Are High Impact Practices Available Online?

I am still wrestling with my unease with MOOCs and I think I’ve finally figured out why: High impact educational practices, as we understand them today, are unlikely at best and impossible at worst in MOOCs and other similar online environments.

First, it’s helpful to understand that “high impact practice” (HIP) is a term of art.  Although the phrase is probably very common, in the past ten years or so the term has taken on special significance in U.S. higher education.  Popularized by George Kuh and emerging partly from research using data from the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), this phrase has come to mean a particular set of activities that many higher education researchers believe are especially effective in promoting important and lasting changes in undergraduate students: First-Year Seminars and Experiences, Common Intellectual Experiences (i.e. core curricula), Learning Communities, Writing-Intensive Courses, Collaborative Assignments and Projects, Undergraduate Research, Diversity/Global Learning, Service Learning, Community-Based Learning, Internships, and Capstone Courses and Projects.

Unfortunately, we sometimes place too much focus on these particular activities without understanding why these activities have a high impact.  As originally described by Kuh in 2007, these practices share six characteristics:

  1. HIPs “demand that students devote considerable amounts of time and effort to purposeful tasks (p. 7)”
  2. HIPs place students in circumstances that require they “interact with faculty and peers about substantive matter (p. 7)”
  3. HIPs greatly increase the likelihood that students will interact with people who are different from themselves
  4. HIPs provide students with very frequent – sometimes continuous – feedback from faculty and peers
  5. HIPs require students to operate in intellectually complex ways by connecting knowledge in different courses and applying it in different contexts e.g. confronting complex real-world issues, investigating unfamiliar research problems
  6. HIPs occur in the context of a “coherent, academically challenging curriculum (p. 8)”

I am particularly interested in focusing on these characteristics of high impact practices as I will be helping lead a discussion on my campus next month focused on student engagement.  Most of the participants will be faculty and much of our focus will be on activities that faculty are using or can use in their curricula to promote student engagement.  Given that focus, I don’t think it would be helpful to focus on the specific activities identified as HIPs as those are often beyond the resources and purview of an individual faculty member.  Instead, we will focus on why those activities have a high impact so we can apply those principles to the activities within the power and resources of individual faculty.

That is what was on the forefront of my mind when I “attended” an EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI) online conference last week that focused on MOOCs.  The conference had some very active discussions among participants and as I participated in those discussions it occurred to me that one of the primary reasons I am uncomfortable with MOOCs is that it is difficult or impossible to apply much of what we know about good teaching in that environment.

Look back up at those six principles of high impact practices.  How do we do apply those principles in a MOOC?  More pointedly, can we apply those principles in a MOOC?  I despair that the answer is mostly “no.”  I pray that it is a simple lack of imagination on my part, a misunderstanding of what we can do in a MOOC, or that this is a fatal flaw of the dominant MOOC model that others will quickly recognize and fix or use to abandon that model.  I also confess that I don’t completely understand all of the discussions about “xMOOCs” and “cMOOCs” on anything but a very theoretical and abstract level and I have a sneaky suspicion that I’m missing something very important in how cMOOCs address some of these principles.

There is another interesting and hopeful way to think about this.  Another ELI conference attendee – I’m sorry that I don’t remember who – suggested that there may be other paradigms of effective educational practices that MOOCs might better fit.  Although I am a little bit skeptical that our understanding of effective education is going to be radically upended, this recommendation to not be too constrained by our current thinking is a very good one.  In fact, that is one important reason why I will be trying to steer our discussion here on my campus next month away from the specific activities and toward the broader principles so we can compare our thinking about student engagement with that of others’.  The idea isn’t to impose the model on my campus but to use it as a common starting point that must be adapted to our unique needs and resources.

That, of course, is what we’ll need to do with MOOCs: Use our best understanding of effective teaching and shape it to this unique environment with unique affordances.  I don’t know how to do that and I don’t know if that is what is being done.  I am wary that much of what is being done is not methodical and not built on what we know about how people learn.  I am especially skeptical that we can provide the kind of demanding and socially and intellectually connected experiences that we know provide some of the best learning.  I hope that people smarter than I are figuring this out, though, and working out how MOOCs can provide high impact educational practices.

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