On the surface, MOOCs—Massive Online Open Courses—look like such a good idea. A year ago, startups Udacity and Coursera were Silicon Valley darlings and every major university was rushing to be part of a movement promising to level an educational playing field distorted by spiraling costs and limited access. By digitally repackaging top tier college courses for free online distribution, the pendulum was supposed to swing toward a true meritocracy defined by hard work and talent.
That remains a worthy goal, despite recent studies revealing Massive Online Drop-out Rates. Beyond technical and logistical glitches, it was probably folly to think that almost any topic could be MOOCicized. Like all new formats, there is a learning curve. This one for MOOCs just happened to be a little steeper than tech-giddy investors and promoters first thought.
Over the last few months, I have tried three MOOCs, two through Coursera (Northwestern’s "Understanding Media by Understanding Google" and University of Pennsylvania’s "An Introduction to Marketing") and one from Udacity (”The Design of Everyday Things”). All three were a bust and largely for the same reason: There were better ways for me to learn the material on my own.
Features such as discussion forums promoted as a way to provide a social dimension to learning often ended up doing just the opposite. In a recent NPR story, Tracy Wheeler, an educational consultant who tried five MOOCs (and completed three) talked of disappointment and frustration:
…She had read the professor’s book and was excited and upbeat.
"I thought I’d go in deeper and come out wanting to move to India and help her with one of her experiments," she says.
…(S)he says she hated being chained to the computer screen and found the entire MOOC experience mechanistic, dreary and ineffectual.
"I’m a very social person. There was nothing to grasp on to," she says. "There were no people; there was no professor. In a sense you’re just learning in this void. … I would come away from my computer just kind of despondent and feeling really reduced somehow."
She says the courses’ online forums — the key support structure for many MOOCs — were isolating and largely absent of meaningful back-and-forth — or joy.
"It was like going up and scrawling your name on a graffiti wall. You know, there was no sense of community…"
It turns out that it is not easy to digitally recreate a real life learning experience. It also risks recreating the flaws.
WHAT I REALLY LEARNED IN SCHOOL AND A PERSONAL WORKAROUND
University courses are designed to fit university schedules, so a MOOC can stretch for weeks on end even if the material doesn’t support it. The Coursera classes were an all too accurate flashback to my college days, where I quickly learned to avoid large quiz-addled survey courses (the MOOCs of their day) at all costs. They were almost always bloated and boring, designed to knock the stuffing out even the most interesting subjects. Clearly, if I was going to make it though to graduation, I needed another approach. By the time I was a senior, I had maneuvered my way into several graduate seminars by finding good teachers, then semester after semester signing up for their increasingly higher level courses. It was basically “Jeopardy: The University Edition” (”I’ll take Soviet Geography for $800!”)—and how I ended up with a degree in East European history and a minor in fine art photography. A gifted teacher can bring depth to almost any subject and in the process also teach how to learn.
By nature and profession journalists are lifelong learners. They ask questions, do research and try to make sense of things. The big perk is what you get to discover along the way. I had no idea, for example, that I would become so deeply interested in microbiology or energy until I was assigned stories on those beats. My experience in print (newspapers, magazines, books), broadcast, digital and exhibitions, also taught me something about packaging information.
Content is clay. Almost anything can be translated into or out of a digital format and endlessly reused, remixed, recut, recombined and repackaged. The challenge, then, becomes one of matching format(s) to needs.
BUILDING A BETTER MOOC
So why have MOOCs largely flopped while TED talks, Instructables and Khan Academy videos flourished? It is the same reason YouTube has become my go-to resource for everything from “How do I make a GIF?” to “How do I install batteries in a Swiffer WetJet?” They get right to the point, delivering useful and compelling information in a readily accessible format. MOOCs on the other hand, tend to get leggy and lose focus over the weeks and months it takes to complete a course..
The technical glitches plaguing MOOCs will eventually be worked out, but equally pressing is the need to develop metrics for determining what subjects are best suited the format and identifying the characteristics of a well-produced MOOC. Udacity is already pivoting from its original model, taking on corporate partners, shifting focus toward training and charging tuition.
A few thoughts:
1) Make sure the format adds value: Ironically, the Udacity course on user-friendly product design was presented through very confusing user interface. After a few hours or fiddling around, I gave up, figuring it would be faster to read the suggested text by designer Don Norman and scout YouTube for some of his lectures. Indeed, I would have much preferred seeing Norman, the Sir David Attenborough of his field, share his insights in a BBC-style documentary. Similarly, I didn’t have the patience for the Google course where questions such as “Can you imagine your life without Google?” filled the discussion board. There are plenty of articles, books and videos covering the same material. Just Google Google.
2) More teaching, less dazzling: MOOCs often present a checklist for each class consisting of several short videos, podcasts and article links. That’s a lot of jumping around. It is usually more effective to use one or two formats (a video lecture, a narrated slide set or a text excerpt) to cover key material. Teaching is a kind of storytelling and clarity counts. Everything extra belongs in the reference bibliography.
