Learning with MOOCs: Examples of Blended Learning

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Members of the Extension Engine team were lucky enough to participate in an exciting workshop that is bringing together professionals from a variety of industries to discuss the future of MOOCs. The workshop, titled “Learning with MOOCs: A Practitioner’s Workshop” covered material from sessions and key insights gleaned from our experience here to promote education about MOOCs and how to best implement them.

Anant Agarwal of edX opened the workshop, and Candace Thille of Stanford University’s Open Learning Initiative provided an introduction and overview of the workshop. Several discussions on the latest trends and findings related to MOOCs followed “The Learning Perspective” Keynote Address by Susan Singer of the National Science Foundation.

The theme of the session was models of blended learning. Though it is easier to latch on to extremes when considering the future of education, speakers warned against falling into this trap of “false choice.” They suggested that neither falling back to a traditional university system of education, nor striving to rely 100% on MOOCs and online learning will optimize the learning process.

Some will argue that traditional universities will suffer a fate analogous to print newspapers, where in 10 years, they will be almost entirely online. Others will be adamant that these universities, which have been in existence for over 800 years, will continue their traditional practices in spite of the MOOC movement. Nonetheless, our speakers urged us to consider the potential of blended solutions, and much of the discussion this morning focused on such blended solutions.


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The blended learning approach

The common version of blended learning is "flipping," where students learn the material at home using a MOOC platform and then the instructor "guides by the side" in the classroom. However, there were a few more interesting applications of blended MOOCs that were discussed during the workshop.

Colgate University is implementing an Advent of the Atomic Bomb course that is a fusion of traditional and online approaches to learning. The course involves students ranging over 60 years in age, and the interactive online component is complemented by real-time interaction with other students, providing inter-generational perspectives. "The alumni make it real," Karen Harpp, the professor of the course has said about having young students interact with older generations while learning about history. "You talk with someone who was on a navy ship heading for Japan when the bombs were dropped, and it takes on a completely different dimension. This dynamic course has received highly positive feedback and enhanced student engagement.


Colgate University's promo for their course "Advent of the Atomic Bomb"
Colgate University's promo for their MOOC


Wellesley College, the first liberal arts college to join edX, is combining small seminar courses with its first MOOCs in what are becoming some of the most popular courses available at Wellesley. The strategy is conducive to unpredictable in-class discussions, which is an attractive feature of the course. Van Arsdale, who is leading one of these blended MOOC/brick-and-mortar courses on Human Evolution hopes that the approach will provoke discussions that broaden the scope of traditional classroom settings.


Many of the examples of blended approaches to education involved blending individual courses, such that there were both MOOC components and traditional in-class learning components. However, it’s also possible that a general blended solution to education could include certain courses sticking with traditional techniques and other courses forging new territory through MOOC platforms. MOOCs may follow a similar trajectory as e-commerce.
Certain items, like music, are now purchased almost entirely online, while others, like home improvement goods, continue to be purchased largely in brick and mortar stores. We may find it the case that online and in-class strategies may each be more conducive to learning, when certain disciplines or topics are involved. For example, research has shown that online education has been particularly useful for facilitating education for young adults in medical fields.1,2

Current limitations

There are, of course, still limitations of MOOC implementation. The technology itself still leaves something to be desired, as videos can be slow to load, particularly in certain parts of the world. There is a learning curve for the teachers involved as well. Van Arsdale notes: “It is much easier to work out the basic ins and outs of things with 15 students than it is with 18,000.” He added, “Being filmed without an audience—or an audience of a few camera people—is definitely a different skill set than teaching in front of a class. In class, you have a constant feedback from students—their faces, expressions, questions, comments—that you don't have on film. It has been a challenge, but a fun one.”

We are still very much in the research phase for determining the best approaches for capitalizing on the potential MOOCs bring to education without sacrificing the benefits of in-class strategies. It is difficult to test the effects of MOOCs because of the lack of a direct link to students, and blended models further complicate the research because of the addition of several uncontrolled variables. With distinct teaching techniques utilized for different types of courses and subjects, it becomes difficult to answer questions that arise during the process. For example, there is inconsistency in reports about the effects of online courses on academic performance.

Some studies claim that students who watch more online video lectures perform worse in a course compared to those who watched more in-class lectures. Others have shown that digital teaching systems lead to significantly better student performance than human teaching.3 Because the various studies into the effects of online learning use vastly different approaches involving different courses, students, and implementation styles, it is difficult to generalize their results.

It may be the case that MOOCs enhance learning for students who are particularly motivated to learn the subject matter and therefore utilize the course resources to a larger degree. These students may be more likely to engage in discussions and to re-watch lectures. On the other hand, for students who are less motivated and may be taking the course as a requirement, online lectures may provide an opportunity to check out mentally. Indeed, having a live in-classroom teacher increases one’s obligation to remain engaged.

These possibilities support the current trend of pulling back from the centralized MOOC model, in which courses were designed to reach as many people as possible. Now we are witnessing a trend toward developing courses that provide a more intimate experience. At this very workshop, led by the leading minds in the MOOC movement, we are engaged through a “workshop” approach rather than with the style of a traditional conference.

The future

As we attempt to determine exactly how MOOCs can optimize learning, we should consider what aspects of our courses are best suited for the classroom and those that may be aided by online support. In other words, though a blended strategy is likely better than an extreme strategy that employs only one technique, we should not use in-class and online tools simply for the sake of providing both options. Instead, we should build dynamic courses that capitalize on both the power of the classroom and the power of the Internet.

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1 Fischer, S., Stewart, T., Mehta, S., Wax, R. & Lapinsky, S. Handheld computing in medicine. Journal of American Medical Informatics Association 13, 139-149 (2003).
2 Boulous, M., Hetherington, L. & Wheeler, S. Second life: an overview of the potential of 3-D virtual worlds in medical and health education. Health Information & Libraries Journal 24, 233-245 (2007).
3 Craig, S. et al. Learning with ALEKS: The impact of students' attendance in a mathematics after-school program. Artificial Intelligence in Education 6738, 435-437 (2011).

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