To MOOC or Not to MOOC?: Creating Supports for In-Service Teachers

One of the main projects I have been working on as a part of my Fulbright has been research examining the potential use of Massive Open Online Courses (i.e. MOOCs) as a means of delivering professional development supports to in-service educators at a scale.

I’m excited to share that this work was recently published in the journal  Education Sciences in the paper “Dynamics of the Community of Inquiry (CoI) within a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) for In-service Teachers in Environmental Education.”

The paper builds off of the central question: How can we create reflective, community-centered spaces for in-service educators to improve their teaching practices? Given the barriers of cost and time to hosting in-person professional development opportunities for teachers, the potential to offer these supports (at least partially) through online settings could potentially have a profound impact on education systems at large.

In order to answer this question, my colleagues and I looked at data from a MOOC hosted by the University of Helsinki in Spring 2016 called Sustainable Energy in Education–a course designed for in-service teachers to learn how to teach topics in environmental education. In particular, we examined what the online, text-based communication between course participants on the forums of the MOOC revealed about the formation of what is known as a “community of inquiry.”

The Community of Inquiry (CoI) framework posits that educational experiences are defined by three elements: a social presence, a teaching presence, and a cognitive presence. I will not go too far into the theory here, as it is summarized in the paper itself, but the basic idea is that it is not merely the content that affects the learning experience of students in a course. Rather, the way that the course is designed, the degree to which students can openly relate and communicate with one and other, the way in which assignments are designed, etc. all affect the nature of the educational experience.

Through this research, I had a few main take-aways:

(1) Overwhelmingly, existing research supports the notion that, for the professional development of in-service teachers to be effective, it must be centered around the formation and support of learning communities. This builds off the idea of education as a necessarily social process, whereby individuals learn through discourse and social relations. In the case of teachers, it proves especially critical for them to have communities in which they can learn new content/pedagogy, and reflect on their current practices.

(2) There are fundamental differences between online and in-person learning environments. This lesson is perhaps intuitive, and it was something I quickly realized through my own experiences taking online courses. There is nothing like being able to have a face-to-face discussion with a group of your peers within a seminar or even larger in-person setting, and there are many elements of such an experience that simply do not translate to online learning environments. What this research highlighted though, was that there are still ways to facilitate a sense of community in online settings. In some ways, the communities  between geographically disconnected people that are made possible through distance learning channels have some unique benefits that can be capitalized on, so as to make up for what is lost in not having such courses in-person.

(3) Related to the second point, online learning communities can reach traditionally under-served groups who would otherwise lack access to such support. When you consider a group such as in-service educators, there are large inequalities globally (and within nations) in terms of what resources teachers have to support their teaching practices. This course brought together teachers from places like  Columbia, Algeria, Pakistan, Greece, etc. who commented that they lacked access to resources on how to teach topics in sustainable energy. They were excited to share what they learned with their colleagues in their schools, so as to continue sharing this knowledge through their expanded in-person communities. By reaching these educators, students in these communities also get access to important knowledge that they may otherwise lack access to in their curriculum, due to factors beyond their control.

Though there are certainly trade-offs with distance learning channels, there is a growing potential to expand their functions as a space for community-formation. This research paper validates this potential by expanding the methodologies for measuring such community-formation and by emphasizing the need to design courses in ways that promote reflective inquiry.

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