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Are SPOCs a better option for online education than MOOCs?

Higher education can be considered a luxury for many people worldwide. If we put it on a black to white spectrum, we can group countries into at least three shades: whitish, grayish, and blackish.

Denmark, for example, would belong to the whitish part. Higher education in Denmark is free of charge and scholarships and student grants are very much available. This whitish part is very small, though.

On the other side of the spectrum are countries where most of the population can only dream about higher education, because only a few — the elite — have access to it. This blackish part is very big.

But the biggest part of the said spectrum is the grayish one. In countries in this area, higher education is available to anyone — theoretically, at least. But unless students belong to rather wealthy families or win the lottery, higher education comes with a big price for them — student debts. A lot of American or European students might relate to this.

Wouldn't it be nice if everyone in the world belong to the whitish part of the spectrum? It certainly would, wouldn't it?

MOOCs: high aspirations and higher disappointments

The above idea is a noble one and massive open online courses, better known as MOOCs, are thought to be the solution to worldwide access to higher education.

MOOCs promise each and every student in this world a front seat in any prestigious university course they have any interest to attend, for free. This means a world of students getting close to equal rights to education, not being constrained by the boundaries of the physical classroom, and encouraged to pursue active learning.

The only prerequisite is an internet connection, and with the expansive internet coverage, this shouldn't be a big problem.

But there's a big journey from theory to practice. The online connectivity may not be a really important problem, but MOOCs faced a wall of other, more important issues.

MOOC platforms like Coursera, Udemy, or Udacity, have massive numbers of enrolled students in their courses, yet a shamefully low number of graduates. In 2013, more than 90% of MOOC learners didn't finish their courses, and many of them didn't even start the courses for which they registered. The data for 2015 is better, with an average completion rate of 15%, but still under-satisfying.

Reasons for this are plenty, all spurring from low engagement rates. Students have trouble with self-regulation, setting their learning goals and sticking to their learning path. They often don't have enough time to commit to a serious course, and they face a lack of incentives to go through it all: a MOOC certificate doesn't add much value. Also, it can be very hard for some students to adapt to the exclusively online learning environment.

Let's not forget teachers, some sharing students' digital illiteracy, who have trouble keeping up with the amount of user-generated content to check and grade. This leads to poor feedback from teachers' side and ultimately low engagement rates and low graduation rates.

SPOCs: scaling down for best results

One thing that MOOCs enthusiasts seemed to forget is that

Change is not an event; it is a process.

Everyone involved in higher education — students, teachers, universities, and other stakeholders — need time and efficient small scale projects in order to make the transition from the blackish and grayish sides of the higher education spectrum to the whitish one. It goes without saying that, in order to succeed, the ones in the blackish part need more time and more efficient small scale projects than the ones in the grayish part.

We are living in a period of transition, and SPOCs — small private online courses — are helping us go through it.

At first glance, SPOCs are a new and improved version of MOOCs. But they are far from being new. The concept of targeted courses has been around for decades. People just called it differently.

SPOCs target on-campus university students (not everyone, everywhere), are private (not open), and are not exactly free of charge (students pay for them).

SPOCs help teachers implement the flipped classroom. For example, they can give students reading assignments and they can check with ones did them (or did not), and most importantly, which parts of the learning materials were problematic for students - before the class begins. This way, teachers can use the time in class sorting all difficult parts, give constructive feedback, and focus more on practicality.

SPOCs help students engage more with the course. They get the support they need when they need it, and so keep to their learning path. They use their time more efficiently, and are more motivated to achieve mastery and get recognition for it: real credits for a real degree.

The results of SPOCs really speak for themselves. SPOCs enable professors to more fully engage a targeted group of learners, who benefit in turn from an intensive, personal course setting. EdX and Microsoft made an experiment and everyone was taken aback by the outcomes. Read more about this here.


So, are SPOCs a better option for online education than MOOCs?

I'll dare say they are. At least for now.

SPOCs are closer to the objectives of higher education institutions: prepare today's students to become tomorrow's highly accomplished members of the workforce. Small private online courses are not a replacement of teachers; SPOCs are teachers' sidekicks. Also, they pave the way for future more successful MOOCs.

What's your stance on this? Do you agree? Share your thoughts in the comments section.

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