OpenFiction [Blog]

Tightly coupled or loosely joined

One of the issues I’ve been thinking about as I watch the development of massively scalable courses (I continue to resist calling them MOOCs) is whether or not we are repeating the problems of learning management systems in the new course platforms.

My experience with learning management systems is that because they are tasked with doing so many different things, they don’t do any one thing particularly well. In part this is an issue of development burden–even a big, well-resourced team is hard pressed to keep up on the development of the full suite of tools that educators want to use. The second issue is one of nimbleness. It’s much harder in a big system like an LMS to throw out code and start from scratch on a particular piece of functionality–there’s just too much legacy commitment.

I’m not primarily (or maybe even secondarily) a technical guy, so there may be new approaches to putting platforms together that will mitigate the second issue, but as far as I can see, the first issue only gets worse when it comes to massively scalable courses. Why? The key development that is allowing courses to scale in any meaningful way right now is the new generation of automated assessments such as the circuitry sandbox used for 6.002x.

That tool, as reported in the Globe yesterday, has been under development for many years. The problem is, creating an automated assessment tool of similar complexity in a different field is likely to be a similarly complex undertaking. To create a program that spans a wide range of subjects in a meaningfully scalable way means a similar investment in each field.

I understand the instinct to create these integrated platforms–a more coherent user experience and probably most importantly unified data collection from people on the system, but I wonder if those advantages are going to be compelling enough to actually create a sustainable model, especially if the assessments available are less effective than those offered at boutique learning sites like Codecademy. After all, as a learner, I don’t want to learn two dozen different subjects, I want to learn one, so I don’t care if the site I go to has good medical automated assessments if what I want is to learn javascript.

In addition to the burden of creating assessments across a range of fields, the massively scalable course platforms are also going to have to create content and learning communities as well, adding to the development burden. An alternative to this that I see is for learners to build experiences by pulling together complementary individual projects. We collaborate, for instance, with OpenStudy to add interactive opportunities to MIT OpenCourseWare content. There’s no reason learners couldn’t choose to use Peer 2 Peer University for the same purpose. And increasingly, there are automated feedback tools such as those at Codecademy emerging that can provide a robust experience.

The most compelling part of the massively scalable course value proposition right now–beyond the learning opportunity itself–is the possibility of credentialling, but it’s not clear right now what the market value of that will be, or how much reputational capital participating universities are willing to burn in these efforts, or how efforts like the Mozilla Open Badges Infrastructure will impact credentialling.

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