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Higher education and the MOOC tsunami: what is the real challenge facing institutions and teachers?

The arrival of MOOCs both fascinates and scares our Higher Education actors. Is it a game changer? Institutions may be challenged, but to-day the most significant difference seems to concern the teaching experience. Five pionniers share their experience.

February 2014
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The arrival of MOOCs both fascinates and scares our Higher Education actors. The term bandied by all is that of a “tsunami”, viz., a major upheaval affecting the institutions, the pedagogy and the role teachers play. In December 2013, ParisTech Review hosted a Round Table organized by the X-Open Innovation Group and moderated the exposés and debates. The Round Table brought together the MOOC pioneers in French engineering schools synthesizing the state-of-the-art, explaining their respective positions and making some tentative and perspective predictions.

Everyone today has heard of MOOCs, though the term was coined only in 2008, and in a rather limited context. No more than twenty-five persons were physically present, where the CCKO8 course Connectivism and Connective Knowledge, organized by George Siemens and Stephen Downes, was unfolding in a classroom at the University of Manitoba, Canada. Twenty-five in class... plus one hundred times more following the course online. Massive, Online, Open: all of a sudden the whole concept was there.

The approach, though, was not entirely new by the time. This novel way to teach and learn borrowed and reframed the acronym of massively multiplayer online game (MMOG or MMO). Says Wikipedia: “capable of supporting large numbers of players simultaneously.”

And Mathieu Cisel - who has just begun his doctoral thesis on MOOCs at the ENS Cachan (teacher training institution for HE) – observes that distant learning schemes have existed for a long time now. We can quote here the CNAM courses (Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers), the Interuniversity Federation for Distant Learning, The Open University, United Kingdom, or the UNED (Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia), Spain. But it was the advent of Internet which slowly, subtly, brought in a series of breakthroughs.


The first notable step was e-learning which, in the 1990s, allowed new devices and processes to come on line; white board technologies, e-mail exchanges and forums … the continuous education world followed suit but the major institutions stayed clear… Yet, in 2001, they started to move: Stanford made a first attempts with Yale and Oxford via a joint not-for-profit online venture allLearn (Alliance for Lifelong Learning), with 10 000 matriculations over a 5 year period, but the venture closed in 2006. One problem may have been that while registration cost the student applicants 250 $US, it did not award any university credits. Massachusetts Institute of Technology launched OpenCourseWare (OCW) the same year, 2001. This was a platform that associated detailed course descriptors and videos of the main lectures. However, notes Mathieu Cisel, it was impossible to gain training with this tool, for example when the lecturer makes a point at the blackboard, the camera does not follow… “The students via their laptops have either the ‘open’, the ‘online’ or the ‘massive’ aspect, but separately,” says Cisel.

Making a synthesis of all three was finally provided by Stanford, California, with a course entitled Stanford Engineering Everywhere. In 2011, this was the first course under the banner Coursera, a non-profit (for the moment) start-up, a new emblematic platform of what is now going to be called the MOOCs, currently leading the field and with no contest possible, in terms of auditors/participants. The next two platforms are Udacity – “born out of a Stanford University experiment in which Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig offered their Introduction to Artificial Intelligence course online to anyone, for free” and edX, a joint initiative of MIT and Harvard, to which some 30 other major universities have joined forces, including Beijing, Seoul, Kyoto, UCL-Louvain and the Institutes of Technology of Munich and Mumbay.

Why, we might wonder, remembering that New York Times chose to declare 2012 as the Year of the MOOC, is this considered constitutive of a qualitative leap forward? Mathieu Cisel recalls that the acronym MOOC stands for Massive, Open, Online and Courses. So, first of all the course must be massive. Coursera claims to have 4 million matriculations round ten world, followed by edX with one million and Udacity 750 000. Next, it must be open, i.e., free of access and open to anyone. Among the matriculated students we have secondary school goers, or retired persons, or professionals still in activity who want to complete their training, and in this category we fund for example a lot of computer scientists who feel they lack up-to-date theoretical bases. Thirdly but obviously, the course is on line, which means on line from A to Z. Last but not least, it is a course, capable not only of transmitting knowledge in the same way as an encyclopedia, but also providing training, with a real and measurable input.

