UAlberta researcher signatory to MOOC manifesto

(Edmonton) It could be considered a summary Pacta conventa of online learners—a draft bill of rights proposed by a group of 12 scholars that sets the tone on the proliferation of massive open online courses (MOOCs) to focus on the needs of online learners. And the University of Alberta was at the table in Palo Alto, Calif., for the design and development of this important document.

Mark Gierl, a professor in the U of A’s Department of Educational Psychology and a Canada Research Chair in Educational Measurement, was one of the signatories. He says the group’s purpose was not to set an absolute list, but to establish certain principles as new MOOCs are developed. It was important to establish a pseudo safety net for students while this form of educational technology is still very much in its infancy. And although this group began the document, he says, there is ample room for participation and revision as MOOCs continue to drive forward.

“The document was an attempt to open up a broader discussion of issues surrounding MOOCs and to try to include more people and more perspectives as this whole movement continues,” he said. “This represents a set of points of view that establish some consensus. Therefore, it’s a good stopping point as we begin to expand and include more people to talk about some of these ideas.”

Shifting the MOOC assessment model

The group largely consisted of leaders in digital education, including Udacity founder and Google fellow Sebastian Thrun. Gierl’s voice brought the U of A’s participation to the group through his expertise in assessment. He posited the need for broader inclusion of formative assessment in the MOOC model rather than the standard summative assessment process. This shift allows for frequent student feedback during the learning process, thus changing and improving the overall learning experience.

“Because of the large number of students, strong technology framework and diverse content, there are opportunities to have more of a formative assessment system in place,” said Gierl. “What I wanted to emphasize in my contribution was that assessment be expanded, and somewhat dramatically, in the MOOC movement to include more focus on student feedback during instruction. I think that is possible.”

A brave new MOOC

Gierl says the MOOC environment is ripe for the establishment of new rules and traditions regarding the learning environment. Foremost for Gierl and his manifesto colleagues was the shift of focus from teacher to student. Thus, all points in the document maintain the notion of optimal student benefit at their core. He says as new MOOCs are developed, this document could serve as a checklist for whether their operation and delivery are meeting students’ needs. Beyond that, he notes, the document has the potential to shape how MOOCs of the future look and function.

“I think that this can provide a more structured approach to helping us figure out what’s working and what’s not working within the MOOC environment,” he said. “This also has the potential, because it represents a different starting point, to create a different kind of learning experience.

“The way MOOCs work and look could actually be quite different because of the principles and the rights we describe in the document.”

Related links

UAlberta, Udacity team up for online learning

Opening university doors online

Report of the Online Visioning Committee available