By Adding a Strong Research Element, MOOCs can Deliver Greater Learning Value to the Students who Participate in Them.
Anyone who follows education technology has probably heard plenty about the MOOC — a massive open online course often hosted by a well known university that is available to anyone with an Internet connection, usually at no charge, but that does not typically result in college credit. The New York Times even called 2012 the “Year of the MOOC,” though Anant Agarwal, founder of the MIT-backed MOOC provider edX, told the Times he preferred to call it “the year of disruption.” That might be fitting among those who believe MOOCs have the potential to change the way people learn, even in regions where traditional higher education is a luxury (or even an impossibility). Students climbed quickly aboard the MOOC movement. According to the N.Y. Times, the Stanford-backed MOOC provider Coursera added more than 1.7 million students in its first year of existence, a growth rate co-founder Andre Ng boasted was “faster than Facebook.”
Since the N.Y. Times piece was published, MOOCs have drawn a solid share of fans and critics, and many education experts continue to debate their long-term viability or impact. Nonetheless, MOOCs have created a new model of learning, one that has lead to another intriguing prospect of open source education: Massive Open Online Research.
The MOOR: What is Massive Open Online Research?
In September, the University of San Diego's Jacob's School of Engineering announced it was launching what it believed was the first major online course that featured a great deal of massive open online research, or MOOR, in addition to the usual coursework. The course, called Bioinformatics Algorithms — Part 1, would be offered through Coursera and give students a chance to work on targeted research projects under the guidance of what Professor Pavel Pevzner called in a press release published on UCSD's website “prominent bioinformatics scientists” from all across the globe.
“What sets us apart is combining research with a MOOC,” Ph.D. student Phillip Compeau, who helped develop the online course, said in the release. “The natural progression of education is for people to make a transition from learning to research, which is a huge jump for many students, and essentially impossible for students in isolated areas. By integrating the research with an interactive text and a MOOC, it creates a pipeline to streamline this transition.”
In other words, a MOOR is essentially a MOOC, but with a major emphasis on research. It allows students from across the globe — in all their varied experiences and viewpoints — to work together in a very practical way, and at least one education expert believes it has the potential to improve learning outcomes significantly.
How MOORs support learning
In his education blog, Education Stormfront, Full Sail University User Experience Designer Andrew Barrass called the UCSD course the crowdsourcing of research, and that its students may likely walk away from the experience more knowledgeable about the subject than if they had enrolled in a more conventional MOOC.
“(The) most effective way to learn something is to do it yourself,” wrote Barrass, who suggests rapidly evolving technologies are pushing the boundaries of what students can achieve at home. “With the amount of computing power available to individuals rising at the speed of Moore's Law, it makes sense we will be able to do research that was previously limited to scientists with supercomputers.”
All of this leads to another key question. What type of technologies could allow students stationed all across the globe to collaborate effectively on a major research project?
How to build a MOOR
Pevzner and Compeau have essentially laid the technological foundation for the first MOOR, though other providers could likely emulate it. According to the UCSD press release, one of Pevzner's foreign students, Nikolay Vyahhi of Russia, developed his own educational platform dubbed Stepic. According to its beta website, Stepic is an educational engine that integrates theory and problems or quizzes. The course will also use a program called Rosalind, which the USCD press release describes as a resource for bioinformatics students that uses problem solving. Rosalind already has more than 10,000 active users worldwide. Pevzner and Compeau have also written their own textbook, available in digital form. So far, this combination of technologies seems to be effective.
“We have already started testing the first modules of the Bioinformatics Algorithms course in top Russian universities,” Pevzner said in the release. “We are getting good feedback, and we hope to reach out to early students registering for the Coursera course so we can perform a ‘stress' test – just to make sure that we will be able to deliver on the promise of massive open online research projects, whether it's hundreds or thousands of students who enroll.”
Pevzner's 8-week Bioinformatics MOOR premiered in October. According to the release, participants were expected to know the programming basics in whichever computer language they studied, but that those who had not yet mastered a language could start from the beginning by completing introductory problems on Rosalind.
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