3) Design the course to fit the material: If the content can be presented in one or two lectures rather than ten, don’t pad it. A MOOC doesn’t have to be semester-long or a quarter-long or a half-semester-long. It can be as short or long as it needs to be. The design course with Don Norman was set up as a two-week sampler to test out the format. Here is hoping the bugs can be fixed.
4) Cut anything that isn’t essential or contributing value: Discussion forums have developed a spotty record so may not always be necessary.
5) Consider other ways to package the information: For example, create a course-specific digital textbook containing the same content. Off-the-shelf digital platforms such as Inkling or MAZ can accommodate weblinks as well as video embeds and graphics. Students would still need to go to the course site to upload homework and take exams, but the digital book format could make it easier to search for specific information, review material and see the arc of the course. Students could bookmark and highlight content and write notes in the digital margins. This is an “and” not an “or,” so there could be small fee ($10 to $20) for students who would prefer this format.
PLAYING TO STRENGTH: SOME WRONG ANSWERS AND MANY, MANY RIGHT ONES
The brilliance of digital media is its endless flexibility. Like Russian matryoshka dolls, content naturally wants to nest, so a blog post can be…
- linked in an article…
- that’s quoted in a digital book…
- that’s printed out as a physical book…
- that’s scanned and turned into a 3D print of a book…
- that’s photographed and photoshopped and turned into an art element…
- that’s used in a video…
- that’s discussed in a podcast
- that’s embedded in yet another blog post…
Around and around it goes, one big glorious ever-evolving mesh of information. Which is why it so baffling that the translational quality of digital information is so often overlooked. Content can become a kind of stranded asset, frozen into a single format, its potential value never fully realized.
Consider the conference video. In the wake of TED, every conference now deploys squadrons of videographers to capture every precious talk and break-out session. Yet unless the conference is as heavily promoted and networked as TED, the number of viewers for any single video typically tops out between a few dozen to a few hundred. When videos are uploaded to a proprietary player on a conference website rather than to YouTube, it can difficult, if not impossible, to embed them in articles and blogs. They are less likely to be shared. On YouTube, new content is added at an astonishing rate of 100 hours per minute, so videos can easily get lost in the shuffle there without some smart tagging promotion The upshot: thousands of dollars invested in content production for paltry results.
The picture can change dramatically when digital content is seen and valued as a mutable asset.
1) Provide multiple ways to access content: Videos require a time commitment and tethering to a computer. It is easy for viewers to get distracted, flipping through email, checking social media, web surfing and doing actual work. Anything more than a few minutes long is unlikely to watched all the way through. Most conference videos, however, can also function brilliantly as audio podcasts, which can be listened to on a train, in a car, while working out, etc. Strip off an audio track, repackage it as a podcast and voíla! two digital assets for nearly the price of one.
2) The more urls, the better: Each video or audio podcast should have its own url. MIT’s Emtech 2013 conference did not do this, which was really unfortunate. Videos were uploaded as two batches, one for each day of the conference, each batch given a collective url. The videos were also uploaded to a proprietary player so it was impossible to share an individual talk or embed a video. Per TED, sharing content after an event can help brand and promote the event, so it was a fumbled opportunity.
3) Mine and repackage content as a value add: Every conference and trade show is a gusher of information that can be repackaged in a variety of ways, including a digital reference book—designed as a must-have for anyone interested in a particular industry. The basic recipe is simple: Start by asking each speaker to provide a short digital bibliography (links and pdfs) along with the standard bio submitted for the event program. Pair this content with video recorded during the conference (embed video and audio versions and also provide links for easy sharing). Include a 300 word summary of each talk and provide a linked list of related talks from the conference. Add a table of contents, an index and an intro overview essay or two. The cost can be wrapped into the conference fee. The digital reference book can also be made available for a separate fee. Indeed, such a timely industry-focused reference would make a good supplement to a university course or a MOOC. Additional revenue can be generated through trade show vendor content, created as a separate “advertorial” section.
ONCE YOU GET THE HANG OF IT…
…it is nearly impossible not to see the potential to mine and reconfigure content everywhere. I see a lavishly produced coffee table book and want to deconstruct it for a series of digital reference books. Each format plays to a different strength: The heft and gloss of the book are designed to make a statement while the digital content can make a difference.
Similarly, the Smithsonian is currently reimagining its museum collections through the use of 3D scans. A museum is itself a format with physical objects as content. The scans make it possible to transcend the original package, liberating the content so it can be used, shared and distributed in entirely new ways:
The grand MOOC vision of a world where anyone with a desire to learn can learn about anything, undeterred by barriers of cost and access, may still be off in the distance. But it is getting closer. We have the tools. It is just a matter of figuring out how better to use them.
- Data Mining Exposes Embarrassing Problems for Massive Open Online Courses / MIT Technology Review
- The Intrigue of Coursera / Michael Horn, Forbes
- What MOOCs Can’t Teach / Emma Green, The Atlantic
- Forget MOOCs / Will Oremus, Salon (on the rise of SPOCs)
- Smithsonian X 3D / a very, very cool website
- Orihon (3D printed Accordion Book) / Tom Burtonwood
- Hot On YouTube: Videos About Video Games, And Science, Too / NPR