From India and Canada, a grassroots model for MOOCs

The Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur, in conjunction with the Commonwealth of Learning in Vancouver, recently completed the delivery of its second MOOC entitled, “Mobiles for Development”, or M4D.

Co-led by Professor TV Prabhakar of IIT Kanpur and Dr V Balaji of the Commonwealth of Learning, or COL, the course was designed to provide learners with knowledge about the hardware of mobile devices and to engage in innovative uses for social development with these tools. The course ran over six weeks in October and November.

Noting the ubiquity of mobile devices in the emerging world – in India and Africa, for example, approximately three in four individuals own and use a mobile phone – Prabhakar said: “The time has come for a course that focuses directly on utilising mobile devices for social development.”

Innovations such as rural banking and varying forms of commerce conducted through mobile phones have been widely impactful, although few other opportunities have been pursued. Impediments to development such as illiteracy and poor nutrition are some examples of where advancements await.

Equipping the growing number of professionals working in such areas with relevant technological skills holds tremendous potential.

With this in mind, Prabhakar noted that the course focused less on “policy and methodology, but on learners becoming technologically savvy”.

He added: “The technology is very easy to learn at the architectural level, that is the strength of this course. One lecture is on the design of a mobile phone, another on the technology of Wikipedia – you can’t find that anywhere on the internet.”

Not your mainstream MOOC design

The course designers were knowledgeable of mainstream MOOCs that have emanated from the United States and have recently made inroads into China, Jordan, Germany and the United Kingdom.

The designers were less interested in these course formats, most commonly offered through Coursera, edX or Udacity. Instead, they favoured the connectivist MOOC format, which originated at the University of Manitoba. Otherwise known as a cMOOC, the course format is an online environment where learning is centred on collaborating, creating connections and innovating.

This is markedly different from the mainstream MOOCs (referred to as xMOOCs) which aim to replicate the learning environment of a classroom or lecture hall, generally depicted as having: lectures (video), independent learning and assessments (with or without some collaboration).

Prabhakar described the “Mobiles for Development” course as a “balance between the two MOOC concepts”.

Utilising a collaborative and student-centred approach, noted Balaji, was conducive to “enhancing participation and retention for the duration of the course”.

The course was divided into six weeks. Each week a new module was introduced and included a short video lecture, PowerPoint slides and some independent work. A quiz was conducted at the midpoint and end of the course.

Content originated from the IIT Kanpur, COL, Athabasca University in Canada and the National Institute of Bank Management in India.

Collaboration among students occurred as discussion in the online forum. The time commitment was expected to be four hours per week. Learner support was organised by 12 instructors and mentors who were located in Canada and India.

Their role was to be “available online through the duration of the course to discuss topics and issues”, according to the course brochure. Mentors were mainly there for Q&A, though some real-time chat sessions were also held.

The course was offered on the Sakai learning management system, an open source platform (CCBY 3.0 US) and hosted on Amazon Web Services. The institute absorbed the bulk of the costs for the technology services, which were estimated to be US$2,500. Staff costs were not measured but were significantly greater. Students were not charged tuition fees and needed no prerequisite to enrol in the course.

Anomalies, accommodations and outcomes

In total, 2,282 individuals signed up for the course, more than double expectations.

Approximately half the number of registrants were from India, followed by Nepal (341). There were 162 participants from 14 OECD countries. A total of 116 countries were represented.

Some unusual clusters of registrants were found in the small states of Mauritius, Grenada and Sierra Leone. Enrolment from these groups was described as a “complete mystery”, according to Balaji, who admitted that marketing for the course was limited to professional networks, listservs and website announcements.

Approximately 25 learners in Sierra Leone and Nepal were hampered by bandwidth issues, particularly to view the video lectures on YouTube. The designers subsequently mailed DVDs containing videos and PowerPoint slides to these learners. In the end the learners remained connected by email and online chat.

Analytics of the course revealed that 1,462 registrants came to the course site after registration. Unique visitors to the course site ranged from 30 to 380 per day. It was believed that participation was even greater.

In addition to the two dozen learners who had materials on DVD, there were learners who were only downloading the PowerPoint slides which acted as a substitute for the video lectures. In the end, 400 students completed the course.

Surprisingly, purposeful applications were created.

Learners from Nepal devised an application that could locate lost individuals, an occasional occurrence in the Himalayan nation. A simple transponder application was designed, downloadable onto mobile phones. If lost, users of such mobile phones would call a toll free number. The operator would be provided with a signal locating the individual and could subsequently provide directions to the individual to find or return to a place of safety.

Another example was of an application that could sense sudden movements in a mobile device and send a signal to another mobile phone. For those with elderly relatives, such an application would provide a signal to a caregiver in the event of an emergency.

Learners who completed the course were given one of two certifications, depending on level of participation. Certificates were granted by the IIT Kanpur, and COL. IIT Kanpur’s continuing education programme normally requires learners to have a professional standing, although this policy was waived for the M4D course.

Demands and cost

The demands to deliver the course were amplified with the large enrolment. Recruiting additional mentors was not feasible under the time constraints. As such, mentors were working overtime to accommodate the volume of email from learners and to respond in a timely fashion across 18 time zones.

At the same time, the mentors and designers found the interest from such a large pool of learners to be highly stimulating if not “addictive”, admitted Prabhakar.

Overall, both designers acknowledged the high volume of work and equated a six-week MOOC to a regular full semester course. With nearly 2,300 students, running the MOOC was equated to “event management”.

Lessons learned for MOOC design

Lessons learned from the designers and mentors were two-fold.

One was how to manage the volume of learners – a finding common to many who teach a MOOC – and to understand the unique situations of learners. It was found that many students did not have good online access, as illustrated by those located in Sierra Leone and Nepal.

Providing accommodations to learners is essential, and particularly poignant for a course on technology for social development. The reality that a large proportion of learners enrolled in MOOCs emanate from emerging world contexts, coupled with the high level of attrition, may offer some insight into design or target audiences as research deepens in this learning space.

Another area for design considerations is context. The M4D course was designed independently of a mainstream MOOC provider and it was focused on issues that are localised to many of the participants.

By contrast, partnership with North American MOOC providers is contingent on meeting varying criteria. Working within those confines potentially limits experimentation, or lack of understanding with learners who emanate from extremely diverse contexts, a point argued by Philip Altbach, professor of higher education at Boston College.

Further, the initial allure of studying popular courses in computer science or humanities from reputable institutions and professors in North America may lose its lustre when language barriers or cultural (curricular) dissonance surfaces.

If MOOCs focus more on interactions than content, and if designers better localise courses, there is an argument to be made that greater success with MOOCs may occur.

For the millions who aspire to acquire or augment knowledge through MOOCs, and for the designers who seek such an audience, the model initiated by IIT Kanpur and the Commonwealth of Learning is worth consideration.

* Kirk Perris is a higher education consultant located in Toronto.