Why do universities use MOOCs

UHH newsletter

Prof. Schulmeister has been scientifically involved with the subject of MOOCs ever since this phenomenon has existed and has recently published the book “MOOCs - Open Education or Business Model?”. Dr. Frank Hoffmann and his team won 25,000 euros in a competition between the Stifterverband and the iversity company to create their own MOOC. The time has come in April, when the “Fascination Crystals and Symmetry” course starts, for which well over 8,000 participants from all over the world have already registered.

Mr. Hoffmann, have you ever had so many students in one course? What kind of a feeling is this?

FH: No, so far I have had a maximum of 250 students in one lecture. It is a mixture of great joy and amazement that so many people from all over the world want to learn the basics of crystallography. At the same time, I feel a little uneasy about the great responsibility and perhaps also the question of whether we can meet expectations.

And how much effort does it take to prepare such a course? How many hours did you invest?

FH: My colleague Michael Sartor and I have been working in the evenings, at night and on weekends since September 2013 - it is estimated that for me alone it will be around 800 hours before the start of the course. It's not just limited to actual production. Special teaching and other means of production have to be selected, ordered, press and interview inquiries need to be answered, the rights to use certain images need to be clarified, etc.

Can you outline the elements of your course?

FH: With pleasure. Videos of approx. 5 minutes in length are an essential element. In addition to specially created 3D animations, we will use many screencasts, i.e. recordings of slide shows supplemented by audio comments. These learning units ("units") are accompanied by quizzes and discussion offers.

There is also smaller homework, e.g .: "Find and determine symmetries in your environment and upload a corresponding photo". We are already looking forward to the most colorful and at the same time most symmetrical mosaic in the world that users will be able to collect!

And how expensive is it to produce such a course?

FH: That is a very interesting question, if only because it is never asked for an offline course. Of course, that depends on the effort you put into it. If you wanted to capture live images of the giant crystals from the Naica Cave in Mexico, it would be a little more expensive than photographing snow crystals on a window pane with a macro lens.

But we will get along well with the € 25,000 for our 7-week course, especially since our working hours do not cost anyone anything.

And what was the incentive for you and your team to tackle the task?

FH: First, the desire to try out new techniques and media in teaching. Second, the adaptation of the form of teaching to the “digital natives” and today's social conditions. Thirdly, there is a democratic or idealistic motive, namely to make knowledge freely available - albeit for a limited period of time.

Where do you see the particular advantage of MOOCs compared to a face-to-face event?

FH: The advantages do not necessarily arise from the “massive”, but from the form: To be absolutely unrestricted in terms of time and place, to be able to stop the lecturer at any time, to be able to repeat more difficult passages at will, the possibility with others in the accompanying discussion forum being able to discuss the content, etc.

The face-to-face event could also develop further according to the “flipped classroom” model: the students first look at the course content online in advance and in the following week there is an intensive seminar in which the content is discussed and remaining questions about the material are answered Etc.

Mr. Schulmeister, how do you explain the fascination of MOOCs? Why do some speak of an educational revolution?

RS: Originally, the fascination evidently stems from a combination of several points of view: firstly, they were “open” in the sense of no educational requirements and secondly, they were open in the sense of free of charge. Technology-oriented people interested in education immediately made an association with Open Access and Open Source.

Another moment of attraction for the participants was the magic of the big names: The MOOC providers came from Stanford, Harvard and MIT and they promised courses from elite universities and renowned professors.

Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun, who founded the MOOC platform Udacity in 2012, initially aimed at students in American universities as an audience because they have to pay high tuition fees and are thus in high debt. He defined his goals as the democratization of education - in the sense of open access - and free, free education.

He believed that online teaching would have such an impact that he went so far as to claim that in fifty years there would only be 10 universities in the United States. In her TED lecture, Daphne Koller from the MOOC platform Coursera dreamed of offering the underprivileged all over the world qualified educational opportunities.

Another attraction was added: In the speeches of the MOOC providers, it becomes clear that they are on the lookout for particularly talented students. This may have particularly motivated some participants to take part in the courses and to participate in the forums.

And why is there more and more criticism of the model?

RS: One noticeable point of criticism is the high drop-out rate of over 90%. Now it has to be added, however, that about half of those who registered for a course had no intention of actually finishing the course. Many only watched the first lesson and then dropped out. Quite a few were only planning to watch the lessons without doing their homework and taking the tests and exams anyway. On average, only 3% to 9% of participants completed the course properly.

However, there remains a large number of participants who initially take part in the tasks and tests and then fail. These probably fail because there is no tutorial support. That should be a serious point of criticism because these learners could be caught in face-to-face classes.

From a didactic point of view, the MOOCs are not a real innovation, because they are largely based on a teaching model that has behaviorist roots such as the Keller Plan or the teaching model in "Conditions of Learning" by Robert M. Gagné from 1965.

The lecture recordings often practiced by German universities, accompanied by an interactive seminar - what is commonly referred to as a "flipped classroom" - have already realized the essence of MOOCs.

The criteria of good teaching are not met by the video transmission or the multiple-choice tests scattered between the video snippets, but the real challenge of good teaching lies in the skillful implementation of an interactive seminar. For this, more university teacher training is required and more didactic imagination is the order of the day.

MOOCs are currently being offered free of charge - at least in Germany: Who is funding this? What is the business model behind it?

RS: In the US, the beginnings were funded by venture capital. The venture capital on which the initiatives were built had to be replaced by business models. Part of the costs were passed on to the participating universities: With Coursera, a course for the participating university costs 150,000 US dollars, with edX 400,000 US dollars and a further 50,000 US dollars when repeated.

