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Learner-centric MOOCs: An Interview with Prof Sridhar Iyer

A renowned professor at the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at IIT Bombay, Sridhar Iyer has been the primary driving force behind Next Education’s MOOC initiative for K–12 teachers. From design to instructional strategies, his planning, research and hand-holding on the finer aspects of learner-centric MOOC creation has helped us run a successful season of online teacher training last summer. Professor Iyer’s current research interests include technology-enhanced learning environments, pedagogies for effective use of educational technologies, development of ICT tools for educational applications, and computer science education.

Isha Sayana, Marketing Manager at Next Education, speaks to Professor Iyer on several aspects of learner-centric MOOCs and how today’s teachers can benefit from such courses that are now available on various platforms.

Isha: On Swayam, you are offering a MOOC on designing learner-centric MOOCs. Can you tell us a bit more about the government’s interests and initiatives in training teachers through MOOCs?

Prof. Iyer: This model helps teachers design MOOCs which are more learner-centric. We at IIT Bombay, have designed an online course for teachers on this topic, so that they can hone their skills in creating learner-centric MOOCs for their students.

The government is supporting online teacher training via MOOCs in a big way for two reasons. One reason is that the  MOOCs will help teachers in their professional development and the other one is that they will have some incentive to create MOOCs themselves.

Isha: Anyone with an Internet connection can enrol and upgrade their skills by taking up a MOOC. Yet, why do you think MOOCs are  not very popular? Aren’t the teachers ready? What can we do to make them more popular?

Prof. Iyer: If you look at the popularity of MOOCs, it depends upon the clarity of the learning outcome. A lot of skill-based MOOCs are available out there, say MOOCs on 3D animation or Python programming, which are heavily subscribed. Also, there are MOOCs on NPTEL which have a 50,000+ subscription rate. This is because the learners know what they are actually going to learn. The completion rate for these courses is somewhere around 1%, which means that around 500 people finish such courses successfully.

Even topics that are  less focussed on, such as a MOOC taught by me called Demystifying Networks, have 5000+ subscribers. So, I’m not sure if you can say that MOOCs have less popularity. MOOCs are fairly popular among students; for teachers, it is a matter of getting them to know about the MOOCs to get them on board with the idea. They have less time than students, which is why MOOCs work better for them when it comes to upskilling themselves. What would you say on the response on Next Education MOOCs, as per the data published?

Isha: We found out that with respect to the number of users enrolled, the completion rates and persistence rates were significantly high. Teachers gave positive reviews since they understood how to implement our curriculum solutions in the classroom better than from the formal training they received.

Prof. Iyer: There you go then. I don’t think MOOCs are less popular among teachers. I feel that reaching out to them in the right way is what is important to increase their popularity. 

Isha: Initially, MOOCs were openly accessible and formal grading or assessment was part of the course. The scenario has changed a bit. What are your thoughts on this? Also, when teachers themselves are being graded, how do they respond?

Prof. Iyer: MOOCs are still openly accessible, depending on what platform they are available on. They also conduct formal assessments, for instance, NPTEL, which conducts an exam similar to JEE, which applicants of the course have to take in order to get the certificate. On the other hand, courses on IITBombayX provide Honour Code certification. I think Next Education’s MOOCs are also built on the same model.

As for teachers’ reactions on being graded, the teachers who took up the courses that we offered last year in collaboration with Next Education, were very receptive to assessments and the corresponding feedback. They realised that there have been gaps on their part in providing learner-centric instruction, and that they would have to make changes in their teaching practices to make learning effective for their students. 

Isha: Self-paced and instructor-paced are two different kinds of MOOCs. How do you decide which model to use for a specific programme? What do you think strikes a better chord with K-12 teachers? 

Prof. Iyer: Generally, we avoid making entirely self-paced models. What we have created is a hybrid of the two models. 

Our MOOCs require a lot of interaction among the learners, which is known as learner experience interaction. Teachers benefit a lot from this because they get to learn a lot from other teachers’ experiences. It requires all the participants to go through the course material at the same time for such interactions to be successful. So, we follow the instructor-paced model for the most part.

However, we keep in mind the busy schedules of teachers as well, which is why we provide long duration, say two weeks, to complete the activity. All participants are on a common ground in a given duration of an activity, so we can call this a synchronous start in any MOOC activity. However, if participants join the teacher-training MOOCs randomly, it won’t be as effective. 

We are not sure which model works effectively with teachers because we have started only recently and tried different models. Needless to say, all models have their highs and lows. The best solution would be to create a time schedule for the MOOCs so that teachers can take them up when they are relatively free, say, during summer vacation. 

Isha: One of your course abstracts says that some MOOC creators only focus on technology features to mimic classroom activities. Instead, it is important to focus on using MOOC features to foster student engagement. Could you please elaborate on what you mean by MOOC features?

Prof. Iyer: MOOC is a new platform for learning, and it has its own unique features that enable effective learning. One of them, as mentioned before, is the learning experience interaction. In a classroom, interaction is very natural – you ask something, someone responds, which brings on another round of questions and answers. 

On the other hand, MOOC is a digital platform, where interaction is not that easy. The incorporating of peer interaction via virtual discussion forums into MOOCs requires a lot of thought and research, so that teachers can learn from each other while handling the diversity of a pan-India community.

Another feature of MOOCs is instant access to a lot of learning material according to preference. For example, if a learner needs to know more on the industry applications of the concept that I am teaching, I will provide links pertaining to that. Others may want to know the underlying theoretical proof of that concept, and they will get suitable links to that end. These knowledge loops can be closed with an activity at the end, making it a personalised learning path.   

Use of visualisations is also an important feature of MOOC, where you can tell the users to download/install an application, feed numbers and run the simulation, and write down their observations and inferences.

With the help of such features, a MOOC is made learner-centric.

Isha: Most of the research to date has focussed on enrolment, participation pattern, perception and completion rate. Is there any aspect of MOOC that is yet to receive attention?

Prof. Iyer: Peer learning on the discussion forum is an area less focussed on. In teacher-training MOOCs, the course instructor is not the only source of information; rather, a lot of the learning happens via discussions, which takes learning beyond the course content. In research, the effects of peer learning have gained some attention, but there is a lot more to explore. 

There are certain secondary effects of participating in teacher-training courses, especially with regard to the implementation of pedagogies. However, there are no fool-proof methods of checking how much these impact a teacher’s performance over time. For instance, we asked our participants to create a lesson plan so that they can implement it in their class in the future. But we have no way of knowing whether they have actually implemented it. This kind of study is known as longitudinal study, which is not very much in vogue.

Maybe even things like self-regulation – the user deciding which kinds of MOOCs are suitable for a specific purpose, or which patterns to follow – are also unanswered in the current trends of research in MOOCs. If we can drive more research in this area, MOOCs will go on to be the pioneering tool for learning, especially for the professional development of teachers.

A. P. Sharma

Principal, Birla Public School, Doha An M.Phil in Economics, a specialist on parenting and an enthusiastic TEDx speaker, he conducts workshops for students, parents and educators in India and abroad.


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