A Nested MOOC Elective Course: MOOCs for Learner Development, and Learner Development for MOOCs

(Previously titled: MOOC Course Prospectus: Adding Value as a Physical Institution in an Age of Ubiquitous Digital Access and Massive Open Online Courses)

Curtis Edlin, Kanda University of International Studies, Chiba, Japan

Edlin, C. (2018). A nested MOOC elective course: MOOCs for learner development, and learner development for MOOCs. Relay Journal, 1(1), 133-141. https://doi.org/10.37237/relay/010113

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This paper is a prospectus, reflecting on an elective course at Kanda University of International Studies (KUIS) and the opportunities it affords for both students and the institution. The course is centered on both language learner development and learner development at large, using massive open online courses (MOOCs) as an opportunity for experience and reflecting on learning processes and self-regulation in learning. It highlights both the place of self-access centers (SACs) in an era of digital resources, due to the strengths of its advising services, and the parallel to the value a physical institution can bring in an era of MOOCs.

Keywords: self-access, MOOCs, learner development, lifelong learning

Parallel Concerns: Self-Access and Distributed Digital Resources, Universities and MOOCs

SACs are out-of-class environments that students can use for further and continued study, and most commonly with regard to language learning. In the past, and still in many cases today, they featured materials and physical resources as their centerpiece. One concern in the field of self-access in recent years has been regarding what will happen with our SACs and other learning environments as digital resources proliferate and environments shift, at least in part, from physical to digital spaces. These concerns in self-access are mirrored by concerns of universities at large regarding MOOCs, which saw an explosion of offerings around 2012. MOOC platforms, such as EdX, Coursera, and FutureLearn continue to gain userbase and offer ubiquitous, cheap or free access. What does this mean for our SACs? What does this mean for universities?

Characteristics of MOOCs

The advantages of MOOCS are difficult to argue against. Now, millions of students have access to thousands of course offerings from consortia of universities around the globe, from institutions such as Harvard, Yale, MIT, and Stanford, to Oxford, to Tokyo University and many others. These courses offer content either similar or identical to what their students are exposed to on campus. Why would such notable universities be willing to give away for free what they predicate their admissions on? For some of these universities––with large endowments, and investor support, and for whom earnings from tuition and fees may only offset the cost of new accommodations or buildings for the on-campus students—image and reputation become as important a business consideration as anything else, or even more so. When you are presumed to be an educational leader, being seen as late to new educational developments can have outsized consequences. Offering open courses does not undercut these universities’ enrollment but failing to offer some access to open courses when others do could undercut their image as educational leaders (this is how Harvard was convinced to join MIT in EdX despite a position initially against it).

What of the other universities—those of us that are not Ivies? How can we compete with, mitigate, or even better—find opportunity to take advantage of these courses and platforms? While the concerns over the impact of MOOCs are valid, there are some important silver linings to be identified here. These silver linings revolve around concepts of good learning and learner support and development. Many elite institutions operate on a model of being masters of content, but that does not always equate to being masters of learning. Particularly at elite institutions, it is possible to ignore pedagogy in favor of content because when you only admit top students, you can rest assured that “they will find a way to learn it.” This is not necessarily true of general populations of learners at large, however, and accounts for one of the great shortcomings of many MOOCs in their current form. Even when adjusted from looking at course completion to students meeting their own goals, the rates of achieving those goals remain somewhat underwhelming. The most-cited culprit is poor self-regulation strategies. The future of MOOCs is likely to seek not only to provide access, but also incorporate learner development and support good self-regulation. While systems and platforms are slowly improving in this regard, they still generally have a long way to go.

Access to content vs. learning content

First attending to the effects of ubiquitous digital materials on self-access, it should be noted that there has been a shift in recent years regarding the purpose of a SAC. While many were materials-centric in the past, the field is moving in a direction that highlights the importance developing of social learning spaces. Further, our Self-Access Learning Center (SALC) and advising services afford value-added opportunities that mere content in the ether of the Internet does not. Through taking SALC curricula or through advising, students change their orientation toward learning and are better able to manage cognitive and metacognitive aspects of their learning. This means that the SALC is not just about having material or possible content, but it is about helping students develop the capacities to use that material (or other resources, like communities of learners) and manage their learning effectively. This approach, adding value through learner development and helping students be able to better access and learn from content, has strong implications for MOOCs as content, too.

