SPOCs, Small Private Online Classes, Tweak MOOCs


First came MOOCs — Massive Open Online Courses — and now universities are experimenting with SPOCs, or small private online classes, better known as “hybrid” or “blended learning,” in place of larger, less personal class structures.

The courses offer MOOC-style video lectures along with other online features like course materials in an actual college class.  Students watch the lectures as homework assignments, freeing the class time for professors to answer student questions, which offers a better understanding of what students know and do not know.  The time is also spent working on projects and other assignments.  MOOC-style online assessments are sometimes used or automated grading.

The courses allow professors the ability to style the course’s curriculum, pace and grading according to the needs of their students.

However, the courses are not MOOCs.  Instead of being available to thousands of students at once, the courses operate in a real classroom with a finite number of students allowed to enroll at any one time.  Most often, a fee is assessed in order for students to attend.

“We have found that people tend to quit after the third or fourth session because even though it is intended to be interactive, it tends to be mainly one way education,” said IMD president Dominique Turpin.

A similar approach is gaining popularity in the high school world.  Salman Kahn famously pushed his free online lessons onto teachers, encouraging them to “flip the classroom,” and SPOCs are an offshoot.  The lessons allow students to watch lectures at home and complete homework during class time, which lets teachers focus their time on individualized education and hands-on instruction.

In an effort to try the courses out, San Jose State University has partnered with MOOC-provider edX.  Professor Khosrow Ghadiri used an online circuits and electronics course taught by Anant Agarwal, the edX president, for two of the three sections of his engineering course.  Students who took part in the flipped version continuously outperformed the students who took part in the traditional model, and in the end, 91% of his students passed compared to the 65% that typically passed the course over the last seven years.

HarvardX is also set to launch a second SPOC.  Those who join the course will be expected to complete weekly assignments and take part in discussion groups.  The end result will be the potential to earn a Certificate of Mastery.  No more than 500 students will be admitted to the course.

The format does not make teachers replaceable, since students still need the hands-on help of their instructors as well as their motivation to continue to come to class work through the difficult assignments along with their classmates.

“We’re not interested in replacing professors,” Coursera’s partnerships manager, Connor Diemand-Yauman, said. “When it comes down to it we understand the instructors’ place in an on-campus educational experience.”

Question still remain over how much the new method is worth in comparison to traditional methods.  While some believe students find the videos more engaging, others insist that traditional lectures are still of value.

in an essay last year, Ian Bogost, a Georgia Tech computer science professor and acute MOOC critic asked, “If the lecture was such a bad format in the industrial age, why does it suddenly get celebrated once digitized and streamed into a web browser in the information age?”

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