Monday, January 29, 2018

Six features to look for in job-oriented MOOCs ... (4)

Last update: Monday 1/29/18
In August 2017, I posted a discussion of job-oriented MOOCs on this blog that provided lots of data about some U.S. providers. The following note provides guidelines and recommendations based on that data and on my personal experience in passing almost 50 job-oriented MOOCs in the last three years. 

My conclusions are also based on 40 years in academia, first as a member of the tenured faculty, then as a member of the senior administrative staff of a prominent university. 

A. Guidelines

1) Be wary of courses and programs that are still tethered to the original notion of MOOCs. 

Recall that the original MOOCs were courses that were massive, open, and online ... plus a fourth unpronounced feature, the feature that attracted the most attention and provided the strongest motivation for the pioneer developers of MOOCs ==> They were free.

Despite the super-hyped promotions of MOOCs when they were introduced back in 2012, one size does not fit all. People have different reasons for taking MOOCs, e.g., curiosity, personal development, and career advancement. So there should be different kinds of MOOCs to match these different interests. 

I suggest that only two of the original four characteristics should be retained for job-oriented MOOCs -- massive and online. Courses that are "online" are accessible to students outside the normal commuter range from the instructor's offices. And "massive" courses --  courses that have substantially larger enrollments than most (but not all) traditional on-campus courses -- enable sponsors to recoup their investments in the development and maintenance of job-oriented courses by enrolling a large number of students over the lifespan of the courses.

2) Be willing to invest enough time and funds to prepare for your future career. 

Select job-oriented MOOCs that will provide you with the knowledge you need to get the job want. Then pay whatever time and dollars are required to learn the most you can from these courses. There are no royal roads, no short cuts, no free lunches.

B. Recommended Features

1. Certificate programs vs. stand-alone courses
It's unlikely that anyone can substantially enhance their current set of skills by completing a single stand-alone MOOC, typically lasting 4 to 6 weeks. 

Highly energetic professionals could design their own package of courses by picking a good MOOC here, followed by a second from over there, then a third from out yonder, etc, etc, etc. But this would be an inefficient use of their study time if only because they probably don't know enough about the new material (new to them) to be able to determine the most appropriate sequence of courses or to judge which stand-alone MOOCs provided the best coverage of the material. Cherry-picking MOOCs is also inefficient because MOOCs developed by different subject matter experts who were not in communication with each other during the development of their MOOCs will probably use inconsistent terminologies that will confuse new students (at first). 

So it's best to choose MOOC certificate programs, i.e. packages of related MOOCs, the same way that on-campus students choose degree programs. Nowadays just about all of the largest sponsors of MOOCs offer packages of related MOOCs in certificate programs. 

At this time the easiest way to find the kind of job-oriented certificate programs you are looking for is by searching the continuously updated directories of MOOCs and MOOC programs on the Website of Class Central

2. Pivots vs. Jumps
In discussing career changes, it's useful to distinguish between "pivots" and "jumps". 
  • When you obtain a new job in a field that's substantially different from the one you have previously pursued, that's a jump. In times past one acquired the substantial additional knowledge needed to make a jump by enrolling in an academic degree program, typically a masters degree in the new field. 
  • But when you obtain a job that merely requires more skills in the same field in which you are currently employed, that's a pivot. The additional knowledge required to pivot will be substantially less than the additional knowledge required to make a jump
So you have to decide: do you want to pivot or do you want to jump? One or two well-designed MOOC certificate programs should facilitate most pivots. But jumps will require the same substantial additions to your knowledge base that you would obtain by enrolling in a masters degree program. 

The good news is that a few universities offer a few online masters degrees at this time; and the bad news is that only a few universities offer online masters degrees at this time.

So here are my recommendations:
  • If you want to pivot, look for a MOOC certificate program. There's an ever increasing number of certificate programs out there now, so you have a good chance to find one that fits your career ambitions.
  • It you want to make a jump, look for an online masters degree. If you can't find an online program that's related to your career ambitions, consider enrolling in an on-campus program.
  • But if your personal circumstances (financials, family obligations, work obligations) won't allow you to enroll in a masters program, design your own "masters" by enrolling in a carefully selected series of MOOC certificate programs plus some stand-alone MOOCs plus independent study of good textbooks -- the sum of which will enable you to acquire the substantial additional knowledge you need to make the jump. Warning: This is easier said than done. Believe me. I speak from personal experience.

3. Prerequisites for programs and courses
Job-oriented MOOCs should not be open to everyone, nor should anyone planning to make a pivot or a jump want to enroll in a course or a program for which they don't have the prerequisite knowledge to understand most of the content that will be presented.

4. Textbooks
All job-oriented MOOCs should have required texts. Nowadays new textbooks cost anywhere between $100 to $200 or more, especially in STEM fields. So my suggestion conflicts with the fourth (unpronounced) characteristic of the original MOOCs that MOOCS should be free. This conflict could be resolved by the adoption of Open Educational Resource (OER) texts, i.e., free/inexpensive textbooks that are available online. Unfortunately, at this time only a small percentage of the textbooks in most fields are OER. 