“Designing a MOOC is long, painstaking and calls for a wide range of skills,” adds Mathieu Cisel. For a high quality MOOC, about a high level university course, the upstream work may require between 500 and 1 000 hours preparation. One must also adapt the pedagogy to the new format, with denser sequences, each lasting say 15 minutes. Professor Dominique Rossin, Ecole Polytechnique and co-head of a MOOC entitled Designing and implementing algorithms (X-Coursera) also has noted the sheer amount of work needed to design a course and the fact that numerous lecturers commit themselves without realizing just how much work lies ahead. By way of an example, preparing exercise with corrections takes time. Moderating the forum – especially in the first week of a course – is arduous but absolutely necessary if one wishes to follow up questions placed “live” by students on line, many of whom do not live in the same time belt as the lecturer.


Alberto Alemanno's MOOC on Coursera

On the other hand, there is the perspective of having literally thousands of participants follow your lectures, even though sometimes the figures in the media reports call for caution. Opening a course massively carries the corollary that many will abandon, since many simply register out of curiosity, as if you were to push the door of a classroom, then realize that the course contents or the level are not adapted, or again find that it is not interesting to the point that you persevere and complete the MOOC course. Given that a registration only takes a few seconds, notes Frank Pacard, Director of Studies and Research at Ecole Polytechnique, the figures are necessarily misguiding. There may be many matriculations (those who “saw the course in a programme”), but then come the 3 questions: how many applicants actually go on to attend the first lecture (which amounts to opening the class-door and stepping inside to have a look), how many will complete the first week (those who felt that the course matched their expectations) and finally how many completed the full course, viz., to the very last lecture? For a given course, typical figures can be 200 000 enrolled in week one, falling to 20 000 for week two, after which the attendance gradually stabilizes. Of interest it has been observed that if the MOOC is free, but with a price tag for the course completion certificate, the drop-out rate is lower.

A new public

Even if it is an attractive prospect and rewarding for the teachers to see their work under the sunlights and widely netcast, it is no simple affair for them to adapt to the new public, potentially very different from the highly selected, somewhat homogenous students who normally follow their classes in the most prestigious institutions. And when Ecole Polytechnique did choose to go ahead, Dominique Rossin discussed the issues with colleague Benjamin Werner, Director of the Computer Science Dept.: for example, should the first year, or second year course be reformatted in extenso? They decided not only to make the net sessions denser, focused on the largest most heterogeneous public imaginable, but also to try and test side-roads offering new angles on the contents of their specialty, far too often reduced to the art of ‘programming’.

The change in public constitution responds in essence to one institutional challenge for MOOCs: higher visibility. It is surely not just by chance that net links round the world began to jingle when the secular temples of knowledge saw sister champions like Harvard, Stanford or MIT move in on the MOOC scene, investing millions of dollars to do so.

One target is to enable identification of brilliant students, maybe residents in some remote African village, just only ‘three clicks away’ from displaying their innate talents to all. Africa and India are the world’s top MOOC consumers – and at the forefront we find the videos viewable on the Khan Academy* (founded 2006 and which, more than straight forward lectures, with an introduction, new content and a conclusion, comes as a module base camp in many languages, including Farsi, Bengali, Urdu… Ed. – *This YouTube® extract features has the founder and MIT graduate Salman Khan telling how he actually started – makes fascinating viewing).

Nobody today can really say what the fallout of MOOCs will be – either for Society at large or for the Institutions involved. Nonetheless, we see it definitely was the most prestigious who launched themselves first, often motivated by the thought that they could not afford not be a front-line player and lose ground. In France, following Ecole Centrale Lille, now we have Ecole Polytechnique joining the Coursera platform. The agreement with Coursera was signed rather suddenly, with a deadline set at Feb.15, 2013 which did not leave any spare time to indulge in a hesitation wales, nor was there much time to organized the practical details, such as whether an end-of-course certificate should be granted or not, and if “yes” what business model would be chosen. “If I had really thought about it, I would not have taken the matter further,” jokes Frank Pacard, who took the decision to commit Ecole Polytechnique (familiarly known in France as “X” (France’s #1 competitive admission engineering school) in this new adventure. Today the decision is totally accepted, but it was urgent at the time. Frank Pacard recognizes this but still has the feeling that he is still in the hero-stuff epoch: there is the experimental approach, the exploration, the risk taking, discovering what works and what does not … in short, understanding how it all comes together and makes sense.

A pedagogical experience

It was the experimental dimension that attracted the pioneers who went for MOOCs. Jean-Marie Gilliot, who heads the MOOC at the Institut Mines-Telecom, expresses this enthusiastically “I had been waiting for this ever since I was at kindergarten!” It represented an unprecedented opportunity to try and test new pedagogies. With his gift for communication, Jean-Marie Gilliot thinks that the very name of MOOCs should be reframed. As he sees it, it is not just the massive feature that characterizes the MOOC it is also and maybe more so the dynamics of scale that accompany on-line courses.

