The Future of MOOCs is Vertical

Over the course of 2012, massively open online classrooms, or MOOCs, have started to radically disrupt the foundations of traditional education structures. These MOOCs (such as Khan Academy, Coursera, Udacity, Udemy, etc) use videos – independent of time and location – to replace lectures, blowing away the walls of the traditional classroom and potentially bringing the genius of the best teachers to any network-connected student in the world. Beyond just providing lectures or lesson input, these MOOCs are rapidly rounding out their offerings by adding exercises to test comprehension and collecting study data with the long-term vision of designing personalized, learning pathways. In contrast to this innovation, traditional institutions are clinging to their last remaining solid foothold, that of providing credentials.

While the technologists have started the MOOC revolution, teachers and subject matter experts need to consolidate these gains by contributing their real world pedagogical experience. While the teaching of some subjects are in the format of lecture, lecture then test, others are more complicated and require students to do more than just watch videos and take exercises. This gap is exactly where there is an opportunity for vertical MOOCs.

Specialized Review

Some subjects require specialized review activities to reinforce and explore the key concepts presented in the lectures, or lesson input. For instance when learning a new language, after a student is introduced to a new lesson (ideally focused around a real-life dialogue in the target language) they need to examine and start to play with the language. What did that person say? How is that sentence constructed? Can that term be used in other ways? What are other similar wards that can be used with the same sentence? How can I save these terms for future review?

While a video lecture can kick off the learning experience, for some subjects specialized review tools are necessary to facilitate increased student learning and engagement.

Specialized Practice

Some subjects require more than just an intellectual understanding of a concept, they require the student to mimic, apply or recreate the desired skill. While a medical student maybe be able to acquire a perfect intellectual understanding of anatomy, how many patients would consent to the same person performing an operation without hours and hours of practice and coaching?

Specialized Learning Pathways

The big promise of moving learning onto digital platforms is that the underlying study data can be collected and used to help optimize learning environments and pathways. With enough data, the visions contend, it should be possible to customize learning environments (much like you would A/B test a website) to increase the students chances for success. For a similar cohort of students, does the length of a lecture matter? The time of day? The ethnicity of their teacher? There are hundreds of variables that could potentially be optimized.

Once these optimization efforts hit learning materials things become more complicated. Some subjects, like math, rely on pre-requisites when constructing a study plan. With this linear progression, the visions contend, it should be possible to build a ‘funnel’ and then ‘optimize’ the pathways for various student cohorts. But what happens with a subject that doesn’t rely so much on pre-requisites (e.g. history – does it matter if a student learns about the American Revolution before the Second World War?) or where the pre-requisites are more blurry (e.g. language learning – where pre-requisites rely more on bands of difficulty rather than linear progression).

This is the big data problem that MOOCs are looking to solve. It will likely need highly customized algorithms for different subjects.

Specialized Pedagogy

One of the most exciting consequences of using videos to provide lectures to students before class is that class time can be re-purposed to focus more on coaching and helping students overcome their individual problems. This ‘flipped classroom’ approach makes use of the best that both technology and the classroom can offer, hopefully creating a more personalized and effective learning experience for the student.

For many subjects, teachers and face-to-face time are still an important piece of the learning process. MOOCs should be providing integrated support for teachers with lesson plans and student activity streams to help them understand where students are succeeding and failing. Math and languages are not taught the same in a traditional classroom context, nor should they be with a flipped classroom model.

Teachers will have specific needs depending on their subject area and vertical MOOCs will be in the best position to serve them.

Specialized Assessment

Different subjects measure proficiency in different ways. While it may sufficient for some subjects simply to test students with a multiple choice exam, others require additional evaluation lenses to determine learning success. With language acquisition for instance, multiple choice exams can be used for reading and listening comprehension, but written assignments are needed to measure writing ability and oral exams to measure speaking ability.

The difference in how subjects are assessed is just one further example of why there is an opportunity for learning platforms specialized on vertical subjects.

Just the Beginning

After more than 15 years of the Internet, MOOCs are finally starting to disrupt Industrial-era education. While significant innovations have already been made, the next stage will be able about specific subject-matter verticals filling out the offering to finally define the share of new, Internet-era education structures.

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