MOOCs and the Older Learner

Susan Hoffman, Chelsea Crown

The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute @ Berkeley (OLLI @Berkeley) is a year-round program of courses, lectures, special events, and interest circles for adults age 55+ through the University of California, Berkeley. Since September of 2013, our research team has been investigating Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) as a teaching and learning tool in lifelong learning. We have launched two small, informal case studies of MOOCs and the older learner. Our first investigation was specific to the experience of learners over the age of 80, the “high olds,” who enrolled in the Coursera MOOC “What a Plant Knows” and participated in three consecutive monthly meetings discussing their experiences. In January 2014, we expanded our investigation by holding a hybrid MOOC-classroom course, another Coursera course called The History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education, open to all OLLI @Berkeley members 55+. Participants engaged in the MOOC in their own time and at their own pace during the week and attended 1.5 hour weekly classroom discussions to discuss the experience as well as content.

The MOOC learning experience of older learners is a crucial missing piece of the MOOC puzzle, an oversight in this era of profound demographic change. Concentrating on accessibility for older learners is important for many reasons, as this group may experience multiple barriers to MOOCs including challenges using technology, auditory and visual decline, and cognitive decline. However, this group may reap the most benefits from MOOCs, and thus deserve to be included in discussions. Given that the over 80 demographic is the fastest growing demographic in the country, as well as the most at-risk for social isolation, cognitive decline, and hearing and vision loss, the MOOC-as-intervention is an especially interesting concept to explore in further research. Potential benefits of MOOCs and the older learner may include advantages for homebound older adults who are able to remain intellectually stimulated and socially engaged as well as the neurocognitive advantages of continuing to learn stimulating new skills and knowledge, such as navigating technology and the multitude of subject areas MOOCs offer.

For the above reasons, at OLLI @Berkeley, we have highlighted MOOCs and the older learner as an important focus of our research team and believe that other researchers nationwide should also be aware of the importance of this age-specified investigation. The main takeaway from our research is to stress the importance and notion of universal access. The changes that could be made in MOOCs to make them more universally user-friendly and inclusive are changes that will go beyond age to benefit diverse students worldwide, including other groups that experience similar barriers, such as those with disabilities; English-language learners; and those with limited knowledge or experience of technology due to access issues, to name a few. Testing the platforms and presentations on a wide range of ages and abilities should be an important component of every MOOC development process. By making MOOCs more inclusive and accessible, everyone benefits. The revolutionary effects promised by MOOCs ring hollow if the target population remains limited to mostly traditional-aged able-bodied university students.

Our investigations have yielded several important and concrete findings that could be incorporated into various MOOC platforms with the intention of increased accessibility and user-friendliness. The first need is around better demonstrations and as-you-go assistance of how to navigate a MOOC. The need for an easily searchable and simply navigated demonstration of how to use a MOOC on any given platform has proven most important in group of learners over the age of 80, as they generally experience the least comfort with technology. The demos we explored together often came up short, were difficult to find, and did not serve the special needs of our population. It may make sense to modify platforms to include large, bold buttons indicating where students can access help and receive assistance in navigating various components of MOOCs as they go along, perhaps even offer a virtual MOOC assistant in the spirit of the old Microsoft Word office assistant paperclip icon that offered suggestions and assistance within documents. Simply put, adaptations for differing levels of technology mastery as well as disabilities need to be more overt in MOOCS. For a recent Coursera MOOC, one of our over 80 members with hearing loss expressed extreme frustration that she needed to press the closed caption (CC) button each and every lecture in order to be able to follow along via captions. Among our ideas is the institution of a short quiz during the sign-up stage that results in a tailored experience for the learner. By simply asking a few short questions about level of comfort and experience with technology, hearing or vision difficulties, English-proficiency level, and other barriers to engaging in a MOOC, an algorithm could automatically adjust the user’s personal experience and interface in response to these identified barriers. Another finding from our research is that the presentations of many MOOCs are not age-friendly, such as the instructor using their own scribbled writing on a board to highlight key points, not keeping slides on screen for an adequate period of time, or having otherwise hard-to-read slides or distractions on screen. The frustrations caused by these challenges dominated our research discussions with our older learners. Instituting elements of universal and inclusive design in the way that information is presented are easy adjustments that can become part of the “formula” for MOOCs, such as making sure that writing is clear and large for any accompanying slides, with ideal colors and contrast for aging eyes. Many studies have shown the various ways to make websites and print materials more age-friendly; it is just a matter of incorporating those same ideas into MOOCs. We make constant adjustments in our classrooms at OLLI @Berkeley based on cutting-edge aging research and student feedback and evaluations. It only makes sense for MOOCs to have the same level of responsiveness to the different needs of the older learner.

Even though our research subjects were highly-motivated and self-selected groups with professed interest in taking a MOOC, the barriers outlined in this abstract often led to experiences of frustration and resulted in individuals dropping-out of the course before completion, despite encouragement and support to keep going from peers and our faculty. By focusing on removing barriers, MOOCs can help reduce drop-out rates; as it stands now some estimates are that only 6% of enrollees actually finish a course. Adjusting MOOCs using ideas of universal and inclusive design is a change that will not only serve to better engage older learners, but should have ripple effects across the age and diversity spectrum of MOOC participants.

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