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Blended MOOCs: The Best of Both Worlds?

Combining in-class instruction with high-quality MOOCs may resolve some of the hurdles facing stand-alone MOOCs, but questions about cost and the impact on faculty remain unanswered.

This story appears in the August 2013 digital edition of Campus Technology. Click here for a free subscription to the magazine.

So comprehensively did massive open online courses dominate the conversation in higher education last year that The New York Times dubbed 2012 "The Year of the MOOC." The potential of these courses to lower costs and increase access to education had pundits describing them as the savior of a sector mired in outdated, inefficient practices, and predicting a wholesale overhaul of the entire educational system. But preparations for their triumphal parade tend to overlook some significant issues--both pedagogical and economic. For starters, huge numbers of students--especially pre-professional young adults--are likely to struggle with the anonymity of the xMOOC format (used in the majority of courses developed by Coursera, Udacity, and edX). And on the economic side, schools and companies are searching for a business model that is both sustainable and delivers a quality education.

One way to address both of these issues may be blended MOOCs. Essentially, they utilize the flipped classroom model with some wrinkles: Outside class time, students take a MOOC imported from off campus--elite institutions dominate the market right now--but then meet in class with local faculty for discussions, problem-solving, group projects, and lab work. Not only does this approach give students more faculty and peer support, but it also solves some of the assessment and certification issues facing stand-alone MOOCs (see "Testing Times".)

Pilot Successes
A couple of schools have already piloted the blended MOOC model. While it's not perfect, the results have been positive overall. In the fall of 2012, San Jose State University (CA) partnered with edX to offer MIT's Circuits and Electronics course in a pilot involving 87 students. Professor Khosrow Ghadiri selectively assigned MIT's lectures and practice problems as homework, while students used class time for additional problem-solving.

Ninety percent of the students in the pilot passed the class, an enormous improvement over the 55 percent pass rate achieved in the class's traditional counterpart. "The format enforces that students actually do the homework because of the embedded quiz questions," notes Catheryn Cheal, SJSU's associate vice president and senior academic technology officer. "At first, the students weren't very enthusiastic about the greater workload, but they were much happier once they saw their grades." Administrators were so impressed with the results of the pilot that the course will now be offered to students at 11 other California State University campuses.

Students experienced similar success at Massachusetts Bay Community College, which recently offered an adapted version of MIT's Introduction to Computer Science and Programming. Outside class time, attendees watched brief lecture segments accompanied by practice problems. During class, they received additional tutorials and hands-on help from MassBay professor Harold Riggs. Sixteen of 17 students completed the course with an A grade, a far cry from the 90-plus percent attrition rate common in pure MOOCs.

Like Cheal, Riggs attributes much of the MOOC's success to its inherently high workload. Between in-person problem-solving sessions and exercises embedded in the lectures, every student receives a great deal of practice. "The class required a lot of work, and even the students outside the computer science field did very well," says Riggs. "Overall, they liked the hybrid mix; they got the best of both worlds."
Underlying the premise of the blended MOOC is an unspoken assumption that the imported course materials will be more robust and engaging than the lectures and exercises created by in-house faculty. This idea of looking outside the institution for higher-quality materials may not sit well with faculty who have dedicated significant time to developing their own courses.

One skeptic is Anthony Picciano, a professor of education at the City University of New York who has conducted three national studies on online and blended learning. "If a MOOC delivers a really solid lecture, I might find that helpful," he notes. "But I'm not sure that faculty around the country are all of a sudden going to grab onto the entire course. Most teachers take great pride in their teaching and develop their own materials they think work well over the years."

He also doesn't buy into the hype surrounding elite schools, which have created the bulk of the MOOCs currently on the market. "Some of the best teachers in American higher education are at the community colleges," he says. "The Harvards and MITs attract big names, but their students aren't necessarily learning well because of those big-name teachers."

Textbook of the 21st Century?
Cheal frames the debate differently. She sees the imported MOOCs as just one more set of course materials available to local faculty. "You might want to compare MOOC materials to textbook materials," says Cheal. "The main advantage is that students find the MIT videos and quiz questions a lot more engaging than reading or doing problem sets." Seen through this prism, MOOCs--with their multimedia, built-in quizzes, community, and video segments--may have leapfrogged the e-text industry, which has struggled to move past glorified PDFs.

MassBay's Riggs also believes that imported MOOCs are just one piece of the content pie. He found that the MOOC lectures deeply explored the most complicated topics in the course, but they also assumed too much background knowledge. By devoting in-class time to introductory material and leaving advanced concepts to the assigned lectures, he was able to give students a more complete computer science education than they would have received in a traditional course or from the MOOC alone.

For this reason alone, Riggs does not see MOOCs as an existential threat to his faculty position. "I don't see the MOOC material somehow replacing what I'm doing," he notes. "If I get the computer to do stuff it's good at, I can do more interesting and creative things in the classroom." Quality courses are more than just content delivery, he says, and the lack of lectures simply leaves more time for discussions, hands-on help, and building skills.

But the great promise of MOOCs is that they will help reverse the unsustainable rise in tuition rates, and blended MOOCs simply don't have the cost-cutting potential of the xMOOC format. "It takes just as much time to plan and prepare for group exercises as it does to prepare a new lecture," says Cheal. "If anything, the blended MOOC is just a different way of working and is perhaps more intrinsically interesting for students."

Given the budgetary pressures facing schools in California--and nationwide--some faculty don't buy the argument that MOOCs are simply supplemental learning materials for use by local faculty. In May, the SJSU philosophy faculty rejected an edX MOOC titled JusticeX that had been recommended by the university administration for use in a blended course. In a letter to Michael Sandel, the Harvard professor who created the course, the faculty wrote: "We believe that long-term financial considerations motivate the call for…[MOOCs] at public universities such as ours.... Good quality online courses and blended courses (to which we have no objections) do not save money, but purchased prepackaged ones do, and a lot. With prepackaged MOOCs and blended courses, faculty are ultimately not needed. A teaching assistant would suffice to facilitate a blended course, and one might argue, paying a university professor just to monitor someone else's material would be a waste of resources."

If blended MOOCs do take off in higher education, the question of "who monitors someone else's material" might ultimately be the key differentiator in the quality of education offered by second- and third-tier institutions. Schools with higher tuition rates might be able to provide the kind of customized, hands-on experience that Cheal and Riggs describe, while cheaper schools might be forced to rely more heavily on TAs or lower-paid instructors to supplement the MOOC materials.

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