Nevertheless, I suggest that MOOCs that don't require (or "highly recommend") textbooks will provide substantially less effective learning experiences, especially in courses related to STEM fields: 
  • Textbooks were one of the most productive innovations in the history of academia. Instructors no longer had to create 100 percent of their course content from scratch. If a "good" text covered 80 percent of the instructor's intended topics, instructors could supplement the text with their own notes that provided more compelling explanations of the most difficult topics. Instructors provided feedback to publishers that enabled the authors of the textbooks to make substantial improvements from one edition to the next, thereby enhancing the teaching and learning experiences of instructors and students.
  • Textbooks are not monographs, i.e., they not only contain lucid explanations of their topics. Good textbooks also provide extensive sets of step-by-step examples of the applications of the ideas presented in the text. Beyond this, they contain photos, drawings, and other graphics composed by professional designers to illustrate key points of the text; and they contain extensive sets of problems that instructors (and students) can use to assess the students' understanding of the topics. In other words, textbooks provide substantial productivity boosts to instructors. Without textbooks, instructors would have to make up their own examples, graphics, and problem sets.
  • On the flip side, textbooks also provide substantial productivity boosts for students.  Textbooks not only show them what they need to learn, but the number of pages devoted to a topic in the text enables students to make rough estimates of how much effort it will take for them to learn the material. And in subsequent courses or at subsequent points in their professional careers, students can refresh their understanding of the topics covered by the course by referring to their copies of their textbooks in their personal libraries ... as well as to their tattered course notes (if they still have them).
So here are my recommendations:
  • If a MOOC requires (or "highly recommends") a text, buy it -- new, used, Kindle, or whatever format causes the least pain to your budget.
  • If a MOOC does not require (or "highly recommend") a text, look for a comparable course offered by a university in an academic degree program. Find out the text that's required for that course, then buy it ... and read it!!! ... :-)

5. Projects
By definition, job-oriented programs are designed to prepare students to resolve the kinds of issues they will encounter in their subsequent professional careers. These programs must provide their students with opportunities to address realistic problems that require them to apply most of what they have learned in their studies. This kind of synthesis cannot be expressed by answers to multiple choice questions, or by complex "right" or "wrong" calculations. At the present time, projects are one of the most effective mechanisms for providing this kind of comprehensive learning experience. 

Accordingly, I recommend that you look for certificate programs that include projects in their most important courses and capstone projects at the end of the programs.

6. Project reviews -- professional vs. peer
Let's say you enroll in a job-oriented certificate program that requires the completion of one or more projects. Who will assess the appropriateness of your efforts? Shouldn't the course instructor provide these assessments. Isn't that what your college professors always did?

Before addressing these questions, I have to note two common characteristics of most projects: They take a lot of time for students to produce -- six hours, ten hours, twenty, whatever. But instructors also need a lot of time to assess each student's submission -- 15 minutes, 30 minutes, an hour ... multiplied by the number of students enrolled in the "massive" MOOC = lots of man-hours. 

Nowadays MOOCs take substantial time and money to create, but once the instructor's lecture videos are digitized, the cost of offering a MOOC plummets. Computers can grade tests that involve multiple choice or right/wrong calculations ... but computers can't assess projects ... yet

Question: If job-oriented MOOCs are free, who will pay for the assessments of student projects? 

Answer: Job-oriented programs should not be free. Students should be charged fees that are sufficient to cover the costs of having their projects assessed by experts, possibly by course instructors, possibly by consultants who are hired to provide these assessments. 

If you're really serious about making a pivot or a jump, I strongly recommend that you look for job-oriented certificate programs that require projects, and I recommend that you be prepared to pay the fees for these programs, most of which will be used to cover the costs of having your projects assessed by experts.

OK. That's cold. So please allow me to anticipate your next question, assuming that you are still reading this note ... :-) 

Reader's Next Question: Isn't there some other alternative, one that might involve students performing some kind of services instead of paying assessment fees? 

Answer: Yes, there is, but it's a mixed bag. It's called "peer review" ==> Your projects are assessed for free by other students. Here's how peer review works:
  • The developers of some job-oriented MOOCs also create rubrics that provide detailed instructions that specify how students should assess various aspects of other students' projects. Whereas experts in a field could provide comprehensive assessments, rubrics only enable student reviewers to determine whether another student's project met some readily perceived minimal requirements.
  • Students who enroll in programs that employ peer review procedures must also agree to review a specified number of other students' projects, typically four or five.
  • Students do not receive final grades for their own efforts in the course until they have assessed the required number of projects submitted by other students. This penalty provides a crude, but effective motivator.
Having been a student who reviewed other students' projects in many job-oriented MOOCs, I can testify that this procedure works far better than you might expect. I didn't learn much from the comments about my projects that I received from other students, but I learned a great deal from the opportunity to scrutinize other students' projects. Correction: I learned a great deal from assessing a small percentage of other students' projects. Fortunately, the learning benefits that I gained from my close examination of this excellent "10 percent" greatly exceeded the time and other costs required to assess the other "90 percent" ... :-)

Roy L Beasley, PhD
DLL Editor

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