What an exciting time it is to be part of online education. To paraphrase Ron Legon from The Quality Matters Program, we’re now moving past the idea of a “traditional” online course into something more “innovative,” to something where we can now use almost 20 years of experience to inform a new generation of online teaching and learning. The 19th Annual Sloan Consortium International Conference on Online Learning, held on November 20-22, 2013, focused on these innovations from the perspective of how we can use technology to meet the needs of students across the globe. New technology can include everything from Big Data collected from MOOCs to implementing competency-based learning to shorten the time to degree and  decrease the costs to deliver and consume higher education.

To put our mission as global educators into perspective, Hal Plotkin from the Department of Education referenced the following statistics:

  • 6.7% of the world population has some type of post-secondary degree
  • 93% of the world population has little to no access to higher education
  • The average number of years of schooling for people ages 15+ globally is 7.76 years

Hal also talked about the 2025 demographic bulge, which identifies the unprecedented growth in the college-age population worldwide. As quoted from Sir Daniel from the Commonwealth of Learning, “To meet surging demand for post-secondary studies the world needs to open 3 new colleges serving 30,000 students every week for the next 12 years.”

To meet this need, we’re going to have to be creative. The Federal Government has allocated $2 billion dollars through the Trade Adjustment Act Community College Career Training grant program, which is intended to fund the creation, improvement, and maintenance of reusable open online learning resources. We’re also well down the MOOC pathway, but many are likening the current iteration to a Model T Ford: great to get us on the road, but not great to get us there fast. Competency-based learning might be another potential solution, although we still have many issue to resolve, such as financial aid, standards to measure success, and reconciling the conflict between credit hours and competencies.

Evaluating MOOCs: A Case Study

Creativity is great, but only if it helps students to change their lives through learning. MOOCs offer us the opportunity to measure almost anything that we need to investigate how students learn. For example, Anat Agarwal from edX and MIT talked about one of the MIT MOOCs offered online. Roughly speaking, 155,000 students enrolled, 26,000 completed the first assignment, and 7,000 passed the course. The overall pass rate for this course would be just under 5 percent, but if you accept the idea that anyone who didn’t complete the first assignment really had no intention of completing or passing the course, then the pass rate increases to approximately 25 percent. Remember that this is an MIT course, and MIT has rigorous admissions requirements. MIT accepts fewer than 10 percent of the students who apply, which means already the 25 percent completion rate of the general population is higher than the admissions rate of the institution. I don’t know what this means, if anything at all, but it’s worth thinking about.

That said, approximately 7,000 students passed this course. According to Agat, it would take him 36 years of face-to-face teaching to facilitate that many students through his course. On an absolute scale, 7,000 students learned the same material, and we can learn from the interaction data that EdX collects to see how they did it. We can use these numbers to evaluate what is working, what doesn’t work, and who it works for.

Some very interesting preliminary findings from these data include metrics surrounding the ideal length of video clips. Students will spend up to 7 minutes watching a video. If the video is longer than that, they actually decrease the amount of time they spend on each video. For students who take a course and intend to earn a credential, they will spend 2 minutes watching a 40-minute video. If you break that 40-minute video into segments of 7 minutes, they will watch all of it.

In summary, we have a lot of work ahead of us to make education available to the global population at a helpful scale. Not only does this include international students, but it includes students with limited access to the internet, students with disabilities, and students who do not have social access to higher education. The best solution will be versatile enough to meet all of these students where they are, and to make access the easy part.