Five Ways Participants Get Value From Professional Learning MOOCs

By Blythe Tyrone
Typically, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are online classes designed to deliver free knowledge to any and all users with access to the internet.
Though many have written about why MOOCs are bad and the ways the MOOC effort has failed, researchers at the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation believed the MOOC model could be useful for educators’ professional development, so they created MOOCs for Educators (MOOC-Ed).
Getting Smart has written about MOOC-Ed in the past when new courses were offered, since MOOC-Eds seek to provide the same blended and personalized learning experiences that Getting Smart advocates for students. However, because of MOOCs’ tarnished reputation, many might wonder if MOOC-Eds are any good.
Dr. Sherry Booth Freeman and Suzanne Branon, researchers on the Friday Institute’s research and evaluation team, wondered the same thing, so they took a look at the data collected from MOOC-Ed participants to ask the question that is also the title of their new report, What’s the Value of a Learning Differences MOOC-Ed?
In the paper, the authors analyze data collected from the Learning Differences MOOC-Eds in order to better understand how the design elements of the course affected the value participants got from their participation and how it impacted their daily practice.
In order to do this, they used a “value creation framework” developed by Etienne Wenger, Beverly Trayner and Maarten De Laat (2011), which suggests that, in order to appreciate the richness of the value created by learning communities or networks such as MOOC-Eds, it is helpful to think about value creation in terms of five cycles:
Cycle 1: Immediate value includes activities and interactions that produce value in and of themselves.
Among the most valuable aspects of the MOOC-Ed were videos of students offering insight into the learning struggles they faced in school; videos of “experts” providing background information and/or research findings related to learning differences; access to new, innovative, and/or interactive resources; simple activities to identify learning strengths; and opportunities for informal discussions with educators around the world.
Cycle 2: Potential value includes activities and interactions that produce various forms of knowledge capital that have the potential to be realized later.
The Learning Differences MOOC-Eds incorporated discussion forums to encourage participants to share their experiences and engage in debate to further extend their understanding. One participant commented that “the discussions were very engaging and it was very helpful to see and learn more about other professionals’ struggles and learn from them too.” Interactions in the discussion forum enabled participants to consider new perspectives, share ideas and experiences, give and receive support for challenging situations, and more generally, feel like part of a “safe” and “caring” community.
Cycle 3: Applied value includes activities and interactions in which participants leverage knowledge capital to changes in their practice.
When asked on end-of-course surveys if they had attempted to make changes in their professional practice as a result of participation in the MOOC-Ed, 97% of educators answered “yes.” The design of the MOOC-Ed is purposefully intended to support application to practice. Models of effective practice (e.g., strategies, tools, processes) are frequently provided to support the application of new learning into educators’ professional settings.
Cycle 4: Realized value occurs when the application of knowledge capital results in performance improvements of varying types.
Examining realized value–actual improved performance–is especially relevant here as the long-term goal or outcome for the creators and funders of the Learning Differences MOOC-Ed is to help all students achieve success in K-12 educational settings. In particular, educators noted positive outcomes with students and improved communication with parents.
Cycle 5: Reframing value occurs when social learning causes a reconsideration of the ways in which success is defined.
When shifts in perspective and practice lead to positive outcomes, learners may experience a profound reconsideration of strategies, goals and even values. These shifts can occur at the individual, collective and even organizational levels. Though this may occur for some participants at a later point in time, several acknowledged the reframing value they found through their participation in the MOOC-Ed.
While many MOOCs still follow the “sit and get” model (students watch videos and take quizzes to get credit), the guiding principles that MOOC-Eds are built on may be useful for other MOOC developers or professional learning providers to incorporate into their own programs. These principles mean that all MOOC-Eds are self-directed, peer-supported, practice-based and include multiple voices.
One way participants may experience the five cycles of value is through professional learning networks (PLNs), which are like study groups, in MOOCs and similar online professional development programs. The Learning Differences MOOC-Ed asked previous participants to virtually facilitate PLNs via video applications such as Google Hangout or Skype, which gave the returning participants a deeper understanding of the content and created connections that benefitted all. A new model introduced by Peer 2 Peer University (P2PU) are learning circles, peer-led study groups for learners who want to take online courses together and in-person.
Despite the critics, Freeman and Branon’s findings show that MOOCs are a viable medium to provide free, quality and valuable professional learning to educators around the world who are often short on the time and funds needed to access engaging and useful professional development.
If you are interested in experiencing a MOOC-Ed, the Friday Institute is offering one this summer on teaching statistics using data investigations that starts June 6.
Blythe Tyron is a communication specialist at The William and Ida Friday Institute for Educational Innovation. Follow them on Twitter: @FridayInstitute.

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