Should MOOC platforms be providing more support for teachers?

mooc-teacherAs MOOCs have grown in popularity there has been an understandable focus on how to attract, and then retain, large numbers of students.

Alas, a recent study from researchers at Penn State suggests that they may be better off focusing their attention on the academics delivering the lectures rather than the students.

Supporting the teachers

The study attempted to get under the skin of what it’s actually like to teach a MOOC.  The sample size was pretty small, but the authors believe it nonetheless provides some valuable insights into life as an instructor, especially as the cohort were generally pretty unenthusiastic about continuing the role.

“Most of the research on how we can make MOOCs successful has focused on the student side—how do we attract and retain them, for instance—but now attention is starting to switch to instructors, who make the MOOCs happen,” the authors say. “So, it’s important to know the motivations of the instructors for teaching in this new format and their experiences and challenges when they teach these MOOCs.”

The paper identifies several challenges that teachers face during their MOOC, ranging from the development of the course to the instruction process itself.  They break these stages into three distinct phases:

  1. preparation
  2. implementation
  3. feedback

Whilst both ostensibly require talking to an audience, the fundamental process of teaching a MOOC is very different to that of teaching a traditional course.  Some regarded these differences as interesting challenges, whilst others regarded them as something of a burden.  The sheer size of the class is a good example.

“It’s a significant motivation for the instructors to reach thousands of students, but, in many cases, they are used to providing one-on-one guidance in a traditional classroom format,” the authors say. “So a MOOC can be a bit overwhelming to them, if they maintain those expectations.”

The preparation of the courses was particularly challenging, as the lessons need to be written and video lectures recorded at the same time as the teachers were performing their traditional duties.

“Most of the instructors we interviewed said that their workloads were really heavy already and the MOOC added to it,” the researchers say. “One professor told us that the preparation process for a course took about 400 hours.”

Different measures of success

The feedback phase is also challenging as both teachers and universities continue to use traditional retention rates to gauge the success of the course, despite the very different ‘student body’.  Alas, thus far, no other metrics have really been developed to determine the success, or otherwise, of a MOOC.

It’s well known that MOOC students often have very different motivations for enrollment than those on traditional courses, but until there are metrics to reflect that, the feedback process will be a flawed one, leaving the teachers somewhat demotivated, and making improvements to the course challenging.

“The goal, then, as researchers and designers, is to take this feedback and hopefully provide support for the instructors’ needs,” the researchers conclude. “By improving support for the instructors and their collaborators, we may also improve the MOOC experience for students and other stakeholders.”


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