Could MOOCs work for GED Test preparation? Lessons from History

New York Times declared 2012 the Year of the MOOC.I’ve had a lot of conversations lately with colleagues about our hopes and fears about this phenomenon.

MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are giant classes that anyone can sign up for. They are mostly college level courses, often offered by tenured faculty at Ivy League or other reputable universities who benefit from positioning themselves as experts. The courses may be free, but the “experts” are paid by selling more books and charging higher rates for consulting and speaking engagements. As such, both the subject matter and design are not targeted for low-level adult learners, since they don’t buy tons of books or pay lots of money for academic speakers.

UdacityMy initial response was the same enthusiasm I had for Khan Academy: could this be The Answer for my GED students? But Salman Khan is too busy creating videos for GMAT Test prep and hedge funds to focus on low-level adult learners. Turns out the same is true for Udacity. While I have been thrilled by the idea of creating free, open access learning, my main concern is how specifically we can make this work well for adult basic education/GED test prep learners. My adult learners have already have struggled in traditional education and don’t have the reading, math or self-management skills to take advantage of these existing “open courses.”

Since existing MOOCs don’t prioritize educating people MOST in need of education, figuring them out for GED Test prep will become the responsibility of non-profits and community colleges. The Gates Foundation saw the potential for MOOCs to help with remedial education: over 40% of college students need to take developmental courses before they can perform in your traditional 101 college course. I didn’t want to wait for the results of the Gates funding experiment, so I wanted to try out a MOOC for myself to see how it works.

About a year ago I signed up for Lean Launchpad by Steve Blank. It was delayed to accommodate the release date (and heavy promotion) of his book. (And I even bought the book! It’s a decent read, actually, but I should’ve just waited and borrowed it from the library) When it finally started months later, it turned out the “course” itself was just a series of (often poorly produced) YouTube videos and unfacilitated discussion forums. I asked myself: How is this any different from iTunesU? Other MOOCs incorporate self-assessed assignments or Javascript practice problems, but there are concerns that they are easy to cheat on if anything were at stake.

It reminded me of a lower quality version of a “learn to publish children’s literature” course I took by mail over a decade ago. At least in my mail correspondence course I was assigned an instructor! Regardless of content, as an educator I was not impressed by the Lean Launchpad MOOC and did not think it could work for my GED Test prep students.

What do you think about MOOCs? Have you taken one? Do you think they offer any benefits for GED Test preparation and adult literacy education?

Here’s my two cents & the lesson from history: we lose a lot in this conversation if we treat MOOCs like some new, amazing invention that dropped out of the sky from Harvard, EdX or any of these tech innovators. While MOOCs are a new technological form of delivering education, we’ve been through this before. Distance education has been an educational phenomena in the U.S. for almost 150 years. Correspondence courses experienced a big surge in enrollment over a century ago and some people wondered if it would transform education as we know it (sound familiar?).

Here are 3 very good reasons that MOOCs are exactly like mail correspondence courses:

  1. Became available due to an explosion in reliable new forms of communication: mail a century ago, high speed internet today.
  2. Saw a huge boom in enrollments when for-profit providers found a way to capitalize on the new technology as an efficient delivery system for mass-produced educational materials.
  3. Completion rates of about 10%: best suited for that small minority with significant self-determination or strong local support & incentives.

After a decade or two, the industry of correspondence courses saw a steep decline in enrollments. However, a small minority of those involved in this method of delivery were able to thrive and provide quality education. We can learn a great deal from the “best practices” of the institutions that have survived from that time period:

  1. Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle: Physical hub and local social participation: This book club started as a correspondence course in 1878. It thrives on local groups where readers physically get together to discuss the 9 selections.  After four years of active participation, members receive a certificate and become part of the alumni organization. The selected authors speak in person at the Chautauqua resort community in upstate New York. CLSC is just one of many educational programs offered.
  2. Distance Education and Training Council: Quality control and accreditation: Due to high rates of consumer fraud and low completion rates, correspondence courses quickly went out of favor with the U.S. public. However, a minority of institutions saw the benefits to the industry of creating a set of voluntary standards and methods for accountability. Originally founded in 1926 as the National Home Study Council, the organization changed it name to reflect that fact that distance education is a larger field than any one particular mode of communications technology (e.g. mail correspondence or online learning).
  3. Open Universities: There are too many of these to name any one institution, but the U.S. is one of the few industrialized countries in the world without an open university which provides formal higher education via mass-produced distance education for greatly reduced cost to students. The key lesson here is formalized and facilitated teaching: MOOCs will ultimately fail if we refuse to invest in actually teaching with them. I don’t know if it is possible to have genuine teaching presence in a course that defines itself as “massive.” However, formalized structures like managed enrollment, facilitated social connections, proctored exams, accountability through administrative supervision, access to student support services, and respected credentials upon completion are all elements that have allowed traditional higher education to have completion rates of 75% or more in correspondence courses…successes that have translated to recent expansion in online learning.

If we can translate these lessons into the way we design MOOCs, perhaps they will make a genuine long term contribution to education. Otherwise, I’m pretty convinced they will become just another untrusted niche industry and a forgotten lesson from history. So what do you think: Will MOOCs stick around? Or has the dot com bubble hit higher education?

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