Mentored MOOCs for Global Learning?

February 22, 2013 § 3 Comments

Global Network

Global Network by Flickr User WebWizzard

Yesterday Coursera announced that it would have courses available in four languages; in addition to English, it now has courses in French, Spanish, Chinese and Italian. Does this mean Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) could provide a global learning opportunity for students in the United States, and if so, how might that work?

I can think of a couple of implications for liberal arts colleges.  For one thing, there is a potential for liberal arts students to take these courses to supplement their on-campus curriculum. If an instructor and students took a MOOC together, it would offer an opportunity for the instructor to model learning and act as a mentor and coach; the MOOC would essentially be an online textbook. The local instructor would provide the mentoring and motivation that seem to be missing in so many MOOCs, as attested by their low completion rates.

Models for this sort of learning at liberal arts colleges already exist.  A three-year longitudinal study of the Sunoikisis program (which includes intercampus team-taught courses in upper level Greek and Latin) found that students highly valued their on-campus tutors (p. 24) as part of their overall learning program.  In my experience with Sunoikisis, the on-campus tutor adds a level of interpretation, advocacy, and mentoring for their own students, helping them navigate the added complexity of a multi-campus collaborative course. This high-touch teaching would bring a liberal arts dimension to the potentially anonymizing experience of the MOOC.

Another possible learning model would be for students to take courses they can not get on their home campus from a MOOC.  For example, many campuses struggle to offer world languages. I’ve been involved with more than one NITLE-sponsored conference that examined the challenges of providing critical languages, like Chinese or Arabic. Some programs can offer first year language by using Fullbright fellows or using the SILP model (self instructional language program). Students can then go abroad for a second year of language instruction, but what do they do when they come back?  Taking a MOOC provided by an international institution could be an effective way to continue instruction, especially if coupled with local mentoring.
Or what about those students who can take a full sequence of courses in their target language but are studying another discipline.  International MOOCs would make excellent independent study opportunities where there is not enough demand on a campus for a full class on the topic. At the same time, by taking a course from an international campus, students could have a global experience without leaving their own campus.  In other words, they could have a virtual study abroad experience.
In all of these cases, I believe it would be important for campuses to provide local mentoring to compensate for the lack of such individualized guidance in a MOOC. In this way, small liberal arts colleges could use the MOOC as a sort of online textbook while maintaining the benefits of a high-touch learning experience that is the hallmark of liberal education.
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