UX Magazine

Defining and Informing the Complex Field of User Experience (UX)
Article No. 1141 November 14, 2013

In Search of Knowledge: MOOC.org Will Change the Experience of Learning

From early forums to today's immersive tools, web-based platforms have provided the flexibility to communicate with many people at once and to support communities for discussion and sharing.

edX was founded in 2012 as a learning initiative between Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, providing higher-education institutions with the opportunity to offer top-tier curriculums online and opening the world of university courseware to anyone with Internet access. Since then, edX has begun the process of creating an open source platform for creating, managing, and distributing online courseware on MOOC.org with Google as a technical partner.

When we consider the potential of an open source digital education framework that is accessible worldwide, MOOC.org is faced with an interesting problem of what it means to learn in the digital age. The collaboration not only represents a new way of looking at online education, but also innovates on blending learning models into formal school education.

MOOC: What is it? Where did it Come From? Where is it Going?

MOOC.org borrows its domain from the acronym MOOC (massive online open course), which refers to online courses that enable thousands of students at a time to experience course material and engage in conversation.

With millions of users worldwide, MOOC platforms address issues of accessibility and diversity in education across social and geographical divides by providing access to course materials online (courseware) that would otherwise be limited to a location-based campus experience, at often-prohibitive lifestyle and monitory costs.

Today's online education platforms are not the first to facilitate conversation alongside content. YouTube, for example, created one of the first places for video and conversation, allowing anyone to view content and contribute contextually. Many content creators structure material sequentially, creating dialog with their viewers, and the integration of a variety of media and methods to absorb information helped video-based learning platforms rise to the challenge of providing customized experiences within a single learning model. Video content is a great way to translate a traditional lesson into a digital form, however, new environments for learning and online access to information offer the opportunity to take a fresh approach. edX takes a step in this direction by integrating accessible and immersive tools with a conversational, lecture-based platform.

It is fair to question whether scale and platform jeopardize the principle of high quality, personalized, and fulfilling educational experiences. As a platform-dependent method of distribution, MOOCs are vehicles of mass consumption in which individuals much reach to connect with courseware on a personal level. Offering a responsive platform that can fit a user's unique behaviors in an online environment can transform online learning from accessing a bank of information to offering meaningful interactions.

An Experience that is More than the Sum of its Parts

MOOC platforms continue to change and improve as new technologies, information visualization and usability practices become standard. MOOC.org now has the challenge of integrating digital learning solutions with in-class methods—a problem of combining two learning models into one that is both standardized and flexible and has relevance on a global scale.

Google is the leader in organizing and making meaning of vast amounts of data and sets standards that define digital literacy. As a giant of service providers, it has the drive to help create a robust learning platform by drawing on the entirety of its web reach and collective data to assess individual learning, browsing, and searching patterns, and can tailor a customized experience. Additionally, assistive technologies such as text-to-speech (TTS) and alternative navigation controls for those with limited motor abilities can be integrated directly into the learning platform, making the digital classroom inclusive and accessible.

Acknowledging Digital Literacy and Setting the Stage for Blended Learning

"Blended learning" is a hybrid of digital and physical learning methods, and has become a norm in formal education and everyday interactions. How often do we reach for our phones to find out something about the world around us? As approaches to education shift, students are relying more on the Internet, not only for information for coursework, but for their social communication, cultural knowledge, and modes of expression. All of these interactions influence the way each student approaches the educational environment, which is largely at odds with its online counterpart.

Forcing a digital experience on top of a classroom setting is a misguided effort

Forcing a digital experience on top of a classroom setting is a misguided effort. Making a big leap in the interaction and organization of information can be destructive to the educational process if it becomes disjointed. Working with the advantages of a classroom, as well as acknowledging the technological savvy that students are coming in with, requires structuring a curriculum in its digital and physical forms to facilitate conversation, globalization, and making connections with information through interactive experiences. Augmented reality, for example, can be used to lead to interactive content from traditional media, not only maintaining the benefits of the physical learning environment but complementing them with an enriching digital environment where a second conversation can take place.

