Boundless Learning in the World of MOOCs

A graphic of human's brains with different ideas coming outIn the fascinating, unfolding world of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), a whole new set of relationships between learners is being forged, according to Prof King L Chow, Professor in the Division of Life Science at HKUST, one of the institutions pioneering the way in Asia for these global courses. “In the past, university students would only discuss with classmates when doing group projects. Now in my course, I have seen high school students, a graduate student, an archeologist, chefs and homemakers discussing recipes together.”

Prof Chow is one of the course instructors for The Science of Gastronomy MOOC made available via the worldwide Coursera platform, which partners more than 100 top universities and organizations in providing free online education programs, usually in a non-credit bearing format.  When first offered last year, the course attracted over 83,000 enrollments, including students from over 100 countries around the world.  It started a second run in March, and this time there is an opportunity for those also studying on campus at HKUST to earn credits.

Leading the way online
The advent of MOOCs is regarded as a significant trend in higher education today.  Millions have signed up to study such courses, which widen access to university-level education and encourage lifelong learning. Many are from world-renowned universities.  MOOCs differ from traditional distance learning in several distinct ways, said Prof Ting Chuen Pong, Senior Advisor to the Executive Vice-President and Provost (Teaching Innovation and e-Learning) and Chairman of the HKUST Taskforce on e-Learning.  Distance learning students usually pay to access videos or assessments, he noted, while MOOCs are free.  MOOC platforms may also draw thousands of disparate global learners to a single course.  More importantly, the experience gained from MOOCs can be used to enhance the learning experience of students on campus.

HKUST was the first university in Asia to form a partnership with Coursera and to date has offered four courses via the platform, including topics related to science and technology in China and data collection methods for Chinese history, as well as the gastronomy course, attracting over 140,000 enrollments in total.  The University has also joined edX, another major MOOC provider founded by Harvard University and MIT, and is due to upload three courses to this platform in the next few months.  They are courses on Java computing, communication systems, and English for doing business in Asia, areas pinpointed as having global appeal and meeting market needs. Other leading institutions providing MOOCs include Yale University, Princeton University, University of Michigan and University of Tokyo.  Subjects range from languages and arts to law, engineering and medicine.

Through the HKUST Taskforce on e-Learning, whose members are drawn from different Schools, the University is exploring strategy, effectiveness of programs, quality, and infrastructure support for instructional design and video production. It is also taking the lead in moving MOOCs forward in the local context.  Benefits for universities include the “learning analytics” generated through the platforms and large student numbers, which can be used to assess and enhance online and overall teaching methods. “Lots of time is spent looking at the data available from the platforms,” Prof Pong said.  “For example, if a video is often replayed by many students, this may imply a difficult learning area.  Those skipped by many may imply the area is too easy.”  MOOCs can provide wider reach for an institution’s teaching and greater global presence.  An initiative was also launched in September 2013 to provide support for instructors to develop blended learning courses using innovative approaches.

Fostering greater diversity
To gain the most benefit from MOOCs’ ability to draw online learners from different backgrounds and locations, a balance of interaction and virtual learning is essential, Prof Pong said. “For a one-hour course, each video presentation should be limited to around 10 minutes so that students can spend more time in online interactions such as discussion forums, question-and-answer sessions and peer-to-peer assessments.”

In addition, this summer, the University will offer a blended learning pilot scheme for HKUST students to earn credits from Prof Chow’s gastronomy course if they also complete six weeks of face-to-face coursework on campus. Around 60 are expected to do so. The course will be listed on their transcript and the credits can be put toward fulfilment of their degree requirements.

“This way, we can also solve one of the current problems with MOOCs – verification as to the actual person completing the course,” Prof Pong said.  “And in the future, the initiative may be able to develop into another form of international exchange, drawing overseas learners to the campus and adding to diversity at HKUST.”

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