IST doctoral student looks at how MOOCs are changing the nature of education

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- The rise of online and distance education in recent years has brought quality learning to the masses but also presents challenges for educators and system designers. The shift from face-to-face interaction between instructors and students to computer-mediated forms of communication, according to a doctoral candidate at Penn State’s College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST), highlights the importance of understanding how such interactions are affected by the way educational systems are designed.

“What our work tries to do is bring an IST perspective, one that is technologically and sociologically focused, to bear on questions of online education research,” said Michael Marcinkowski, a third-year doctoral student at the College of IST. “In particular, we are looking to understand how students and instructors can form a productive dialogue and the ways the systems themselves come to be part of the dialogue. By developing an understanding of these relationships, we will be able to provide a better quality of education to students and a better experience for everyone involved.”

As online systems come to play a larger part in education, Marcinkowski said, educational goals and concerns become tied up with issues of design and approaches developed through human computer interaction (HCI) research. In online education, the technologies involved play a central role in interactions between students and instructors. Following this line of reasoning, online educational tools are not simply a means to an end but serve as part of the dialogue between instructors and students.

Marcinkowski received an honorable mention for his paper, "Educational Dialogue and Technological Utterances" at the i-Conference 2013, which was held recently in Fort Worth, Texas. He is funded by the Center for Online Innovation in Learning (COIL) and the College of IST to work with Frederico Fonseca, co-director of COIL and associate professor of IST, on researching issues in online education. The College of IST, the College of Education and the World Campus are partners in the center, which supports faculty research on inventing, implementing and investigating new ways to use technology to improve online education.

One of the biggest challenges of online and distance learning environments, Marcinkowski said, is the loss of face-to-face interaction between instructors and students. At the same time, however, online education provides many new opportunities, with the challenge coming in how to bridge gaps between traditional methods of education and online ones.

“Online education forces a mode of formalization not necessary in traditional education,” Marcinkowski said. “This kind of formalization can be limiting, but at the same time opens up so many possibilities.”

With the global reach of online education, Marcinkowski said, one objective of his research is to examine how instructors and students in online education programs interact with technology through an interpretive process that occurs within a wider cultural context.

“One thing that as a field we have come to understand is that the situations and ways in which technology is used has implications for its outcomes,” he said. “Users interpret systems based on their own particular situations.” By examining the “evocative and interpretive implications” of online educational systems, particularly the massive open online course (MOOC) platform that Penn State recently adopted, he says he aims to frame future research into online education design and to develop questions that may motivate future design research.

“In functioning as a message, designed systems take on the form of a technological utterance, which is able to support communication, while at the same time presenting a message of its own (however tacitly expressed),” he wrote in the article. “It is necessary to approach educational software not simply as a tool set that is able to fit a specific set of requirements, but rather as something capable of being evocative, meaningful and subject to interpretation.”

Marcinkowski’s research has timely relevance in light of Penn State’s recent expansion of its online course offerings. On Feb. 21, Penn State joined the leading MOOC platform, Coursera, allowing the University to offer courses to hundreds of thousands more students than was previously possible. According to Marcinkowski, online educational tools “change the nature of education.” MOOC classes often include elements such as video presentations and online discussion forums, he said, and the data that students generate through these platforms can be empirically investigated to gain deeper insight into how online learning works.

Insight gained from the analysis of student data, Marcinkowski said, will be able to help instructors design better courses. While online educational technology may be designed to “suit specific silos of education,” he says he is interested in studying its broader impacts and “the intersection of technology with large-scale instruction.”

“The final goal is to make online education better,” Fonseca said. “If this framework really works, we will be able to understand the individual (student) within the group, and provide to each student a unique learning experience.”

 

 

 

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Last Updated April 15, 2013