Homework is one aspect of free learning programs that will need to get more attention if MOOCs and similar resources are ever to provide an adequate supplement or alternatives to traditional classroom experiences with regard to ensuring the successful achieving of learning outcomes.
Having worked in educational publishing for several years, I’ve seen how automated homework solutions (once given away as premiums to close book adoptions) have become an indispensible part of the course. And in certain disciplines (such as heavily skill-based subjects such as computing), integrated assessment and training software is on the verge of becoming (rather than just supplementing) the course.
Subjects such as math, science and technology have an advantage over liberal arts disciplines like literature, history or philosophy (my chosen major) in that they teach things that can be assessed using objective measurement (i.e., questions with right and wrong answers).
We’ll be talking a lot more about assessment over the coming weeks, but for now the tools that support homework within most MOOC delivery systems tap into the same sort of content you’ll find in the quizzes and exams that are used to grade many online courses.
For example, the Udacity course I’m currently taking in statistics is broken into a series of short (1-2 minute) lessons, more than half of which end by asking the student to answer a question or perform a calculation based on what they have just learned. This is a time-tested technique designed to ensure students have grasped an important concept (to the point of being able to demonstrate mastery) before they are allowed to continue with the course.
Automated quizzes that end each lesson are based on this same type of material (i.e., traditional “linear” test questions such as multiple-choice, multiple-response and fill-in-the-blank). And the reasons such a narrow range of question types work is that statistics is primarily about math, meaning there is a correct answer (as well as many incorrect ones) for each question.
The Coursera course I recently completed on logic and argumentation provided similar homework quizzes to go along with each of the 5-15 minute videos covering a specific topic (such as syllogisms or fallacies). Topics that were more qualitative in nature (such as inductive reasoning) were covered primarily by true-false questions (not my favorite question type, for reasons that will become clear in future postings discussing assessment), while more “quantitative” subjects (such as truth tables) were covered by fairly challenging multiple-choice questions.
Like the statistics course, this logic course used similar questions for both homework and graded quizzes. And because logic (unlike other philosophy subjects) lends itself to asking questions with right and wrong answers, these homework tools are effective ways of confirming student understanding. But once you wander into realms requiring less objective knowledge, homework becomes more perfunctory and, consequentially, less useful.
For instance, courses I’m taking on Modernism (which covers philosophy, literature and art) and Justice (an ethics course) include lectures that are punctuated by 2-3 multiple choice questions designed to ensure you’ve understood a concept that was just presented. But, for the most part, these questions seem like afterthoughts that require recall, but barely any thought, in order to move forward in a lesson or move between lessons. Which ultimately means that homework is not really a significant component of any of these courses.
Interestingly, the most challenging homework assignments I’ve faced were associated not with a traditional MOOC class, but with an astronomy class I took by listening to actual classroom lectures downloaded from iTunes U. Because this was a real course taught in a real university, the actual class had an associated web site that included a syllabus, schedule, and (most importantly) sets of homework problems students could download and work on at different points in the course.
And while there was no component of iTunes linking the audio lectures with this material, there was also nothing stopping me or anyone else from finding these assignments (which included challenging open-ended questions requiring calculation, reference to course notes and research to answer) and using them to ensure I’d grasped concepts covered in class.
Now there were no answer keys available to ensure I did the work correctly, and simply finding these assignments is probably more than the average iTunes downloader would do (especially if they were just interested in listening to lectures in the car or on the treadmill).
But this does highlight the fact that most instructors teaching free college classes (whether as a MOOC or in some other format) are probably sitting on piles of high-quality, challenging homework material that has yet to be adequately folded into an online class.
How this material (especially if it doesn’t fit existing formats for test-question automation) gets integrated into massively enrolled courses, delivered and made part of the overall MOOC experience are questions yet to be answered in a consistent manner.
But until challenging homework delivered at just the right time to verify and reinforce learning becomes a higher priority, free education will continue to be perceived as a lighter alternative to what currently takes place in the less massively enrolled physical classroom.