MOOC open online courses

Can MOOCs be a successful alternative for community colleges?

Why the MOOC hype could still be real; and the power of pairing with analytics and big data.

MOOC-community-collegesFirst offered in 2011 at Stanford, modern MOOCs were primarily computer science courses made open to anyone with an internet connection. It didn’t take long for the concept to catch on, and soon MOOCs were more pervasive and being touted as the future for higher education.

While that hype has not panned out, MOOCs did find a good foothold in our nation’s community colleges, where online classes provide scheduling flexibility for nontraditional students dealing with life demands; lower-cost options for students who need more cost-effective alternatives; or a stop-gap remedial solution for students needing help to fill in holes in their educational backgrounds.

That last use case has proven to be a top priority for community colleges across the nation. When I was the Director of Enterprise Services for Virginia’s Community Colleges, improving student success was a cornerstone strategic goal for the community colleges. Community colleges face unique challenges with student success: in the U.S., at least 50 percent of entrants need at least one year of developmental education in order to be prepared for entry-level college courses. MOOCs offer the possibility of allowing students to improve their basic skills and test into college‐level courses without having to pay for remedial classes.

Are MOOCs for everyone? No. Like most other online and internet-based education, it is self-directed and self-paced. With the large percentage of community college students in need of developmental education, MOOCs may not be the best path forward as these developmental courses have not traditionally been successful as MOOCs.

Research has established that community college students often struggle with online learning environments, and the MOOC format can exacerbate these challenges. And, adding another layer of challenge, in many of the free MOOCs, completion rates are extremely low, somewhere between 5 percent and 10 percent.

So, can MOOCs be successfully used at the community college level? Yes, with the right support.

(Next page: The potential of MOOCs in community colleges for developmental learners)

Understanding MOOCs

When talking about MOOCs, it is important to understand that although a MOOC is an online, internet-delivered modality for education, not all online internet-delivered education qualifies as a MOOC. The main differentiator is the course’s openness.

Today’s higher education administrative IT systems have been built and geared around a closed approach to delivering education. A prospective student applies, they matriculate, they enroll in specific programs and courses, they get grades, and then they are awarded some credential. Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems like Ellucian Banner or Oracle PeopleSoft do a great job of managing those closed workflows and business processes. They traditionally however, have not been able to handle the notion of “openness” that are at the essence of what MOOCs are. MOOC content is generally free, and you do not need to be enrolled or registered at a college or university to access it.

Consequently, colleges and universities frequently partner with MOOC distributors like Udacity and Coursera to deliver their MOOC content. These MOOC providers have open systems that make it very easy for anyone to access those courses without the rigorous application and registration required at higher education institutions.

For instance, with Udacity, a user can simply connect with their Facebook account and can immediately start accessing the course content. Also, the MOOC content with these providers is generally available for free.

For lifelong learners looking for professional development or personal enrichment, these MOOC courses are game changers at no cost. MOOC content tends to be very focused, video-based, and in focused subunits that don’t require sitting through an entire hour-long lecture. However, students seeking a specific degree or other formal credential through these MOOCs need to understand that there will be costs.

The good news is that colleges and universities are wrapping formal credit-based offerings around these MOOCs at a fraction of the cost of traditional in-classroom pedagogy. We are even starting to see some complete programs being offered wholly through MOOCs; for instance, Georgia Tech offers a complete MOOC-based Masters of Computer Science degree for under $7,000. Although the content for the MOOCs is freely available, only paid and registered Georgia Tech student will get credit.

Besides getting credit, the formally enrolled (paying) MOOC students also should expect other services from the institution including access to lab assistance, access to teaching assistants and professors during their office hours and electronic communication, feedback on assignments, and access to other academic advising services. Community colleges need to make sure they can scale their services to match the forecasted additional marginal demand because of the MOOC offering.

MOOCs for the Developmental Learner

Of particular significance with MOOCs on community college campuses is identification and support of students at academic risk. Big data and analytics are a formidable tool that can help identify these at-risk students and thereby enable much needed proactive intervention to help those students succeed in college.

In improving student success, we found that if a student attended their classes, they had an increased chance of at least attaining a “C” or better in their class. This applied to online courses, which can be especially difficult for many learners as online, internet-based education is largely self-directed and self-paced.

During my time with the Virginia Community College System, all of the courses at our colleges were hosted in a single learning management system; and so, we had the capability to track student’s virtual engagement by looking at their “clicks” in the online courseware. This type of information could prove to be valuable in improving student success. The data could show which students are most engaged and least engaged. Trending the data over time could also show which students were declining in engagement with their courses.

With this information, it would be possible to set up automated alerts and workflows to connect academic advisors to intervene with students who were disengaged or trending towards disengagement, thereby improving the chances of their success.

This sort of targeted intervention can prove critical at the community college level, and could prove to be a boost to student retention and attrition – two top goals of any institution of higher education.

Although MOOCs have not lived up to their initial hype, they still show great potential. MOOCs have upended the traditional models in higher education and offer new educational pathways to students, providing the ability to connect participants in global learning communities in ways never available before. With community colleges structuring formal credentials built around MOOC content at a fraction of the cost of the in-class alternative, MOOCs provide students a cost-effective option for higher education.

As long as colleges view the online student as a student in need of the services provided to more traditional pupils, and work to advance the use of analytics on captured data to improve the learning outcomes of the students engaged in online learning, MOOCs have a bright future on community college campuses, now and for years to come.

Matt Lawson is Principal Architect at NetApp.

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