MOOC and Adaptive Learning: The perfect match

MOOCs are everywhere around us, especially these days as Coursera decided to stop the free certificates as Udacity did it before in May 2014edX did the same last December 2015.

Just to refresh the memory about what a MOOC actually is, Wikipedia says: “A massive open online course (MOOC /muːk/) is an online course aimed at unlimited participation and open access via the web. In addition to traditional course materials such as filmed lectures, readings, and problem sets, many MOOCs provide interactive user forums to support community interactions among students, professors, and teaching assistants (TAs).”

Some people say MOOCs are dead, others say that they are changing. Some of them focused on paid services, certificates or on private groups like SPOCs. But this article is not about that.

In the past, the important component of a MOOC was engagement and in the present, it still is. With a completion rate of around only 10%* there has been all kinds of tests to keep people on track until the end: from peer to peer evaluation, to social learning, forums, cohorts… among some of them had more effect than others.

Is it really a problem of engagement?

Different research and opinions exist on this subject, even the ones that think that engagement itself is not the cause. Without getting into further details on the discussion, what if the real problem is not engagement but something that all teachers, instructors or professors will agree on?  

I am talking about a simple fact: everyone learns in a different way. Even a teacher in front of 30 students needs to adapt to each of their needs. There can be different reasons for this, but for now, we will focus on something else. Let us point this out: if a teacher needs to adapt to 30 students in a classroom, how can a MOOC teach to 5,000 to 50,000 students with only one content and only one learning model and design?

That is probably something that needs to be reconsidered.

Did you say adaptive learning?

Coming back to Wikipedia and the definition of adaptive learning:

Adaptive learning is an educational method which uses computers as interactive teaching devices, and to orchestrate the allocation of human and mediated resources according to the unique needs of each learner. Computers adapt the presentation of educational material according to students' learning needs, as indicated by their responses to questions, tasks and experiences. The technology encompasses aspects derived from various fields of study including computer science, education, psychology, and brain science.”

Furthermore, it continues with this affirmation:

“Adaptive learning has been partially driven by a realization that tailored learning cannot be achieved on a large-scale using traditional, non-adaptive approaches.”

MOOCs are large-scale learning platforms and yes, it seems like they are failing to deliver tailored learning to participants.

As a consequence, why not using adaptive learning in MOOC? After all, there are various reasons indicating that we should use it. Let us reveal two of them which seem to be more than obvious:

  • Data: adaptive learning needs data to be able to propose tailored learning paths to each learner. And MOOCs, with a high number of participants, are generating this learning data.
  • Participants: with a high number of participants, there is greater need to propose a personalized learning path to each person.

The outcome: participants generate the data that allow adaptive learning to propose tailored learning paths to each learner.

Closing up, the key point on this virtuous circle is, on the one hand, to have content working with adaptive learning algorithms and, on the other hand, to propose different forms of interactions on the platform. However, explaining these two points would go beyond the scope of discussion, therefore they could be addressed in a new post.

What could be the result of matching MOOC and adaptive learning? Let’s wait and see, some results will come out soon.


This article was written by Ivan Ostrowicz and originally posted on Ivan is an MBA Alumnus from NEOMA Business School and is CEO and Founder of Domoscio.

The original blog posting can be found here

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* Pope, Justin: MIT Technology Review, What are MOOCs good for? December 15, 2014