MOOCs, Big Data, Learning Analytics: Book review


Early in his narrative, Michael Nanfito observes, “The question that schools, colleges, and universities face relates the educational institution’s reason for being: How will tools like MOOCs [i.e. Massive Open Online Courses] further the mission of the institution?” For institutions that traditionally have large, lecture-hall-based classes, “a MOOC might simply be an extension in scale of these paradigms.” For other institutions that traditionally have small classes, however, “the role of the MOOC and its component technologies is less clear.” Whatever the case, the mission of the institution must drive the development of strategy and subsequent planning and decision-making. That said, my own opinion is that a mission that precludes a MOOC or some other form of distant learning is too narrow.

Why did Nanfito write this book? His objective “is to help campus leaders make the best decisions for their institutions. Technology, support, funding, and organizational development are all concerns that must be part of the discussion if campus leadership is to actively manage online learning rather than blindly react to external pressures.” Again, one man’s opinion, “campus” should refer to a community rather than to a physical location. In several states, there are two multi-campus publicly funded systems. Here in Texas, the Texas A&M University System has 12 and the University of Texas System has 15. With appropriate modification, of course, colleges could also establish and develop a MOOC, with “massive” referring to impact and value rather than to enrollment.

In an article published in 2013, “The Most Thorough Summary (to date) of MOOC Completion Rates,” Phil Hall and Katy Jordan suggest that there are five categories of MOOC participants:

1. “No Shows” who register and then become MIAs
2. “Observers” who log in and graze but complete no assessments
3. “Drop-Ins” who enroll and then complete some work but not the complete course
4. “Passive Participants” who consume the material in the course (“like a pizza”) but complete no assignments
5. “Active Participants” who complete most of the work and take all quizzes and examinations

It is important to keep in mind that just as many of those who enroll in traditional courses of instruction are unprepared to earn a passing grade, many (if not most) of those enrolled in a MOOC are active participants to whom Hall and Jordan refer. For example, of the 40,000 who enrolled in a course (“Introduction to Sociology”) sponsored by Princeton University, only 3.21% completed it.

These are among the dozens of business subjects and issues of special interest and value to me, also listed to indicate the scope of Nanfito’s coverage.

o Identifying Expectation and Hope (Pages 27-29)
o Analytics, Assessment, and improved educational outcomes (35-36)
o The Demographics of MOOCs: Overview (41-42)
o The Enrollment/Completion Paradox (48-49)
o A brief review of the technologies that implement and sustain a MOOC (60-62)
o MOOC Accessibility (67-69)
o Setting the Stage: massive investment and hedged bets (79-83)
o From Project to Program: Four Fundamental Questions to Answer (84-87)
o Add it up: revenue dreams and abstract business models (87-90)
o Mozilla Open Badges (116-120)
o The American Council on Education (ACE) and Accredited MOOCs (122-125)
o MOOCs and the Measurement of Knowledge and Competency (135-137)
o Models for Review and Consideration (143-144)
o Lessons from Learning-Centered Institutions (156-158)
o The Rise of the Machines: Big Data (163-170)
o The Rise of the Machines: Adaptive Learning (170-176)

This is among the first books of which I am Aware that attempt to provide a briefing on MOOCs and the “opportunities, impacts, and challenges” to which its subtitle refers. It is by no means definitive, nor does Michael Nanfito make any such claim. I agree with him that online learning is here to stay but there will be some significant challenges, both to those who schedule and conduct the courses and those who enroll in them.

As he observes in the final chapter, more than a century ago, leaders wrestled with an American educational system that was fractured, provincial, and occasionally idiosyncratic. “Just as previous generations contributed the values, enthusiasms, and expectations of their time to the business of educating, it is our opportunity at this time to outline the issues and prepare the solutions that carry us forward into the next century.”


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