Can online classes disrupt hundreds of years of traditional teaching? Researchers at Illinois’ Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning (CITL) analyzed data from participants enrolled in U. of I. Coursera courses to try to answer that question and challenge assumptions about how we learn.
Illinois moved swiftly to join the Massive Open Online Course movement, starting with a Coursera partnership in summer 2012. Beginning with a starter set of six MOOCs, Illinois created courses on a range of subjects from an introductory class in sustainability to a technical graduate-level computer science course. According to CITL, Illinois now offers more than 70 degree, certificate and specialization options as part of their online education portfolio. This includes Illinois’ new online iMBA, the first MOOC-based degree program offered in partnership with Coursera, which launched in spring 2016, and an online Master of Science in Information Management, scheduled to begin in spring 2017.
“We’re trying to provide information and education to the masses, to different people across the world … information they wouldn’t have access to otherwise,” said CITL director of data analytics Maryalice Wu.
Coursera participant Siddarth Wadehar searched every online platform for a 3-D printing class. An innovations consultant for a health care delivery service company in Dubai, Wadehar discovered 3-D printing becoming the talk of his industry and wanted to learn more. Then he found Illinois’ 3-D printing course, taught by Illinois MakerLab director Vishal Sachdev.
Wadehar said he knew nothing about 3-D printing. But after completing the course, Wadehar was inspired to purchase a 3-D printer for his team to print prosthetics and other items with future applications in health care.
“I’ve done two courses, and I think I know more about 3-D printing than anyone in my entire company,” Wadehar, who now volunteers as a mentor for Sachdev’s course, said with a laugh. “The course was so interesting that someone like me even considered taking (Ph.D. courses) as an option.”
Alejandra Agüero said earning her online master’s degree from the College of Education allowed her to travel all over the world to conduct research for her thesis on higher education in Europe. She’s pursuing a Ph.D. at the college and many of her doctoral courses are blended – offered both online and on campus.
“I’m very passionate about online learning,” said Agüero, currently the assistant director for international programs at the College of Education. “I feel like there are many stresses in an adult’s life, and you want to use time as efficiently as possible. If I can do a course from home after dinner, after I’ve spent some time with my children, that’s ideal.”
The opportunity for researchers like Wu and CITL project lead Sara Shrader to analyze detailed data – such as who watched the most lecture videos, finished the most quizzes, and completed the most courses and their age, sex and education level – is a chance to better serve the learning needs of Illinois students.
Wu said no other institution is currently asking MOOC participants these open-ended survey questions: What are your reasons for taking this course? And what do you hope to get out of it? (Read more about their findings.)
“Illinois is one of the premiere research institutions in the world,” said Shrader, who has a background in educational policy. “We have the means and the brainpower to be at the forefront (of MOOC research), and have a huge stake in the outcome of this path. It’s important to us to understand what’s happening, and not make rash policy decisions based on what’s going on with other institutions – take control of our own destiny and figure out what’s best for our educational mission.”
When MOOCs first emerged, researchers and industry leaders predicted they’d completely change the traditional classroom. Wu and Shrader said that’s not what their data show. At least, not yet.
CITL research shows a noteworthy percentage of participants taking Illinois Coursera courses preferred to walk themselves through the course in a more linear, traditional way by taking quizzes, watching videos and finishing the course as they would have in the classroom. But another significant portion of participants, 29 percent, only watched video lectures.
Instead of replacing traditional learning methods, MOOCs actually introduce greater flexibility and access for nontraditional students, Wu and Shrader said, and the Illinois Coursera data support those findings.
One surprising result of their analysis: 4.0 percent of participants enrolled in MOOCs to learn how to teach the course to others. Researchers also did not anticipate that 2.8 percent of their Coursera participants take courses to learn English.
“We gave them the opportunity to tell us in their own words why they’re here,” Wu said. “We didn’t expect people to take the course purely to learn English. We didn’t expect people to take the course to learn how to teach others.”
Economics professor Jose Vazquez Cognet, whose principles of microeconomics course was one of the first to be offered online, used that section of his class to insert experimental questions about providing feedback to students as they completed assignments.
Vazquez, working along with CITL researchers, discovered that recording one- to two-minute videos to explain solutions to wrong answers were almost two to three times more effective. He said he’s made about 1,000 videos for both his online and on-campus sections of Economics 102.
Director of online strategy and development Adam Fein makes sure the research immediately translates to best instructional design practices at Illinois. “What we learn from the research we're assisting faculty with is recycled back into the production of new online course content. These fresh ideas allow us to continue to provide a world-class experience for our online students."
“Sending a student an email each week with some information about their grade encourages them to work harder in the course,” Vazquez said. He added the videos are pretty low-tech, filmed on his tablet computer. “Since the beginning, I wanted to use the course to answer a couple of questions we had. I wanted to see how changing the framing of the incentive changes how students work.”
Vazquez said he assumed students would be motivated to complete his online course in order to receive the certificate at the end. Not so, he said, because “most of the students who come to the MOOC don’t really do it because they want the certificate. They basically do it because they want to learn something new.”
CITL researchers explored another assumption relating to how MOOC participants work in online classes – the impact of sex. Males and females enroll in some Coursera courses at vastly different percentages, Shrader said, but once enrolled they do participate at the same rate.
According to Shrader and Wu’s study, the only demographic characteristic that remained equal across all activity groups – from a high-activity participant who finished every quiz and video or one who only completed one quiz – was sex, where female and male participants were equally likely to engage in each group.
How do we know that participants are really learning? Despite the insights from data and being able to challenge assumptions about how males and females participate within courses, Shrader said determining a true measurement for success in the classroom will continue to be a challenge. Learning is more holistic than just grades and assessment, according to Shrader. Learning is often embedded in the teacher-student relationship, and with MOOCs, the peer-to-peer relationship through forums and other online engagement.
“To truly measure learning, that’s not just a MOOC question,” she said. “That’s an education question that’s not easily answered.”
One thing Shrader can see from the data: Learning is no longer a pre-defined path, but a series of ways to diverge and take specialized courses that fit individual student needs.
With the Illinois MOOC Subsistence Marketplaces, for instance, the platform was a place for participants to learn and connect with peers around the world, says former course mentor Agüero.
“I can’t explain to you how amazing it was to learn from them and collaborate with them on projects through this course so that they could create something positive for their own people,” Agüero said. “We’re not just providing them with knowledge, we’re providing a platform to network, another different space where they could connect.”
To learn more about CITL online classes at Illinois, visit their website or follow them on Twitter and Facebook.