The Next Generation of MOOCs and Their Impact on the Future of Teaching-Doug Schmidt

The current generation of MOOCs offered by Coursera, edX, and other providers has been perceived mostly as things, such as “digital textbooks” or “educational TV shows,” usually created as a series of videos and associated digital content by a single “star” instructor and broadcast to a grateful world.

During the past several years, however, our experi­ence producing and delivering MOOCs at Vanderbilt University and the Vanderbilt Institute for Digital Learning indicates that they aren’t merely things, but also processes, such as processes of design and produc­tion, processes of consumption, processes of evolution, and perhaps most significantly, socially-embedded processes of collabora­tion.

Viewing MOOCs also as “processes” is more enlighten­ing than just viewing them as “things” since it highlights the pedagogical methods and tools that are enabling the evolution of higher education from
•Individual instructors working largely in isola­tion with their (relatively few) face-to-face students to
•Much larger global communities of teachers and students who share common education and learning philosophies, interests, and background knowledge.

As teachers and students gain greater experience with MOOCs, the emerging pedagogical meth­ods and tools enabled by digital learning technolo­gies will become more transformative. For example, teachers and students alike will attain more control over the time, place, path, and pace of learning, which will signifi­cantly impact how educa­tion is created, packaged, delivered, assessed, and priced. Digital learning technologies (initially mani­fested by—but ulti­mately transcending—the current -generation of MOOCs) will enable collaborative teaching in a manner and at a scale that simply has­n’t been practical before.

A relevant analogy is the way in which the Internet and Web have enabled virtual communities of experts (and those aspiring to become experts) to collaborate effectively on sophisticated open-source software development projects (such as Linux, GNU, Apache, and ACE and TAO). Prior to the creation of this powerful digital infrastructure, software developers tended to collaborate mostly face-to-face with colleagues from their same organization. Digital technology changed all that, even though at first many developers just viewed the Internet and Web as a means to access documents re­motely or to communicate with their colleagues asynchronously via email.

As the Internet and Web matured—and as new genera­tions of distributed development tools (such as GitHub, SourceForge, Bugzilla, and CruiseControl) and communication tools (such as Wikis, YouTube, Skype, and WebEx) emerged and were adopted—the real transforma­tive nature of this new digital infrastructure became clear. Today, virtual collaborations among a wide range of soft­ware development communities span time-zones and organizational boundaries, support diverse business mod­els, and have radically changed how software is devel­oped, tested, and evolved.

The key lesson here is that digital infrastructure was transformative not just because it allowed developers to access content more flexibly, but because it enabled new, more powerful forms of collaboration.

The Role of Trans-institution MOOC Specializations

Just as the Internet and Web have enabled more effective collaborations between software developers, MOOCs are enabling more effective collaborations between teachers and students that simply weren’t feasible before. For example, Adam Porter from the University of Mary­land has joined together with Jules White and me at Vander­bilt University to design and deliver a trans-institutional se­quence of MOOCs offered as one of the first specializations on the Coursera platform. This specialization focuses on “Mobile Cloud Computing with Android” and integrates content that is not cur­rently taught as a unit in either institution.

The first MOOC in the specialization—the Univer­sity of Maryland’s Pro­gramming Mobile Applications for Android Handheld Systems taught by Adam Porter—focuses on design and implementation of user-facing applications. The first Vander­bilt MOOC in the specialization—Programming Mobile Services for Android Handheld Systems taught by me—focuses on middleware systems pro­gramming topics, such as synchronous and asynchronous concur­rency models, background service pro­cessing, structured data management, and local inter-process communication and networking. The next Vanderbilt MOOC in the specialization—Programming Cloud Services for Android Handheld Systems taught by Jules White—focuses on inte­grating mobile devices with powerful cloud-based services. The final MOOC in the Specialization is a joint cap­stone project of­fered to stu­dents who successfully master the material in the earlier MOOCs.

These intentionally sequenced MOOC specializations are generating a great deal of interest and interaction. Over 165,000 students are enrolled in our Coursera specialization on Mobile Cloud Computing with Android, which rivals the number of students who have graduated from Vanderbilt during the past 140 years since its founding in 1873! It’s particularly gratifying to see students from all around the world work with each other, providing encouragement, helping solve configuration problems with Android development environments, and sharing their insights on best practices for programming mobile devices.

Inventing the Future of MOOCs

In the future, MOOCs will increasingly support trans-institution, sequenced learning engage­ments that flexibly assemble teachers and students from around the world who share common education philosophies and who have complementary interests and expertise on many relevant topics. These new forms of MOOCs will foster collaborations among teachers and students that span traditional inter- and intra-institution and disciplinary boundaries.

Ultimately, it’s the socially-embedded process dimensions of MOOCs (and more generally digital learning methods and tools) that will have the greatest impact on higher education. The “MOOCs-as-things” metaphor that’s predominant in the current generation of MOOCs is just a precursor to the promis­ing changes in teaching and learning stemming from the collaborative and creative pro­cesses enabled by MOOC platforms, digital learning methods and tools, and virtual instructional communities.

As Alan Kay said over 40 years ago, “the best way to predict the future is to invent it.” I look forward to working with you to foster intentionally designed, commu­nity-based instructional collaborations in the next generation of MOOCs and digital learning technologies.

Doug Schmidt is professor of Computer Science, associate chair of the Computer Science and Electrical Engineering program, and senior researcher at the Institute for Software Integrated Systems at Vanderbilt University.

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