3 ways online courses could become more like iTunes

Thanks to MIT, modularization could soon be an oft-repeated phrase in online education

Copyright Bloom Design / Shutterstock.com

Members of the MIT task force, who were asked to examine ways a college education could become more accessible, more affordable, and more effective, pointed to the concept of “modularization” as a key to improving the traditional web-based class model and the nontraditional massive open online course (MOOC).

The task force suggested breaking courses into modules — or learning units meant to be studied in sequence but separately. This approach would mimic a person’s ability to purchase bits and pieces of an artist’s music from Apple iTunes, they said.

“Much like a playlist on iTunes, a student could pick and choose the elements of a calculus or a biology course offered across the edX platform to meet his or her needs, but for most effective learning, modular units must be integrated into the whole,” the task force wrote in its final report. “Thus, while the effort to study and complete a module may be more accessible, the effort to integrate the information into a complete class remains significant but may be facilitated by incremental learning.”

Taking the iTunes approach would offer more “malleability” and “fluidity” to online learning — two elements that seem to be missing from the platform as only a sliver of students complete courses available on edX, where 5.1 percent of students finish classes and earn a certificate.

Faculty support for the modularization of online education was spotty, however.

(Next page: Faculty survey results)

A fall 2013 survey of MIT faculty and instructors found that one in 10 educators “seldom” utilize a modular approach and convert their courses into smaller units. One in four MIT educators said breaking courses into smaller parts could be beneficial in many of their classes.

Student support for modularization was higher: 40 percent of student respondents said they had taken at least one MIT class that could have benefited from the modular model, according to the task force’s report.

The modular model would require a basic repository for the various parts of an online class. Students could visit that online repository and download the pieces of a course that they need in the coming weeks or months. The task force suggested using tags and filters to make it easy for faculty and students to search for modules.

This is hardly the first attempt to find ways to boost online course — and MOOC — completion rates, despite pleas from Harvard and MIT to stop focusing on those rates as the sole judge of a course’s success.

Andrew Ho, an associate professor in Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, said the public’s focus on MOOC completion rates is stifling the online courses’ potential.

“A fixation on completion rates limits our imagination of what might be possible with MOOCs,” he said. “A better criterion for success might be for students to complete more of the course than they thought they would, or to learn more than they might have expected when they first clicked on a video or course forum.”

Sign up for our newsletter

Newsletter: Innovations in K12 Education
By submitting your information, you agree to our Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy.