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MOOCs and the Tutorial: A Vision of the Future of Teaching and Learning

MOOCs and the Tutorial: A Vision of the Future of Teaching and Learning
Massive Open Online Courses have the potential to completely revolutionize the balance between lectures and tutorials in postsecondary institutions.

An educational program in Rwanda may point to the future of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).

Generation Rwanda recently opened Kepler in Kigali, the nation’s capital. Kepler is a program that provides students access to free online content, mainly from Western universities, and on-the-ground in-person instruction to support the online content, to prepare students to earn an associate’s degree from Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America. Students participate in MOOCs — delivered by providers such as Coursera — and then meet weekly in small groups to discuss of what they have learned.[1]

At some distance from Rwanda, I have a colleague here at Ohio State who,, has started to hold Hangouts on Google+ with smaller groups of students in addition to weekly lectures. These smaller groups, seven or eight students at a time can discuss the week’s lectures in more detail.

I have written elsewhere that MOOCs will be in high demand from autonomous learners, who I believe will make up a growing slice of the higher education marketplace. But there will continue to be a significant segment of that market that, while still desiring the freedom to learn at their own pace, will want the benefits of face-to-face engagement with an instructor and a group of peers.

I am envisioning a pedagogical model for MOOCs that looks similar to the Oxford Tutorial. In this instance, a learner watches free MOOC lectures but then connects with a tutor to discuss the material in a more deeply, richly and personally. Tutorials might also include assessments and evaluation of student learning. In this setting, students engage in the face-to-face experience that I believe the majority learners will continue to crave.

If MOOCs draw tens of thousands of students, the tutorials would still be more intimate, a dozen or so students at a time (although I would suspect that a tutor would be tutoring many more students.) This is a premium service: the MOOC may be free, but the tutorial would come at a cost. In the scenario I am imagining, there will be a number of students who feel their learning is complete with the freely-available MOOC. But many students will seek out and pay for the opportunity to engage with a tutor and peers, even if the intimate setting of the tutorial occurs over a virtual network. What remains unclear to me is whether these tutors would be part of a formal educational institution, or would float on their own as independent contractors; sherpas guiding students on their individual learning journey.

Tutorials represent the personalization of education within a MOOC, although the tutor may not be physically with the students. Like my colleague with the Hangouts, the tutor might connect with a dozen or so students located at some distance from each other. Some professors are fretting that MOOCs may represent the end of their livelihoods, as either their lectures are taken away or t they are made redundant when the MOOC from a superstar lecturer from Harvard replaces their classroom lectures. But the tutorial model suggests that individualized teaching and learning via dialog and conversation might remain a vibrant form of education, even in an open-source, free-access technological environment.

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[1] Megan O’Neil, “Rwandan Degree Program Aims for a ‘University in a Box’,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 16, 2013. Accessed at

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