At first, given the high number of participants, it was believed that they could get by with exam fees. That turned out to be a fallacy. Then one wanted to refer students to employers. That didn't bring in enough either.

In the meantime, there is a transition to business models: Udacity, for example, is developing fee-based computer science courses in cooperation with San Jose State and Georgia Tech. From 2014 Udacity will be offering paid advanced training courses. edX is setting up the paid XSeries and Coursera is trying to make a profit in teacher training.

All of this to the disappointment of those interested, who turned their hopes on open education. But I doubt whether these business models will be successful. The high drop-out rates prompted Udacity to offer mentoring, which, however, has to be paid for by the participants. There are now around 20 MOOC providers in the USA alone, most of whom are hoping for joint business models with universities.

What do some universities that are involved in MOOC platforms such as Udacity or Coursera and are now designing entire courses of study as MOOCs in the USA?

RS: Due to the financial crisis in the USA and the loss of their foundation assets, American universities are hoping to save costs and gain capacity: more courses to overcome bottlenecks and more students, despite lower costs. This is shown by the initiatives of politicians in the states of California and Florida, who wanted to oblige universities to MOOCs. The California initiative failed because the California Faculty Association spoke out against it.

There are only a few universities in the USA whose professors participate with a MOOC. The large number of universities behave in a wait-and-see manner or even negatively. The many colleges are hardly involved at all, although they have been running the many online courses for small groups for about 15 years, with enrollments close to 7 million a year.

In Germany, the motives for offering a MOOC are different. I can imagine that institutions such as the Hasso Plattner Institute in Potsdam see their MOOC offer as an advertisement for students, especially when it comes to attracting students from abroad.

Universities that represent and advertise a special profile, such as Leuphana University, can use the attention they receive from students and applicants through a MOOC.

Even smaller universities in more rural areas, which compete with the large universities in the big cities, can improve their profile in this way. Otherwise, I see no reason in Germany to offer MOOCs (with tests, exams and certificates) on a large scale, which are more likely to be attended by university graduates than students and viewed by alumni as a further training measure.

Is there a misunderstanding about who are the primary users of MOOCs? Students who are striving for a degree or certificate, or professionals who want to continue their education?

RS: You can see it that way. The first goal, the cheaper education, was aimed at the students in the USA as addressees, but these students were not reached at all. Only 3% of the students regularly enrolled in American universities have taken part in a MOOC.

Instead, over 70% of the audience at the MOOCs consisted of professionals, 80% of whom already have a bachelor's degree and over 44% of whom have completed a master's degree or doctorate. MOOCs were therefore seen by educated and well-off people (predominantly men) as further training.

In order to understand why American students are not interested in MOOCs, one has to know that American universities generally accept only a few students and teach them in predominantly small seminar groups. For the students, contact with the teaching staff therefore plays a very important role.

Incidentally, after two years of MOOC development, things turned around at least for Sebastian Thrun from Udacity towards the end of 2013. The dropout rates and the provenance of the participants made him rethink his educational goal completely. He told journalist Max Chafkin that it was painful when he realized that his courses did not live up to his promises and did not appeal to enough people.

Mr. Hoffmann, who is your MOOC aimed at?

FH: First of all, to all students who are confronted with questions of the symmetry of solids in their degree program, be it from physics, chemistry, materials and nanosciences, metallurgy, crystallography, geology or mineralogy. But also to all interested “laypeople”, from school pupils to enthusiastic mineral collectors to jewelers or blacksmiths who want to continue their education.

There is also controversial discussion about the creditability of performance in MOOCs: How do you feel about awarding credits that can be recognized within the framework of a degree program?

FH: If a comparable exam takes place and is successfully completed, I see no problem at all. This can be done physically on site at the university or a specially created examination center, or - provided that it is technical feasibility and the possibility of fraud is excluded - online.

Mr. Schulmeister, where do you see the problem with the eligibility of credits in MOOCs?

RS: So far there is no reliable exam model online. The universities that had decided to have the credits recognized at all require a new examination on site.

Apart from that: three US universities had agreed to accept the recognition of the certificates from the MOOCs. So far, however, no participant has applied for recognition of the certificates as credit hours at American universities. That is not surprising in view of the origin and status of the previous interested parties who are not dependent on it.

Most MOOCs are a kind of introductory course, with the exception of Computer Science from Udacity, not a whole course of study is yet covered. Coursera's 600 courses offer a mix of popular subjects such as the Studium Generale.

Mr. Hoffmann, what do you wish for MOOCs in the future?

FH: I would like the universities to create their own MOOC platforms so that MOOCs can be carried out completely independently of any commercial interests! Second, that the universities are no longer afraid of making university content accessible to everyone. Thirdly, that a change from MOOC to POOC is taking place (personalized OOC), because mass is not absolutely necessary. Fourth, that MOOCs or POOCs will become as natural as MP3s.

And how about you, Herr Schulmeister?

RS: MOOCs wanted to be more than just a new teaching method; they wanted to change or even abolish universities. Such a sudden innovation must be seen as an element in a system, in this case the American education system. Only then can the limited value of MOOCs be recognized and understood why this coup was not successful.

Instead, the MOOCs will end up as one teaching method among many others. The intermittent interruption by test questions in the MOOCs may be helpful for individuals in the short term in order to maintain attention, but in the long term it only leads to an intensification of extrinsically stimulated and dependent learning behavior.

Recordings of lectures are basically sufficient to support the learners in face-to-face study. Compared to online courses, interactive face-to-face teaching does better in some ways.

Obviously, we have not dealt enough with the advantages of face-to-face teaching in educational research.

The interview was conducted by Giselind Werner.