Thursday, March 14, 2013

Software for MOOCs

After looking at the technology and techniques used for MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), it would be useful to see if these could be applied to the ordinary e-learning courses I run and in turn if those courses could be adapted to MOOCs. My courses are already on-line and open (in the sense that anyone can download the content. They are not "Massive" in that they are designed to have a human tutor interact with the students, which is not feasible with hundreds of thousands of students (especially were the students are not paying for the course and thus there are not funds to pay for the tutor). Also it is not clear if the Moodle Learning Management System (LMS) will support large numbers of students (especially where the students are no paying for the course and so there are not funds for a large server).

Course Releases

The issue of supporting large numbers of students on a server should be able to be dealt with by using project management techniques applied in software development. Software is carefully planned, tested and released in versions: you do not simply make changes and hope for the best. Similarly courses which have large number of students can't be developed in an ad-hoc way. A change in a course will effect hundreds of thousands of students and so needs to be carefully tested before release. This then allows the LMS to be more efficient. An LMS, such as Moodle, is designed on the assumption that the tutor may make a change to a course at any time and that change has to be instantly reflected in the live system. Also it is assumed the student will be supplied with the latest live content interactively.

An LMS could instead use a "release" approach, where changes are made in a test environment and then "released". The student would be advised of the new release and may have to download a new module (or their computer will do that automatically). This way the student does not need to interact continuously with the LMS, instead they work on a downloaded module and upload their contribution. This would greatly lessen the computing requirements for the LMS server. It would also reduce the technical database requirements, as the LMS just as to make sure the student gets the module and the LMS uploads the students input as one chunk of data.

Also some of the security restrictions of the LMS could be relaxed. As the course content is "open" there is less need to be able to hide it from the student. For educational purposes you might still only show a little at a time, but this need not be via a highly secure system. As an example, I set Moodle to show students the course material a week at a time, so as not to overload them. But the entire course content is also available in an e-book, so the students can read ahead if they want.

As a thought exercise, it would be interesting to see what Moodle (or any LMS) would look like if modified for this approach.

Less Reliance on Video: Text First

Most MOOCs seem to be heavily reliant on delivery of content through recorded video. This is understandable as it mimics conventional classroom lectures. However, the video requires large volumes of data to be streamed from a server and may overload the system.

An alternative I propose is "Text First": that is a text based document (with still images) in a format such as a web page or e-Book (preferably not PDF and not Flash) is used to provide the educational content. This then has optional video. The student should be able to undertake the entire course without downloading any video.

However, research indicates that video does not improve students results. The students may like the video, but it does not improve their learning. In addition some students can't see the video, due to limited bandwidth or disability. The students who can't see the video require it in a different form (Australian disability law and that of some other countries require this). Some people can't hear the sound and for which closed captions can be provided. However, if the closed captions and text alternatives are embedded in the video, this may still block access.

Interactive Lessons

The most common way for MOOCs to provide interactivity is with short quizzes. These have been shown to greatly improve learning, when interspersed with the content. Moodle has a "Lesson Module" which allows content to be presented to the student, interspersed with short quizzes. However, there is no need to have the quizes delivered live from the LMS, if they are used for formative purposes (that is help the student with their learning during the course), rather than summative assessment (that is test the student at the end). The quiz content can be downloaded to the student's computer, either on its own, or as part of a lesson module. Any results which need to be recorded can then be uploaded.

It should be noted that LMS, such as Moodle, are not designed for creating course content, but for controlling its delivery to the student (along with other interaction). There are packaged formats which can be used, such as IMS Content Packages (an education specific form of eBook) and SCORM Packages (which can include quizzes as well as course content). Moodle (and other LMS) have provision for installing IMS Content Packages and SCORM, then delivering it to the student interactively. However, this will then place a load on the LMS and so it might be better to have a standalone IMS and SCORM program on the student's computer.

Moodle can create some packaged content for export, in a limited way. As an example, Moodle Book modules can be exported as IMS Content Packages. However, rather than use the Moodle Lesson Module, more specialized tools may be needed for Creating SCORM Content.

One problem is that most SCORM delivery software is designed to be part of a centralized LMS such as Moodle. While a SCORM "reader" would not be much more complex to develop than an e-Book reader (like the eBook ePub format, SCORM uses zipped folders of HTML). However, most SCROM software is written for closed for-fee education with centralized administration and student tracking, so an open down-loadable reader would not be welcome.

An alternative to a standalone SCORM reader, would be to convert the SCORM package into HTML, which could then be downloaded. A careful selection of HTML5 features should allow for content which can be downloaded and used off-line in the web browser and with the student's results of the quiz then uploaded next time they are on-line. This could be made compatible with desktop computers, tablets and smart phones, without the need for any extra "App" or custom software, just the standard web browser.

As the course content is open and the quiz results are for formative purposes a high level of security is not needed off-line course reader. HTML5 has built in features for caching content off-line and storing data locally. The results of a quiz will take very little storage and only the simplest form off-line storage will be needed. The course content can be retained as native HTML. Content in other formats, such as PDF or Powerpoint can be retained in their original format and the default viewer used, thus avoiding complex conversions which are usually used with course creation systems.

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