A MOOC can be thought of as a collection of content. While the quality of production and course design still seems quite variable, it is often the case that existing classes are simply digitized, rather than truly harnessing technological opportunity. Platforms often highlight the access to content, and are wont to leave the rest up to students who are taking the course on their own, in their free time, and often without other support. This is where an institution such as KUIS can stand to capitalize on its expertise to not fight against the tide of MOOCs, but to add value to and from MOOCs for students. We can offer an environment in which students approach their various MOOCs as a community of learners. Their experiences in their MOOCs, taken in English, allow them to reflect and build upon their experiences of taking international, university-level courses in English. While the biggest hurdles for learners at large in reaching their goals in MOOCs are obstacles related to self-regulation, this is actually an area of expertise for learning advisors working in the SALC. We help students to dig deeper and reflect on their language learning and self-regulation strategies, creating support systems for them to learn to iterate gradually better weekly plans as they explore how they each individually study in their most successful ways.

MOOC Course at KUIS

The MOOC course at KUIS, by various names, has been offered as an elective by learning advisors for several semesters to both English majors and International Communication (IC) majors. The course is conducted in English, and the students choose English-based MOOCs to study (meaning they select some content-based MOOC of their own interest that they will use nested within our course to focus on learner development). In our course, students learn about MOOCs and various platforms, and they develop personal inner criteria about what sorts of course would be desirable to them, which varies by learner. Partway into the semester, they submit a report on their short-list of courses and assess them according to their criteria, finally resulting in selecting a course to take.

In the second half of our course, in addition to the weekly class time, students work on their individual MOOCs weekly for a minimum of two hours (It is common for them to log five hours or more to reach their goals, though not required). They then fill out learning journals, detailing on their MOOC experience, summarizing their content and reflecting on their learning processes. This reflection includes what is working for them and what is not in terms of both their general learning strategies and their language learning strategies. The class is graded not upon students’ completion of their MOOCs, but on the completeness of the reflective process through journaling, class discussions, and other class activities, as well as by evidence of learning through documentation, reports, and presentations (Rather than their individual MOOC content itself, we are concerned with learner development). The students have to produce evidence of their study and learning for their time on the MOOCs as per requirement for the credit hours.

The learning advisors teaching our course respond to students’ individual journals weekly, as they would in our other SALC curricula, to support deeper reflection and better planning and self-regulation by the students. They take both student feedback and look for patterns of trending difficulties among the students to plan workshops during the course as just-in-time interventions so that the students can share their difficulties, experiences, and ideas or solutions, and thus they can develop better ideas of how to move forward. These workshops included both language learning strategies and self-regulation strategies at large. In the most recent semester, this included note-taking and vocabulary study, time management, managing motivation, and finding the best physical and temporal considerations to find focus (Students seem to find they are individually varied in how they do their best work in different blocks of time, times of day, specific locations, or locations with certain qualities suited to certain types of work).

Benefits for the university and its students

The benefits of including a MOOC course such as the one detailed above are many fold. First, the university is able to fill a gap that exists in current MOOC education, helping students develop as learners who can increasingly manage their own learning to a higher quality in MOOCs. KUIS is uniquely qualified for success in this endeavor as this is an area of learning advisor expertise, and there is a robust group of advisors and training system already in place.

Secondly, the largest portion of MOOCs currently available are through an English-language medium. As a heavily language-focused school, this can become a driving force and justification for the immediate usefulness of the language study that students are doing. By helping students improve their academic English abilities, they can access to broader selection of content through MOOC courses, and by helping them improve their communicative English abilities, they gain access to local and global communities of learners for either motivational support, or to get ideas by which to improve their learning.

Third, by students being able to access these MOOC courses, KUIS can expand its ability to cater to students’ various intellectual interests without needing to drastically increase its course catalog. It also helps keep developmental costs low, while at the same time affording students a great variety of content to study. Taking MOOCs of interest can be inherently motivating for students, too, additionally necessitating much language learning and practice, facilitating their further language development.

Finally, this sort of course structure (using external MOOCs with internal institutional support for learner development) is a concrete way to contribute to life-long learning. While life-long learning is an oft-touted ideal, it can be hard to observe it actually occurring. For the students who complete our course, however, we can say for certain that they know what opportunities they have access to, across what platforms, if they want to take further courses online. Moreover, they know how to critically assess whether a course might be a good fit for them, as well as how to manage their learning on various levels within a course—both linguistically and with regard to self-regulation. When they come up against difficulties, they will have practice in a reflective process that allows them to try new approaches and iterate better plans.

The importance of this capacity for effective autonomous learning and self-regulation cannot be understated. Globally, knowledge turnover is happening ever more rapidly, and in some fields, like programming, it can already be as little as five years. This, in addition to concerns surrounding job prospects in an era of increasing automation, necessitates a sort of professional agility, which requires the ability to adapt and learn new skills quickly. Even Japan is not exempt, with lifetime employment paradigms on the decline. In this sense, the most important thing we can give students to prepare them for the working world is not some particular content, but helping them develop into good learners who can manage their own learning, because their generation will not only benefit from life-long learning, but it will likely require it to achieve future measures of success.

