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MOOCs Making Waves with Non-Traditional Students

With its emphasis on self-scheduled, flexible learning; MOOCs have made an impact on adult students looking to continue their learning. It’s only a matter of time before they become even more mainstream. Photo by Shane Pope.

The EvoLLLution recently sat down with Jarl Jonas and Sarah Bishop-Root, the Director and Marketing Manager of Blackboard’s CourseSites. After working with Professor Curtis Bonk on his Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), Jonas and Bishop-Root discuss the appeal inherent in MOOCs and how they are received by the non-traditional student market.

In a follow-up interview to be published next week, we will discuss the impact MOOCs could have on the higher education landscape, and their potential to change our societal understanding of qualifications and credentials.

1. When you were first designing the MOOC, who did you consider to be your target students?

JJ: If I can step back a bit to my experience here at Blackboard as well as New York University, I used to consult with Blackboard’s consulting group and at New York University I was a faculty development coordinator and online course developer. In those experiences I ran into quite a number of teachers who were really hungry for information about how to make their classes better, how to put parts of their classes online. Unfortunately, not a lot of schools have the ability or resources to put together formalized types of programs so as we were thinking about our audience we knew we would be able to target mainly academicians who in the K-12 of higher education space, perhaps some community educators who perhaps put some parts of their class online were looking to engage and motivate students. Maybe they were teaching hybrid courses or fully online courses. So we knew that we wanted to go ahead and target those teachers who had particularly some online learning experience.

2. Do you think MOOCs appeal more to the traditional-age contingent of students, or to adult students?

JJ: Currently it would be adult students, mainly because so far professional development opportunities for instructors to advance in different ways, either to advance knowledge—to help themselves in their own career—or perhaps to engage in a hobby or a topic of interest just to stimulate some independent inquiry. …

That’s not to say students of traditional age could learn in that way or could take advantage of learning opportunities as I’m sure some may have in the current other Open Courses provided by Stanford and Steven Downes and others. …

Now that I think back to myself as a freshman at Penn State in 1989, I was sitting in a classroom in my psychology class at 8 a.m. with 800 other students listening to a professor talk about psychology, trying to use some different ways to motivate people to pay attention and stay awake but I wonder… “How different is learning in that type of capacity—with 800 other people—from learning with 4,000 perhaps 10,000 or 100,000?”. Surely the medium is a bit different, I’m not sitting in a face-to-face class, the delivery of the content is coming in new and different ways and I’m able to perhaps engage and collaborate.

But I think of myself as a traditional-age student I think students could take advantage of those, but I do think the appeal right now would be more to the non-traditional, adult learner just because of their interests to advance in different ways or take advantage of free and open educational activities as well. …

SBR: I agree, Jarl. My only thought is the topic would really drive the interest of the audience and it seems to me that a lot of the topics of the MOOCs thus far have been geared towards the adult learner. It will be interesting in the future to see–as topics expand for open courses—how it would engaged younger-aged students.

When you think about the Khan Academy or hippocampus who are really providing free, open resources for K-12 students there is such a need for learning in different ways and engaging students in different ways so I think it really is about the topic and I think that we’ll see more of a need, maybe not in the entirety of a course, but I think the relevancy of open resources in general towards K-12 is very important and will become even more prevalent as more and more resources are provided. …

3. It’s an interesting divide you brought up between making sure that the topic appeals to the target student audience. From a marketing standpoint, do you feel it’s more difficult to appeal to an adult student with the concept of a MOOC? Do you have to bring them in on the topic or are they very open for the idea of taking part in an online course that they really have control over their own schedule in?

JJ: If we can use our course as an example, we did try to use the topic as a way to gear our audiences. When you design a course, surely there’s an ability to just throw it out there and see who comes, but if you’re designing an effective learning experience you want to know—and have some sense of—who your audience is and have some expectation of who may respond. As we were designing this recent course about instructional ideas and technology tools for online success we wanted to make sure we were going to target those teachers who had some ability and access to online education and information and had some experience in that regard. …

We actually got some wonderfully guilty emails about teachers not being able to participate, feeling guilty that they couldn’t keep up in the class and we had to respond that while this was a cohort-type of experience we knew that they might not be able to commit at this point in time so the way we designed the course was to unify the live experience with some live sessions but to have an asynchronous environment available for them to engage and interact—to watch the recordings, to look at some of the discussion summaries—knowing that people might not have the full spectrum of time that others do to fully dedicate. …

I think you’re able to grab people mostly by the topic, and sometimes even by the time of year or by the brand name—in terms of who’s offering it… and the institutions they’re affiliated with.

4. Looking into the future, then, what impact do you think MOOCs will have on the future of adult and non-traditional higher education?

SPB: I believe that there is such a need for education to be available to people just beyond the walls of an institution and MOOCs are, as Jarl mentioned before, they’re so important to provide learning opportunities that would be of the same quality that people would get within an institution, just in a very different way. I think as we rethink what education is, or the model of education, they will become more and more important in the future.

Next week we will publish the conclusion of this Q&A, where Jonas and Bishop-Root will discuss the potential for MOOCs to change the landscape of higher education and the job market.

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