MOOC Research Initiative

Though MOOCs have been around for about five years in some limited forms, the past 18 months have been the real emergence of MOOCs in education. Everyone seems to have an opinion about them, but there is less formal research being done on them than many academics would like to see.

Those people may be happy to have read the announcement about the launch of the MOOC Research Initiative funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as part of a set of investments intended to "explore the potential of MOOCs to extend access to postsecondary credentials through more personalized, more affordable pathways."

Researchers, academics, administrators, learners, and policy makers have plenty of questions as to the effectiveness of the Massive Open Online Course format of teaching and learning. The MOOC Research Initiative (MRI) hopes to fill this research gap by evaluating MOOCs and how they impact teaching, learning, and education in general.

For now, MRI is a $400,000 investment offering grants in the range of $10,000 – $25,000 each. The MRI grant program is led and administered by Athabasca University and George Siemens with support from an advisory committee of experts in learning design and MOOCs.  Although MRI only launched recently, their schedule is aggressive and they want successful grantees (who will be announced by the end August) to begin immediately this fall semester and then give interim reports at a conference at the University of Texas, Arlington on December 5-6, 2013.

Information on MRI, including call for proposals and timelines, is available at:

Student Video Production

I have yet to see educators settle on one way of having students produce and share video, especially for online courses. There is such a staggering amount of devices, tools, services and apps to produce and share video that I think most of us are as baffled as the tyranny of choices we confront in the supermarket aisles.

I was looking again this summer at some services I had not used before to see if there was a new FREE tool for students to produce video that could incorporate live action but also screen captures, images and maybe even desktop interactions. I wanted this for producing short "lectures" or presentations and for assignments, proposals, evaluations and portfolios.

In the past, I have used any commercial service that the school had purchased and I could offer my students. These products like WebEx, Echo260, Camtasia Relay etc. are not only costly but often too much of a tech hurdle for faculty and for students to use with any regularity.

Many people suggest that students use things like Voice Thread in online or F2F courses. Instructors can start a topic and students can all add comments, either voice or text, around it. Students can collaborate on a thread about a course topics. Images and videos made using other tools can be included too.

Animoto is free for 30 second video (which might be useful for icebreaker introductions or other small assignments) but has costs otherwise. offers a maximum recording time of 15 minutes, no max free hosting for up to 15 minutes per upload and a variety of file and publishing options.

Similarly, I have had students use Jing which is free from to create images and videos of what is on their computer screen, then share them instantly. The videos must be short, but I find it works well for proposals and elevator pitches for research topics.  It can also be a good icebreaker exercise to have them introduce themselves in a n online course. I have used it to give students my thoughts on their work in online courses. It's not difficult to use but it also can signal to me those students that are going to have issues with using technology.

I hear about more teachers using Google Hangouts in the classroom. Besides the video aspect, it offers commenting, messaging, and chat features so that students can ask questions while you lead the course, and they can interact with you and each other.


Gmail Redesign: Tabs

Things keep changing to web apps every day when I log in. Recently, Gmail Tabs popped up without prior warning as a new way of organizing my mail.

I hadn't really wanted a new way to do that, but these tabs, which sit at the top of your inbox page, are supposedly just a first look at a completely redesigned Gmail experience.

I guess I really am getting old because I'm not dealing as well with change these days.

If you are active on social media and subscribe to blog posts, this new tabs look might be appealing. It can separate your work related emails from your updates. I was already doing that using filters, labels, and the priority inbox but I suppose the Gmail tab feature might save some scrolling time.

Virtual Field Trips

I know that schools and institutions have been using virtual field trips for at least 20 years in some form or another. In New Jersey, all public and non-public K-12 schools and public libraries located within Verizon's territory could once use Access New Jersey (ANJ), an advanced telecommunications network.

While I was at NJIT, I helped create our first Internet2 Day in 2005 which offers high speed opportunities for virtual field trips and collaborations between research organizations and universities and even K-12 school through its K20 Initiative.

I recall in the 1990s and earlier using ITV (Instructional Television) to connect sites and use television programs for distance education. Many of these terms and services have fallen away. There is very little time devoted by public stations to ITV today. If it exists at all, it is part of a digital subchannel of a non-commercial educational public television station, or passed on to a local educational-access television channel run by cable TV organization. There are still some groups like the Agency for Instructional Technology and the Annenberg Foundation doing a kind of ITV, but most of this type of programming has moved to the Internet.

A virtual field trip today is likely to use something like Google+ Hangouts on Air to connect cultural institutions like museums, zoos and aquariums with schools and non-profits. Hangouts On Air allows institutions to share universal access to unique cultural and educational experiences regardless of geographical and financial restrictions.

Google offers two online forms to request a virtual field trip for a classroom or organization.

Classroom Form: and an Organization Form:

California and Credit and MOOCs

It was big news earlier in the year when a bill was proposed (and since was approved) in California that mandates statewide open online courses be approved for college and high school credit. That bill, SB 520, was often written up in articles as being a MOOC bill because it requires that these courses be open to all students who require them and cannot get access to them in their own schools. That last part is important. The bill is about access to courses and that was part of the original intent of MOOCs and earlier open courses that may not have been as massive in enrollment.

The California bill originally positioned 20 "MOOC-like" courses that would be credited by high schools and colleges across the state. This bill generated a lot of resistance from faculty who see it both as a threat to their jobs (bringing in "outside contractors") and as a lower quality of education.

It is important to note that the bill's focus is on students who are shut out of a high school or college classrooms due to a lack of space in that class. It is not about a student opting to take a MOOC version of English Composition rather than the one that is available on campus. The bill says that students must be allowed to take the same course in an online or non-classroom format when that is all that is available to them.

The question of whether or not those outside courses provide the same quality and standards as the accredited high school and college classes is a more controversial issue, and one that will be harder to address. That is an argument that has been active for decades in comparing face-to-face courses and their online counterparts. The short answer from research that I have heard many times is that thee is "no significant difference" between a well designed F2F class and a well designed online version. The California bill seems to assume parity but opponents don't accept that assumption.

The problem of there not being enough space in classrooms for students may not be as relevant in all states as it is in California, but I would predict that most states will have to deal with this issue of giving credit to MOOCs or other third-party online courses soon. Schools have had to deal with the issue in other cases already, such as transfer credits, summer courses and exchange programs.

Of course, college credits mean tuition money and no school wants to lose that whether they are labeled non-profit or for-profit. Some providers have been working with the American Council on Education"s (ACE) CREDIT program. ACE has been around since the mid-1970s and requires course providers who want their accreditation to submit substantial documentation about a course for review by a team of academics.

California may have taken the first step in this direction but it looks like other large state systems like New York and Florida may move in the same direction.

One thing that favors the direction this bill moves towards is that it is being viewed as another way to have students take classes they need and move towards completion (graduation) in a shorter time. That aspect is very important to the federal government and most state and even some county (for 2 year colleges) agencies.

In April 2013, the bill was amended based on the discussions and negotiations that followed the announcement. One change that emerged was that course approval would shift from the state (California Open Access Resources Council) to the local administration and faculty senates of the three systems (University of California, California State University, and California Community Colleges). They have also removed the use of ACE recommendations.

There will certainly be more changes, but it is unlikely that the use of some form of the Massive Open Online Courses will simply go away if it is ignored.

SB520 Fact Sheet