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The Taming of the MOOC--With ePortfolio Evidence

The IT revolution that was supposed to transform higher education has failed to materialize, at least in the way we had imagined it. The revolution did occur, but not directly within higher education--instead, it changed the overall nature of work in our culture. And now, higher education seems to be behind the curve, struggling to catch up.

Enter the MOOC--a relatively new buzzword meaning Massive Open Online Course. And it holds hope for many as a way for higher education to "catch up." Indeed, MOOCs could be one way to get ahead of the curve again, or, they could become a yet another material threat to higher education. Here's how to turn this "threat" into something much more positive.

A shockingly sudden phenomenon, MOOCs are really only one symptom of openness, the general effect of digital technologies making information and knowledge ubiquitous, universal, and in many cases free. Enrolling millions of students worldwide [see "How Free Online Courses Are Changing the Traditional Liberal Arts Education," a PBS Newshour report from January 8, 2013] does make the MOOCs seem like a threat to the higher education establishment (except for those institutions offering them). But to learners everywhere, MOOCs seem to open the door to learning opportunities undreamed of just a few years ago. Wherever there is broadband connectivity, people anywhere in the world can sign up for courses offered by faculty from some of the most prestigious universities in the world. We are seeing pent-up demand at a massive scale.

Still, there are valid questions: Are students really learning from what could seem merely a very, very large lecture hall? If they are learning by participating in MOOCs, how can we know that? And how can that learning be better documented and visible? Students in MOOCs may take tests and may have some contact with other students and with a mentor, but to say that anyone knows these students as much as a professor does in a traditional setting is a real stretch.

Yes, MOOCs offer great lecturers, there are social dimensions to the MOOC experience, good graphics, shorter segments of learning for better grasp, and so on, but we are left with huge questions. Would MOOCs be massive if they were not free? What do we conclude from the very low completion rate? And, how can MOOC enrollees receive recognition of their learning from a formal degree-granting institution?

ePortfolios: The Quiet Revolution

We turn to a now-familiar technology that was itself once a new buzzword: electronic portfolios. Quietly, especially over the past five years, electronic portfolio use has been spreading in higher education both in the U.S. and internationally. The ePortfolio industry is booming. In the U.S., thousands of colleges and universities are using ePortfolios to enhance learning, to move from teaching to learning, to make learning more active, to help redesign programs, to improve student employability, and to address accountability demands. In other words, ePortfolios are now part of the enterprise for many or most U.S. institutions.

A major benefit of ePortfolios is that they allow learners to collect evidence of their learning in the classroom, of their work in team projects, and of their work outside of the classroom. And, of course, they may be used to collect evidence from any learning experience. ePortfolios stay with the learner, so learners have a persistent record of their achievements and competencies.

Learners enrolled in MOOCs would increase the value of their experience by using an ePortfolio. ePortfolio accounts are available for individuals anywhere; the ePortfolio providers host the functionality and data on their own servers. Many ePortfolio providers also offer mobile apps, so a smart phone is sufficient in many cases to capture evidence and to upload the evidence to the ePortfolio.

What kind of evidence? Both the learner and others who might see the ePortfolio want some kind of meaningful record of the learning experience. If a MOOC involves active learning, then photos or video clips or audio clips could record the activity. An audio clip can also be a spoken reflection on the active learning. If the MOOC provides opportunities for social interaction with other participants, then the learner and his/her team can work within an ePortfolio system, in the group work module.

And who would look at and evaluate the evidence? Aside from employers, who do increasingly value ePortfolios for hiring, others who might look at the evidence are colleges and universities that have staff dedicated to "assessment of prior learning." [See Learning Counts, for example, or CAEL for more on assessment of prior learning.] Assessment of prior learning or "recognition of prior learning" is an emerging global phenomenon.

Aside from helping to get credit for the learning accomplished in a MOOC by the assessment of prior learning route, ePortfolios can also expand the learning within the ePortfolio itself. Being able to look back at your own work in your ePortfolio and then integrate that work, or assess it, or see your own changes over time, is in itself a learning experience. MOOC learning, or any kind of learning, can be extended by reflection within an ePortfolio.

What Does "Taming" Mean?

Getting back to the title of this article, "The Taming of the MOOC--With ePortfolio Evidence," you might ask, what does "taming" mean? It could seem that MOOCs are wild, unpredictable, and dangerous to educational institutions. However, to the extent that ePortfolio evidence can close the loop by bringing the MOOC learner back into the educational establishment through assessment of the ePortfolio evidence, the "wild" energy of MOOCs can be turned to the benefit of educational institutions.

Electronic portfolios are native to openness: They stay with the learner, they are in the cloud, and the technology has become wondrously capable and intuitive. MOOCs are one manifestation of our era of openness in which learning opportunities are almost infinite. MOOCs need ePortfolios to improve their value.

It might have seemed a short while ago that a learner could only get an ePortfolio account when enrolled at an institution. Today, however, some ePortfolio providers, perhaps a majority of them, offer individual accounts. Or, of course, the MOOC organizations could, themselves, arrange for ePortfolio accounts for their enrollees, with the enrollees paying for their ePortfolio accounts. It will seem odd if they don't do this.

There's no doubt MOOCs have arrived massively. The challenge has become how to "see" the learning in a MOOC, how to assess it, and how to credential it. If MOOC organizations add ePortfolio opportunities, MOOC learning can be more valuable, more permanent, and more useful. Educators and learners everywhere will benefit from the continued spread of ePortfolios and the concurrent spread of ePortfolio wisdom about best uses of ePortfolios. ePortfolio technologies remain as a transformative, anticipatory technology. And now, they can help "tame" the flood of openness and educational opportunity as MOOCs and other new modalities arise. [To discover more about ePortfolio technologies, see AAEEBL's Web page on corporate affiliates and click on any of the icons.]

[Editor's note: Campus Technology and AAEEBL, the ePortfolio professional association, team up each year to host co-located conferences, Campus Technology's summer conference and AAEEBL's annual conference in Boston. These co-located conferences will be at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston July 29-Aug 1, 2013.]

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