Massive collaborative dynamics – exactly the kind of thing we see in crowdsourcing, or Web 2.0 which for a while was kept under wraps awaiting potential revelation, after the initial teething period of the earlier, essentially passive, Internet.

So what is the challenge now? As Jean-Marie Gilliot sees it, MOOC is a misnomer and it would be more relevant to prefer COOC for Collaborative Open Online Courses, or even Community Open Online Courses. What characterizes MOOCs, compared with other on-line teaching systems is its focus on interaction, not only among students and the teacher but also between the students themselves. There is a self-aid, self-transmission level where knowledge contents are verified, validated on a peer-to-peer base like runners in a relay race, handing on the baton.

Jean-Marie Gilliot says as much and more on his blog: “What is fascinating for more than one MOOC teacher is to see answers to content-related questions coming on-line faster that one would normally be able to provide, and which improve from comment to comment to the point that the quality and extent of the answer overtake the original expected level. At this point, the teacher no longer plays the role of aiding students but more collaborating with a cohort of participants to jointly build the relevant answers; the job now becomes a monitoring task (alone or to be shared with others in the pedagogical team for a given MOOC) of the incoming answers that might, in certain difficult cases, call for some additional teacher-team input.”

Dominique Rossin has noted that it is not self-evident that the students will interact peer-to-peer: the teacher must get (and remain) involved, encouraging and helping the students to make rendezvous among themselves.

If we can readily recognize that practice in on-line teaching is changing, the prerequisites are still similar. As Benjamin Werner noted, in the 1960s-70s, there were some famous pioneers such as Nobel Prize (Physics 1965) laureate Richard Feynman, “the great explainer” with his TV lectures on physics, or René Chenon and his primer CNAM 1969 course on modern mathematics, filmed in black and white.

Even with the equipment available back in 1969, Professor Chenon debriefed the previous lecture replying to questions that had arrived since. What is new with MOOCs is that the feedback comments are real tile and massive, and by scale effect reach a critical mass such that the forum becomes self-sustained.

It also provides an opportunity for teachers to work together, and thereby to mutually enrich their courses and teaching methods, whereas courses previously were “experienced” in parallel by the authors, close to each other but intervening in separate lecture halls. “The final conclusion is that we all learn something.” The objective for teachers is to loosen their grip on the students, allowing them to become self-reliant, after providing the best framework possible through the lecture process. At the same time, is understandably disturbing for them to admit that the traditional, hierarchic “top down” teacher-student relation can be dispensed with. The question arises: is this good or not for the students? Same question for the teachers.

The experts who attended the Round Table reached the consensus that classic face-to-face teaching, which all present had experienced before becoming themselves lecturers and professors, includes enormous periods of “time out.” “The percentage efficiency of what we learned is epsilon! Output efficiency tends to zero.” Most elements heard in a lecture hall serve no purpose at all and will therefore be forgotten. And most of what later proves useful, the students learned it themselves, asserted some of the participants. Moreover, if we frame the issue in a more pragmatic way, we could conclude that the Time to Market of the graduate is going to be rapidly out of phase, i.e., spending five years learning facts and figures that will be obsolete after only two years!

In a sense, these are early days and as Dominique Rossin noted, the definition of MOOCs may well be changed before the year is out. Thankfully, no attempt has yet been made to standardize the MOOC, or certify their format/ contents: the model is still highly flexible and retains every possibility to evolve. In the time being, the adventure, as seen from the lecturers’ point of view is fascinating – even though and we can insist on this, the process requires an enormous work input, with a wide open range of situations possible. Some lecture courses lend themselves quite well and certain lecturers feel at ease with the new environment and model… others feel uncomfortable, ill at ease. But it is an adventure that opens up the way to reconfiguring what is called the field of learning, upsetting the established figures, introducing new rhythms and news ways to acquire knowledge that prove more flexible, more collaborative. The role of the teacher remains central to the process while the network of exchanges becomes increasingly dense and the students gain in autonomy and self-reliance.

Certain aspects of the reconfiguration remain to be explored, notably in automation and gamification. Tru Dô-Khac, founder president of X-Open Innovation and organizer of the Round Table, underscored the advantages that might come from combining MOOCs and serious games. The pedagogical interest of the latter is patent in terms of motivation and degree of involvement of the user/players: neuroscience teaches us (cf. this article by Stanislas Dehaene) that an ideal learning curve is participative, interactive, organized in short yet regular sequences and that the knowledge must be tested and verifiable and lend itself to transmission. These are inherent features of serious games and could spill over to the world of MOOCs if and when specific, well thought out training sequences are added to the ex cathedra lectures.