guided, evidenced-based pedagogy is the strategy that results in increased learning and greater motivation.

    Before embarking on new educational research in digital environments, we would be doing a disservice to the field if we did not do a deep literature review first. Not doing so, says Clark, could result in a worsening of learning outcomes. It’s much more difficult to unlearn something in error than it is to learn it correctly the first time.

    Why then, with so much valuable information in educational research, have those best practices from education research not reached deeply into the disciplines of higher education? And why the sudden renewed interest in the science of learning?

    What the DavidsonX Team Learned from LWMOOC14 Conference (Part 2)

  • What the DavidsonX team learned from LWMOOC14 Conference (Part 1)

    mooc graphicfw


    Most educators and institutions are feeling pressure due to changing market forces, increased globalization and the rising costs of education. What will emerge from this period, and how will we keep the learner at the center of our decisions? This question was at the core of the first annual LWMOOC14 (Learning With MOOCs 2014) conference. The conference provided a lot of food for thought. In the following three-part series, members of the DavidsonX team offer their reflections on and lessons learned from LWMOOC14.

    Part 1, reflections from Allison Dulin, DavidsonX Program Manager

    A melting pot of expertise, this conference brought together learning researchers; software designers; traditional teaching faculty from R1s, community colleges and liberal arts institutions; MOOC practitioners, both the seasoned online learning educators and the new comers; and finally, multiple platform providers, from edX to Coursera to FutureLearn.

    It was an opportunity to experience the diversity of perspectives around questions of learning in MOOCs. Ultimately, I was struck by both our shared commitment to advance learning, and the differentiation of our work with MOOCs.

    What the DavidsonX team learned from LWMOOC14 Conference (Part 1)

  • MOOCs & Copyright Law: What’s a Librarian to Do?

    Did you know that almost everything created in the United States today has copyright protection? That’s right: every article you publish, every blog post you write, and even every image you upload to Flickr or Instagram is protected by United States copyright law. All of those things are your intellectual property, and you (or your designees or your heirs) will own the copyright for 70 years after your death…even if you never registered the work with the copyright office.

    Current copyright law does a great job of protecting the work of creators, but it is not always friendly to consumers. The Copyright Act of 1976 does make some exceptions for higher education, but it certainly doesn’t address MOOCs, which pose particular intellectual property challenges. The copyright exceptions DavidsonX faculty are used to employing in their on-campus courses don’t always apply to MOOCs. For instance, many of these exceptions stipulate that access to works must be limited to students enrolled in a credit-bearing course. The designers of the law certainly weren’t thinking about online courses that serve tens of thousands of students when they created that exception.

    MOOCs & Copyright Law: What’s a Librarian to Do?

  • Measuring Success Is Not Easy

    Davidson College’s first MOOC, a course on medicinal chemistry, wrapped up last month on the edX platform. Producing and delivering the MOOC required significant effort on the part of several Davidson staff and faculty members. With such an investment comes the natural question… Was it a success?

    Evaluating success in education of any type is difficult, and MOOCs are no different. The mountains of (often messy) data from online student activity create assessment challenges for MOOCs. Details such as page views, time of engagement with videos, and discussion board interactions are all available. In fact, each time a student clicks within the platform that interaction is recorded. Despite the opportunities posed by ample data sets, MOOC assessments are often disappointingly reduced to reporting how many students finish a course.

    Measuring Success Is Not Easy

  • Shifting Perspective: My Time as a MOOC TA

    My journey with the DavidsonX Medicinal Chemistry course began last fall, across the ocean and many latitudes north in Uppsala, Sweden. With the semester winding down and sunlight at a premium, I was looking for a side-project for those dark afternoons. What more natural way to entertain oneself than β-test an advanced chemistry course? And so, as darkness blanketed Uppsala at 14:30 each day, I would curl up in a café and watch the sunset while drawing morphine’s pharmacore and calculating IC50 values.

    What began as a cozy afternoon companion soon became an opportunity to be a teaching assistant (TA) for Davidson’s first edX course. The prospect was daunting—little ol’ undergraduate me, who hadn’t even completed biochemistry (pssst, my major is biochemistry), fielding questions from pharmaceutical chemistry doctorates. Erm, aren’t you supposed to be notified somehow if you’ve pulled a Freaky Friday with a professor?

    And so, accompanied by two parts excitement and one part terror (am I smart enough for this?!), the course launched, and I went with it. Doubt soon gave way to only enthusiasm when I logged on for my first shift and saw the discussion board alight with introductions:

    Hi, I’m from Egypt and studying for my masters in medicinal chemistry.

    I’m a high school senior from California.

    Hello! I’m an undergraduate in South Africa hoping to go into the pharmaceutical industry.

    D001X TA's

    From left: Sarah Durbin (author), Mary Frith, Vishal Mehta, Dr. Erland Stevens

    Shifting Perspective: My Time as a MOOC TA

  • On Set, with Robert McSwain

    I’ve been working in the world of higher education for the past seven years as a video media technologist. While video technologies have been advancing at amazing rates, one thing hasn’t changed: You still have to look into that emotionless lens when speaking to a camera audience. There’s no getting around it, and the first time is always a struggle.

    Robert On Set

    Robert McSwain, on set for D001X

    We’re Rolling

    Trying to connect with an audience you can’t see is a skill that is hard to master. Most of us just aren’t cut out for it. As the video producer for Davidson College’s venture into the world of MOOCs, one of the biggest challenges I face is trying to capture on camera the energy that is present in a classroom setting.

    As a small liberal arts college, Davidson’s faculty pride themselves in their ability to connect with their students and form close academic relationships. So, how do you take professors who excel in a small classroom environment, remove them from it, place them in a studio in front of a camera, and then ask them to connect with students they cannot see?

    On Set, with Robert McSwain

  • Copyright Cop on the MOOC Beat

    I came to MOOCs by way of copyright. I am not a lawyer (a phrase many around me are probably tired of hearing), but I do have some expertise in the use of copyrighted materials for educational purposes, which is why I joined the DavidsonX team. It was clear from the beginning that we would need to tackle many intellectual property (IP) issues as we created our MOOCs. As I set out to explore what those issues might be, I quickly realized that I had entered a whole new world, much of which hasn’t yet been thoroughly mapped.

    Davidson’s library is relatively small, especially in comparison to many of the edX institutions. We don’t have in-house counsel like some larger libraries and haven’t been given any additional resources for MOOC support. The college’s general counsel is wonderful and always willing to answer questions, but it’s been up to me to foresee and to tackle the IP challenges DavidsonX might face. As I began thinking about these issues, I did what any good librarian would do and started to research.

    Copyright Cop on the MOOC Beat

  • The Lean MOOC

    Your typical small liberal arts college does not possess a wealth of resources focused on online course development that can be leveraged to produce a MOOC. But what we lack in resources we more than make up for in collaboration and creativity. Partly out of necessity and partly by design, the DavidsonX team jumped into our MOOC course development process feet first. We are figuring this out as we go, much like a startup.

    This learn-by-doing approach is not without some pain points, but the exercise in collaboration and creativity epitomizes a new academic model that we as academic technologists strive toward in our work with faculty. It is also reflective of what I believe are future models of teaching and learning, whether that is within a residential classroom or a fully online course. I will touch on the pain points in future posts, but for the moment, I want to focus on the promise of MOOCs for the academic technologist at a small liberal arts institution.

    The Lean MOOC

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