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The MOOC Trough of Disillusionment: Are SPOCs Here to Save Online Education?

Man uses tablet with a video application on screenBack in 2012, Massive, Open Online Courses (MOOCs) were heralded as a new dawn in education. Tech startups with deep roots in the world’s leading institutions raised millions of dollars and attracted hundreds of thousands of students to sign up for these free courses.

While many academics were excited by the opportunity to share their knowledge with those hoping to realign their careers, faculty who had been recording their own classrooms already understood the technological underpinnings that made MOOCs possible in the first place. For them, it seemed far from the monumental shift that the media was predicting.

Through a video recording process known as lecture capture and the use of learning management systems (LMS), instructors in universities around the world were already creating de facto online courses for their students. Students could watch and review lectures throughout the year, download readings from the course website, and even submit video assignments through drop-boxes built into the course websites.

Why MOOCs fail

MOOCs generally used similar technologies and principles to those found in existing courses that used lecture capture and LMSs. The difference between what instructors were doing in brick-and-mortar classrooms around the world and those pursuing MOOCs lay in the first two letters of the acronym: massive and open.

It was also due to these two attributes that the MOOC has, so far, failed to fundamentally reshape education.

While low barriers to entry have allowed thousands of students to start these open online courses, MOOCs have not, in general, been able to capture the rigor and engagement of the classroom experience.

Many MOOCs are structured more like on-demand online education than a true time-bound academic course. They focus on delivering content without emphasizing the completion of assignments or other activities that help students learn, retain, and apply the content.

Of course, the most motivated students can overcome these barriers, but with little accountability — academic, social, or financial — there is little incentive for students to stick with classes, and as a result, attrition is high. Students receive certificates of completion, not credits.

Faculty and universities, too, struggle with their investments in MOOCs. The costs per MOOC course can be in the tens of thousands of dollars, much of which is spent on A/V expertise and specialized recording studios to produce content. With many universities already capturing video through lecture capture and flipped classroom technologies, there has been a growing question of whether the additional MOOC funding is worth it.

Enter SPOC

As the MOOC hype has fizzled in the past 12-18 months, a new buzzworthy acronym has begun to enter the online learning vernacular — the small private online course (SPOC). SPOCs are defined as “a version of a MOOC used locally with on-campus students.” More specifically, SPOCs describe two educational approaches already in widespread adoption:

    1. Distance Learning
    2. Flipped Classrooms

Much like MOOCs, both distance learning and flipped classrooms leverage recorded video lectures and “micro-lectures” delivered over the internet. In both situations, the material can be absorbed at whatever pace is right for an individual student.

Distance Learning

Non-traditional students have been learning from a distance for decades, dating all the way back to correspondence courses. Over time, the communication media of the time have opened up new and better ways of delivering information, proctoring assignments, and engendering collaboration between classmates.

Today, professors at universities, colleges, and vocational schools are increasingly offering their courses online. With class sizes that are similar to those in a campus classroom, students actually have the ability — and often the expectation — to engage with their instructors one-on-one. Since professors are teaching 10, 15 or 20 students at a time, instead of 1000, 15,000 or even 20,000, qualitative assignments like essays, presentations, and projects can once again be an important part of online education.

For universities and colleges, SPOCs can offer a new source of revenue and a way to expand their reach as an institution. Since accredited universities have a large hand in administering SPOCs, students can gain accredited academic experience that actually counts toward their degree or certificate program. This was the case for Colorado State University where, within five years of opening an online-only program in 2008, its “global campus” was enrolling 9,000 students each year and operating on a budget of more than $50 million dollars.

Flipped Classrooms

Each year, newer forms of online interaction bring people closer together, even when they are separated by continents, oceans, and commitments to their time.

But what about for the millions studying on campuses today? How can online education help them? The flipped classroom encompasses the best of both classroom and online learning, together in one model.

The technologies, processes, and faculty familiarity with online education delivery have all equipped today’s educators to augment their classroom teaching in ways that increase student comprehension, engagement, and retention. Faculty have taken note and have already begun implementing new ways to deliver lectures, giving them new freedom and opportunity to enhance classroom instruction.

Instructors can record physical demonstrations up-close with multiple camera angles, walk through a complicated formula or mathematical expression step-by-step, or share a lecture against the backdrop of a museum from the other side of the world.

Before students in the flipped classroom even step foot in the classroom, they are armed with the foundational information they need to engage critically with the subject matter.

Freed from the need to recite basic information, the role of the instructor changes in the flipped classroom. Instead of vanishing into the ether, as professors often do with MOOCs where they have little-to-no connection with their students, instructors in the flipped classroom generate deeper and more meaningful connections based on two-way dialog. Here, the teacher is a guide that works collaboratively with their students to facilitate learning.

The SPOC is a new acronym, not a new approach, to learning

By making content accessible to large numbers around the world, MOOCs allowed instructors to share their knowledge with students that might not otherwise be able to access it. MOOCs introduced a new generation of learners to the types of video-assisted teaching that was already occurring inside traditional institutions.

Through years of implementation of video in the classroom and virtual communication through learning management systems, educators have continued to find new and better ways to build closer relationships with their students. The term SPOC takes advantage of the buzz created by MOOCs to expand the impact of a range of innovations educators have made to enhance the learning experience.

The “Rise of SPOCs” isn’t a revolution, but it does offer even greater evidence of the impact video-assisted teaching is making for students today, whether they study in the classroom or in the cloud.
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