Making Meaning from Individual Behavior, Post-Quantification

If Google has shown us anything, it is the power of meaningful analytics. Being able to parse through piles of "big data" and emerge with findings that affect the way information is presented and absorbed is a powerful asset. An individual's search behavior, for example, can affect the results that are shown in the future. Bringing a similar approach to assessing patterns in user behavior across the web with learning platforms is the key differentiator and opens the door to truly transformative change in personalizing education. Identifying quantifiable and meaningful methods of measuring engagement can help an online platform be more than an exploration of material. By being responsive to a user's behavior, elements in curriculum, material, and engagement patterns can be adjusted to integrate with both a classroom environment and an individual's strengths and weaknesses.

On a basic level, an understanding of browsing patters online can help customize information, but as technologies offer more and more quantitative measurements for qualitative behaviors, meaningful structural changes and actionable feedback can be made. Facial recognition programs, like EngageSense developed by Sensorstar Labs, can begin to measure engagement alongside behavior on the platform, and adjust the presentation of information to help keep engagement high. Making personalized adjustments to digital learning materials in conjunction with an immersive classroom environment is the goal of a successful blended learning model.

Conclusion

Together, edX and Google are poised to set the global standard for accessible teaching and enriching learning platforms. Powerful experiences that function online as well as transition into the classroom environment offer the opportunity to think critically at the role of technology in education at all levels, and to open doors to conversation and collaborative learning across the world.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

User Profile

Livia is a UX designer with a penchant for pixel perfection, focused on maintaining the core values of universal design, system-thinking, and accessibility for cross-platform projects.

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Thanks Livia, an interesting read. I've been interested in MOOCs for a while now, and it's great to see the UX community taking an interest. I think there's a lot that can be done by UXers to take the medium forward.

You make a good point about how the provision and dissemination of materials online allows people around the world, and at different points in time, to access material that would previously not be available: "With millions of users worldwide, MOOC platforms address issues of accessibility and diversity in education across social and geographical divides by providing access to course materials online (courseware) that would otherwise be limited to a location-based campus experience, at often-prohibitive lifestyle and monitory costs."
There are some inspiring stories of people around the world accessing MOOCs, but it still seems like there's a long way to go when we talk about accessibility and diversity.

The courses offered by organisations like Coursera and Udacity have been criticised for low completion rates, and for being less accessible to less privileged learners. Recently Sebastian Thrun, founder of Udacity, reflected on the failings of a remedial programme with SJSU students: "These were students from difficult neighborhoods, without good access to computers, and with all kinds of challenges in their lives… it’s a group for which this medium is not a good fit"

It seems like Udacity is turning away from remedial students and focusing more on corporate education instead.
(A trio of articles: http://www.fastcompany.com/3021473/udacity-sebastian-thrun-uphill-climb http://hackeducation.com/2013/11/14/thrun-as-saint/ http://higheredstrategy.com/udacity-has-left-the-building/ )

I'd offer an expansion to one part of your article, where you say that "MOOCs are vehicles of mass consumption in which individuals much reach to connect with courseware on a personal level."
This definitely seems to be the focus of providers like Coursera and Udacity - the course being focused around the delivery and consumption of content.

But there is another way, and actually MOOCs started off as networked communities creating and sharing knowledge. i.e. originally the community was at the centre. There's a 4 minute video that does a great job of introducing this type of MOOC http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eW3gMGqcZQc

From a UX perspective, this strand of connectivist MOOC is really interesting. It's a way of learning in a networked world, with loads of information.

There are really interesting discussions to be had about how we use the open internet, and open discussion and sharing, to create communities and knowledge, rather than simply reproducing existing methods and ways of certifying learning.

So tasks of navigation, curation, discussion and aggregation become central. I think there are really cool and interesting things to think about from a UX perspective.

Two quick examples of interesting thinking in this area:
1) The community at http://www.hybridpedagogy.com/ are doing and thinking interesting thoughts on online and blended learning. Most recently they ran a 24 hour MOOC that had loads of collaborative work, online chats and content creation by course participants. They also ran www.moocmooc.com
2) Fred Bartels posted a video prototype of an interesting dashboard for an online course
https://plus.google.com/u/0/100359942295102553261/posts/R34T1HqRyzt

I'd love to hear what you think about this.

Martin