John Hennessy – Online Learning Lecture

Posted on October 19, 2012

I had the pleasure of attending a talk by John Hennessy today at the University of Waterloo as he shared his thoughts on the impact of online learning on the entire education industry.

Here were my key take aways from the session:

  • Credentialing – While many people think of online education primarily from the perspective of the delivery of content, one of the more critical elements provided by education institutions is credentialing. That is, providing a statement that the student who completed the course or program has mastered a certain level of skill in a focused area.  Online learning will need to create a similar model for capturing skill level of students and providing that assessment to stakeholders.  There are several challenges in this area and sadly not enough in the way of solutions.
  • Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs as John called them) are creating some unique opportunities to explore how students use online learning tools.  There is gigantic interest in these courses (100K or more students in some courses wasn’t uncommon initially.  Even American Poetry has a 30K classroom).  However, the picture isn’t all positive.  There is an over 90% drop out rate with the biggest issue being the dynamic range of student skills in the class.  The scalable tools available to instructors also make it difficult to determine student skills and find the “sweet spot” for exams by challenging top students but not defeating struggling students.
  • Top students are motivated by virtual recognition (e.g. badges) and there are several opportunities that should be explored on how best to create an effective student online learning community.
  • Peer assessment can provide an improved perspective in online courses that is much more difficult in traditional classrooms.  Students can seamlessly rate the performance of the peers in their groups along with reviewing/rating submissions for assignments or projects from other teams in the classroom as well.  The ability to learn from the submissions of other teams provides a new perspective on the learning process.

Finally, John mentioned several areas that are ripe for further exploration and investment including adaptive learning, automatic diagnosis, improved large scale assessment tools, increased understanding of the effectiveness of social media/crowd sourcing, and identification of the source of submitted work.

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