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This coming January will be my third year of involvement in MOOCs. Questions have come up in the last year around the issue of why students “drop out” and how to better retain students. Tied to these questions is the issue of evaluation of learners and learning in MOOCs. At this point, I’ve witnessed at least three different kinds of MOOCs, and they all approach evaluation somewhat differently.
During my first year all MOOCs were of the cMOOC kind. This included, among others, LAK11 (Learning Analytics), CCK11 (Connectivism) and MobiMOOC (mLearning). There was not an evaluation of learner knowledge acquisition component in these MOOCs because the MOOCs were focused on community and emergent learning. This meant individuals made their own goals, within the framework of the course, and worked out a plan to attain those goals. In the end, they were only accountable to themselves and any sponsors they might have had for participating in the learning activity. This lack of external accountability earned cMOOCs the nickname “massive open online conferences” instead of their original “massive open online courses.” This was OK, as far as I was concerned, because I was happy to learn new things instead of having to show it on a piece of paper.
When Stanford, MIT, Harvard, and others dubbed “elite” Universities, decided to join the game, learner evaluations came into the picture, and came in a systematic way. This is partially because these courses were converted from current campus courses and evaluations were part of the norm. This brought up new considerations such as: How does one evaluate hundreds of thousands of students? Even in a “mini-massive” course of hundreds of students there is an issue in evaluation because it takes so darned long. As a result, automated testing, by way of multiple-choice quizzes, and peer reviews entered the picture. Big data and crowd sourcing also seemed to provide answers. In the end, you received a nice little certificate of participation if your overall grade was above a certain percentage. In this sphere, the “with distinction” mark was also available for students who went above and beyond the minimum requirements. As I’ve written elsewhere, as the requirements vary from course to course, the “with distinction” mark means little since there is no standard rubric for it.
Now, we’ve seen other MOOC practices emerge. One recent category is the project-based MOOC (or pMOOC). The OLDS MOOC, and, more recently one could argue, Mozilla’s Open badge MOOC, fall into this category. In this type of MOOC, participants work on a project (or projects) throughout their involvement in the MOOC. The projects receive student comments by peers designed around improvement or they are evaluated by a team. The work seems substantial enough to keep achievement hunters (those just looking for a quick path through the MOOC in order to get a piece of paper, or a badge) at bay.
The question of learner evaluation in MOOC environments is quite big. Yet, it all comes back to one fundamental question: What is the final outcome of your MOOC? The “C” in MOOC is for “c”ourse. We have this notion in our heads that courses have evaluations and grades. Perhaps it’s time to reassess this aspect, just as we need to reassess the significance of retention rates in MOOCs. Some self-check feedback is probably worthwhile in any course, MOOC or not. In smaller courses, establishing that you are on the right path might be as simple as a discussion forum or discussion with peers and the instructor, so no test is needed. In MOOCs, depending on the subject, some automated testing may help. Peer reviews (not peer grading) may help in building a community of learners that help scaffold each other’s learning endeavors.
Evaluation as a means of self-check has its place. The proof, however, on whether you can put this knowledge to use, is in practice. A piece of paper saying you participated in a MOOC is for now not worth the paper to print it. Institutions offering MOOCs do not give you credit for the course, other institutions don’t accept it for credit, and no one recognizes, at this point, that piece of paper. Even Coursera’s signature track, with proctored exams, does not yet gain recognition. So, at the end of the day, if learners aren’t getting some external recognition of their learning, what is the point of formal graded evaluations in MOOCs? I would argue that it’s time to go back to the drawing board. When designing MOOCs, do a learner and learning outcome analysis, and work toward development of MOOCs that makes sense for that environment. Then work on evaluation mechanisms that make sense for your stated course goals.
What are your thoughts on the subject?
Apostolos Koutropoulos, “AK” (@koutropoulos), is the program coordinator for the online MA program in applied linguistics and a faculty member in the instructional design program at UMass Boston. Over the last year and a half he has participated in many massive online open courses (MOOCs) and has co-authored research papers with his colleagues in the MobiMOOC Research Team (MRT). AK holds a BA in computer science, an MBA with a focus on human resources, an MS in information technology, an MEd in instructional design, and an MA in applied linguistics. His research interests include knowledge management, educational technology, linguistics, and epistemology.