Technology and the Massification of Education

How Technology is Supporting Quality Education on a Massive Scale

The modern world is growing increasingly complex seemingly by the day and in so doing is rendering skills that would have been sufficient to make a living a few years back inadequate for today.  Learning and its formalized variant, education, are no longer something undertaken in one’s youth and expected to last a lifetime. Instead the information age demands that not only do we all learn more but that we continue to do so throughout life.

The problem is that, despite the proliferation of information made available by the Internet, education (ie the guided tour through the vast mass of facts and data) remains in limited supply, ie there is only so many capable teachers in any given subject area.

Enter technology, and specifically the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course). MOOCs use technology to deliver education designed by leading professors to the masses, free of charge. The main mode of presentation is through short video lectures of 10-15 minutes.

However learning does not occur merely by exposure to explanations of knowledge, however well presented. In order for learners to really understand new concepts and be able to apply them to novel situations in future it is necessary that they apply what they are learning and receive feedback within the “safety” of the educational environment. It is also necessary they be able to ask questions and receive answers both on problematic areas and those which they wish to explore further; ie support that would generally take place during professor’s “office hours” .

In an ideal world every learner would be personally mentored by an expert professor in their area(s) of study. Given that a typical MOOC enrolls  tens of thousands of students this ideal is clearly impossible to achieve. However, quality compromises do exist. Traditionally university professors have engaged Teaching Assistants (TAs) to assist with running classes, typically a handful of the most able and willing graduate students.

In the massification of education this role could cascade further to encompass those just one step ahead of the particular cohort of learners, eg those who successfully completed the course in question with a distinctive grade. Not all participants in MOOCs will require personal tuition, but for those that do this model is an effective means of delivery as well as a means of earning some compensation for suitable mentors.

While MOOC-style study may never fully offer the richness of a full-time on-campus college education many innovations are emerging that are bringing it ever closer.

A Personal MOOC Experience

As I write I am privileged to be engaged in study of Coursera’s Introduction to Psychology, superbly presented by Professor Steve Joordens of the University of Toronto Scarborough.  I highly recommend this course for those interested in psychology (isn’t everyone, since it’s essentially the study of ourselves?) as well as those wishing to engage with a very effective application of educational technologies. In particular Prof. Joordens has developed three particular innovations that enhance the learning experience of this course.


Traditional computer based learning made considerable use of multiple choice questions for assessment due to the ease of delivery and scoring of binary right/wrong questions. However Prof. Joordens’ version of the concept, mTuner, is based on the concept that students learn best when they are highly engaged, and that a high level of engagement often comes when they are sitting a test. Thus mTuner aims to combine teaching with testing.

mTuner assignments consist of a series of timed questions of different phases. The first phase presents the question and encourages students to think about and enter an answer before being shown the options. This stage is not assessed, but encourages recall. In the next stage the options are presented, and the student makes a choice. If it’s correct full marks are awarded, but if it’s incorrect a hint is given, eg by replaying the relevant portion of a video lecture. The student then gets a second attempt for a reduced mark. Even if the second attempt is wrong and no mark earned, mTuner shows the correct answer and explanation to promote learning.

In practice sitting an mTuner assessment was initially quite stressful due to the timed nature of the questions, however I did find that it helped reinforce many of the concepts covered by the course and will likely make those concepts easier for me to recall in future.

Steve Joordens describes mTuner

Digital Labcoat

One of the weaknesses of e-learning is the lack of opportunity for learners to gain practical experience. Introduction to Psychology features an online application called Digital Labcoat that uses technology to provide actual experience of the scientific method. It takes place over several phases. The first requires that participants complete a psychological survey. The second is that, from the collected responses of all participants, they test various hypotheses to find significant correlations from the numerous responses obtained. In the third phase participants attempt to replicate the significant results obtained by their peers – an essential part of the scientific method – as well as ranking how interesting the particular finding is. Finally the opportunity is given to theorize on why the most interesting results may be true.


Multiple choice tests are good at assessing factual recall, but less effective at demonstrating deeper understanding and ability to apply learned concepts. Such skills have traditionally been assessed through written papers, but for a course with tens of thousands of participants it is impractical for an institutional teaching team to grade such assignments.

The MOOC response has been peer assessment, in which students grade one another’s work according to a pre-defined rubric. PeerScholar is Prof. Joordens implementation of this approach. Learners benefit from seeing the rubric they will be assessed on before writing their assignment and are also asked to grade their own work before the peer marking phase. After submission phase learners are presented with 6 anonymized submissions to be graded according the rubric. In addition (peer) graders are required to give reasons justifying their mark. It seems that having each piece marked 6 times not only helps average out extreme scores but also promotes critical thinking in the markers by exposing them to several different responses to the same question.

What Is a “Digital Labcoat”? Agenda article on PeerScholar and Digital Labcoat

Posted in Assessment, Digital content, Distance Learning, For Students, Lectures, MOOCs, Multimedia, Pedagogy, Software, Support Tagged with: , , ,

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