October 1, 2012; Source: Chronicle of Higher Education

In the past six months, online education focused on massive open online courses (MOOCs) has taken off. NPQ has noted the emergence of edX and the rise of Coursera. The Chronicle of Higher Education suggests that online education, at least in the edX model, has found its metaphor: this is a live laboratory.

edX is experimenting with five practices, seeing what works in the new online environment:

  1. Instructors might use a combination of automated grading, instruction staff grading, peer grading, and volunteer alumni evaluation to evaluate all of those student assignments in MOOCs. What is particularly novel in this experiment is the way that online grading may engage alumni. edX’s current experiment includes alumni at large companies that are drawn to grading to engage with students, find talented potential recruits, and advertise what their company does.
  2. Many academics are interested in the potential fallout from MOOCs for traditional education because of the potential for the online courses to be used in flipped classroom experiments (where students learn something new at home via a Khan Academy-style lesson and then try to implement it in the classroom). Community colleges are seen a possibly providing the local engagement while large, elite universities might provide the content for this new model of higher education. edX is experimenting with this possibility.
  3. One of the large challenges often raised about online education is what to do about the laboratory experience. edX is experimenting with gamifying it. In one experiment, students are engaged in building virtual circuits from digital parts.
  4. One of the immediate payoffs for academics involved with MOOCs is the ability to track student actions at the micro-practice level. The online environment provides a way for researchers to study how edX students learn and interact. Learners may find themselves in A/B test or field experiments to help us better understand how people learn and retain that learning.
  5. When edX first was announced, both Harvard and MIT were clear that on-campus students would not receive course credit for MOOCs, thereby protecting their revenue stream from a risky experiment with no clear funding model. However, MIT tested its online circuits class with 20 on-campus students in the spring and now edX may be part of a blended learning environment for its students.

One of the limitations of the current experiments is that they are largely in the computer science and engineering space. How gamifyed labs might educate pre-med students in anatomy, or how computerized grading might work for students in the humanities or social sciences, remains unclear. In addition, none of these experiments appear to be geared at finding a funding model for MOOCs, leading some to wonder about their sustainability. Still, the Petri dishes in this new laboratory for higher education are being seeded with a variety of new experiments. We will keep an eye out and report the results back to our readers. –Michelle Shumate