MOOC 2.0 – What could Salman Khan do to make online learning even better?

Sal KhanYou’ve got to be careful looking for photos of Sal Khan online… There’s a Bollywood star by the same name so it could get confusing…

Anyway: Back to this riff about how to improve online learning and in particular MOOCs. A MOOC is a Massively Open Online Course if you don’t know, and has become synonymous with online learning in general these days.

MOOCs aren’t going to go away any time soon. If anything, they’re going to get better as noted recently in Wired magazine.

So if I was someone like Salman Khan, this is the question I’d be asking myself:

  • What could I do to make online learning, and in particular my MOOC, even better?

One answer is to think of the subject area or specialised content, whether academic or vocationally focused, as one of several strands that we’re trying to weave through the delivery.

What’s been missing has been the weaving through of the other skills and knowledge strands that adult learners need in order to learn the actual content that they signed up for.

Here I’m talking about explicitly weaving through the relevant and appropriate foundational literacy, numeracy, and learning how to learn skills that most learners need to make sense of the content.

This approach applies equally to classroom based delivery, but the thing that is new here is making this a major focus of further development when it comes to designing online learning.

And to be clear, what I’m suggesting is not that adult learners take separate courses to develop these skills (although there is certainly a need for this as well).

Instead, what I’d like to see is MOOC developers and instructional designers directly and explicitly embedding important literacy, numeracy, and learning-how-to-learn skills into the actual online content and contexts for all kinds of content and subject areas.

So what’s an example?

Any new area or subject is likely to make use of technical jargon and specialised language. This is as true in a trades or vocational courses, as it is in a course on philosophy, linguistics, science, or any discipline you like.

Here’s a very simple approach to dealing with just the vocabulary that could inform the development of online learning including MOOCs.

  1. Understand the context
    • This means, if you haven’t already, getting a sense of who you’re audience is including where they come from, what their backgrounds are, and why they might struggle with aspects of the course work. This is also a good time to do a brief stocktake of some basic principles of adult learning and think about how many of them actually underpin your learning design.
  2. Analyse relevant texts for specialised technical language
    • This means some work. Either you could use a tool like the Online Vocab Profiler as a starting point, or just use your knowledge of what people have struggled with in the past to create a bank of words that are likely to cause difficulty.
  3. Create a pre-test
    • For starters, all you need is some kind of simple vocabulary pre-test. Here’s an example of one I made that would translate well to some kind of online format.
    • Build this into the start of the module. The purpose is to give you and your learner a “heads up” when it comes to the kinds of words that they need to learn and know. Think of it as a diagnostic too.
  4. Front load vocabulary
    • And then make sure that you deliberately make a point to teach and explain in simple language what the technical words mean.
    • Depending on how you’re building your online course this could be compulsory for everyone, or optional based on the score in the pre-test. Simple matching of terms to definitions is a great way to get people thinking here.
  5. Develop further vocabulary resources
    • From there, depending on the needs of your learners you may need other things. For example, you could create an online glossary for the technical terminology. Some authoring tools might allow you to have key words highlighted in a way that when you hover over them with your mouse, a small window opens with the plain English explanation.
    • Think about adding audio if you can as well. Your learners who struggle with learning your content may have reading issues or prefer a different kind of learning style. Adding a “read aloud” feature for terms, definitions, and other content might help them learn key vocabulary faster which means they’ll engage more with your course.
  6. Post-test
    • At the end of the content module you should just be able to re-administer the pre test that you designed. This allows both you and the learner to compare their knowledge of the key vocabulary both before and after completing the online module.
    • This should allow you to validate the approaches that you’re using the embed the vocabulary, i.e. weave it through, the content module.
  7. Evaluate
    • No doubt, you’ll be thinking through for yourself how effective this approach is, but it’s certainly helpful to gather some data from your learners with regards to their perceptions as to what was helpful and what was not.
    • A simple rating scale for a series of questions relating to your vocabulary interventions would do the job nicely. E.g. “We want to know how effective our teaching was in this module. Rate the features below on a scale of 1 (not helpful) to 5 (very helpful).

That’s just a basic approach to dealing with nothing more than technical vocabulary. There’s certainly a lot more that we could do here and with other areas including developing academic writing skills as well as developing an understanding of relevant numeracy for a particular discipline.

Hit the comment button to let me know what you think.

Author: Graeme Smith

Education, technology, design. Also making cool stuff...

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