MOOC Ancestor: Still Looking for Quality Teaching

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) are a new phenomenon, but they have ancestors nearly 100 years old. In the 1920s, Ohio State University professor Sidney Pressey invented what is believed to be the very first teaching machine. The machine gave four responses to a given question. When students chose the correct answer, they were given further questions, foreshadowing individualized instruction and mastery learning. According to Pressey (1926), his purpose was to “Lift from her [the teacher's] shoulders as much as possible of this burden (rote learning) and make her free for those inspirational and thought-stimulating activities which are, presumably, the real function of the teacher” (p. 374). Pressey wanted to free teachers to be more efficient, conserving time for activities that stimulated higher order thinking and inspired students.

MOOCs follow in Pressey’s footsteps. Using a different type of teaching machine, they free teachers to include thousands of students in the same class, making more efficient use of teacher time. But how successful are MOOCs? Questions loom as to whether they are quality courses, if students meet the course outcomes and if they provide the “inspirational and thought-stimulating activities” that Pressey sought?”

The Learning House, Inc. assessed MOOCs with two of its measures of quality in online courses. Learning House uses a Quality Review Form with a five-level rubric (with five being the highest score) that assesses the quality of online courses. Learning House also uses a Course Delivery Rubric, which utilizes a three-level scale (three being the highest score), to assess the quality of teacher engagement and interaction with students. These rubrics were used to assess two MOOCs (a history course and a literature course) offered by  Coursera.

Course Quality

The Quality Review Form includes 45 criteria; the two courses evaluated met 25 and 34 of the criteria, respectively, placing them at levels three and four on the rubric. For perspective, less than 1% of online courses developed by Learning House partners are at level five, while about 8% are at level four and 38% are at level three. (The Learning House partners with more than 100 institutions offering approximately 7,500 courses annually.) The MOOCs were organized well, with weekly lessons or units including video lectures, guest lecture videos with noted historians and authors, readings, quizzes and writing assignments that require higher-order thinking. The professors and TAs participated in discussion forums that included many thoughtful comments by students. Generally missing, however, were clearly stated course and unit objectives that aligned with the assignments and learning activities.

Instructor Engagement

The Course Delivery Rubric assesses six categories: social presence, instructor feedback, retention, forum participation, communication of policies and pacing. This rubric is weighted heavily toward feedback and forum participation. The MOOCs scored low on this rubric.

Because of the number of students, quizzes are graded automatically and peer grading is used for papers, so there is no feedback from the instructor.   The instructors participated regularly in the discussion forum but with the volume of students their questions and comments were few and far between. There was no one-on-one communication with students, but instructors provided summaries and transitions between units and reminders about assignment due dates.

In summary, the surveyed MOOCs were well designed with high-quality materials, but faculty-to-student interaction was minimal. Only two MOOCs were reviewed in depth, but the lack of faculty-to-student interaction is probably true of most MOOCs, given the large student enrollment in MOOCs. Does this matter? Should students be expected to master the material without faculty feedback? Is peer feedback sufficient? Is the instructor responsible to motivate and encourage students?

Every student can learn some things from a MOOC and some students may learn enough to meet the course outcomes, but others need more. There are times when the interaction between an instructor and a student results in powerful learning, when the light bulb goes off, when the right question opens the mind, or when regard and commendation empowers deep commitment.

MOOCs are a wonderful invention. The lectures, readings and course assignments are high quality, but interaction between the instructor and student is missing. MOOC provider EdX announced a Gates Foundation grant to assist two community colleges in using MOOC content in community college courses with local faculty. If instructors from other colleges used the MOOCs to organize and deliver content, they would free time to lead the discussion forum and give feedback. As professor Pressey said, they would be “free for those inspirational and thought-stimulating activities.” This division of labor would be a win-win with great course design and great teaching.

Pressey, S.L. (1926). A simple apparatus which gives tests and scores “ and teaches.  School and Society, 23(586), 373-376.

Tell us your thoughts. Do you think MOOCs provide a quality learning experience for students?

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3 Comments

  1. Re: MOOCs being a “wonderful invention.” As you note, some students can acquire sufficient knowledge to meet the course outcomes via a MOOC — or through the somewhat older technology — a book. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

    • Dave Clinefelter

      It’s a good point, George. The MOOCs I reviewed have some distinct advantages over just a book. They include video lectures and discussion forums where students interact with one another. However, the student is on their own to learn the material, similar to reading a book.

  2. It is a great article which addresses the important points regarding the MOOCs. I believe just like any other delivery strategy when we focus on the attributes of MOOCs rather than as a whole we can identify the potential benefits of MOOCs for particular cases and audiences. I personally believe that MOOCs can be an alternative to the traditional instruction that are hold in large lecture halls. In the last decade, we experienced a significant increase in the introductory level course enrollments. And in these courses, the level of instructor-student interaction happens to be minimal. Most of these courses cover fundamental information about the particular field and based on my experience the course content does not change significantly year-to-year. In addition, I have experienced with the instructors in Math and Physics at introductory level that they mostly believe that peer-to-peer interaction without the instructor’s moderation may create misconceptions and with the well-designed instructional materials the instructor-student interaction may be kept to minimal. Part of the reason I believe is the fact that the content mostly covers rules, theorems, and formulas where students are expected to apply them into different contexts. And these factual information does not seem to be open to any discussion. At the introductory level, the learning goal remains at lower level thinking. Of course, all these approaches to introductory level courses can be challenged.

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