Notes on the Contributor

Curtis Edlin is a learning advisor and a resource coordinator in the Self-Access Learning Center at Kanda University of International Studies. He holds an MATESOL from SIT Graduate Institute and has been working in language education for over 10 years. His research interests include learning environments, grounded pedagogy, and MOOCs and open course ware.

2 thoughts on “A Nested MOOC Elective Course: MOOCs for Learner Development, and Learner Development for MOOCs”

  1. The topic of massive open online courses certainly attracted my attention. The question whether physical spaces still have a role to play is a very important one!

    As I understand it KUIS offers a course that helps students to learn in MOOCs (provided by other institutions). That’s actually the first topic of your article, and to help your readers understand that, I would begin your article with the paragraph (currently further down) that reads ‘The MOOC course at KUIS, by various names, has been offered as an elective by learning advisors for several semesters to both English majors and International Communication (IC) majors. The course is conducted in English, and the students choose English-based MOOCs to study (meaning they select some content-based MOOC of their own interest that they will use nested within our course to focus on learner development).’ That way your readers know the context. Also, it’s an interesting course and one that I suspect is fairly unique. I’m sure most people would love to hear about it and hear a bit more about how successful it is/has been.

    Your second topic is whether MOOCs may replace physical spaces. Personally, I would have split the article into two; one on each of your foci. Regardless, I like the question and I think readers may benefit from a brief overview of how MOOCs have been used in language teaching and learning and what options exist for teachers on how to integrate them / draw on them.

    As your focus is particularly on the self-access context (and I think you should clarify this in the title and abstract) it would be really beneficial to perhaps include a comparison of some of the features of self-access centres and MOOCs (maybe in the form of a table) to show where they overlap and where one can help develop skills for the other. That slighly narrower focus will improve the article, I think. Don’t try to do too much!

    All of the above is not reflected well in your title/abstract. I had some difficulty in figuring out what your paper was going to be about. Personally, I had to look up what a ‘prospectus’ means – I thought it was a ‘brochure’ 😉 I suspect this may be US term. As a title, you could consider something like ‘do SACs still have a role to play in the age of MOOCs?’

    Thanks for writing about this important topic!

  2. Hayo,

    Thank you very much for your feedback and questions. I think my message may have been misinterpreted in a couple of spots, but I do believe that knowing that is helpful in writing a revision with more clarity.

    This paper actually began as an internal document to express the benefits of an existing course to try and garner understanding and support among administration, who are also familiar with the context of our self-access center and, to some extent at least, our advising. As such, there are probably a number of inherent assumptions that were in the paper which could make sense within the KUIS context, but which may not be as clear to readers here. In the revised paper, I follow only the first topic you identified–the elective MOOC course at KUIS (which helps support student success in MOOCs and and uses students’ MOOC experiences to help drive learner development).

    I had tried to frame the state of MOOCs and their shortcomings before approaching our class as a solution–a solution with merits which parallel the merits of a physical SAC (social affordances, advising/advisor support). However, as you pointed out, this likely made it unclear what the main theme was or otherwise made it hard to follow. Perhaps I was trying to address too many things in one document. As per your recommendation, I put information about the course at the beginning of the article, and then move into the learning affordances the course was designed to have, leaving lengthier discussions about parallels between learning in a SAC and via MOOCs for another day. I also made a table of a particular set of affordances across traditional language courses, SALL, content MOOCs, and our elective course, which is relevant still to the narrowed topic in that the course was specifically designed to try and bring these affordances together in a synergistic way.

    As for the course, at the moment it is actually outside of the SALC both physically and in regard to departmental offerings (we would like it to be a SALC course in the future, but currently we teach it in other departments due to credit hour system limitations and where students’ credits need to come from for their majors). We approach many of the same goals as we would in the SALC, and learner development in particular, with an outlook toward lifelong learning. As such, I had been trying to focus on the course and learner autonomy (via choice and SRL skills) more than the topic of self-access centers specifically–something more akin to identifying a positive role an institution or class can take in the age of MOOCs, which just so happens to benefit from knowledge and skills present in the field of self-access and in advising. While parts of this are certainly connected to the question about what sorts of spaces we need, whether physical or metaphorical, I decided not to address that question specifically in the revision. Though interesting and important (I believe Phil Benson spoke about this very topic in Mexico a couple years ago), perhaps that will be another topic to write about another time.

    While this work is mostly a description of the design, process, and merits of the elective course here that both benefits from the availability of MOOCs and helps students to be successful in MOOCs, I have added a few references from research on MOOCs regarding goal attainment, positive effects of social interaction, the importance of self-regulation, and also shortcomings in regard to SRL strategy uptake, hopefully highlighting how the work we do in advising has useful and important implications in a course such as this one.

    Thank you again for your questions and comments, which I believe helped me narrow my focus and produce a clearer piece of writing. I have submitted my revision, and I believe it will be available to read shortly.

    With many thanks,

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