What’s the Value of a Learning Differences MOOC-Ed?


Massive Online Open Courses for Educators (MOOC-Eds) provide a new form of professional development for educators that balances research-based practices for high-quality professional development with new types of social learning. In this paper we consider the value that educators find through their participation in a Learning Differences MOOC-Ed and examine the design elements of the MOOC-Ed that supported their growth and impact on practice.

Educators face challenges in meeting the diverse learning needs of students.

Despite their passion for teaching and commitment to the field, educators around the world – with varying years of experience, teaching different subjects, at different levels, in a variety of contexts – are continually challenged to meet the diverse learning needs of their students. Working in challenging environments with limited time to plan, the pressure of changing curriculum standards, student assessments, and expectations for technology use and personalization of learning, these teachers frequently operate in isolation with few opportunities to collaborate and connect with peers. They often have limited access to professional learning experiences that could enable them to develop new strategies for working with students or deepen their own knowledge of students’ learning differences.

I find my work exciting and rewarding, but it can be very frustrating, especially when I can’t find what works for a student to get him/her engaged and learning. There are a multitude of differences in my students and it seems that I can never meet all of the needs.
– High school special ed teacher

This year my partner teacher and I were asked to take on full inclusion. Together we have a very diverse group. We have several GT students that score off the charts, several autistic, special ed and some that are considered “average.” I am struggling with the extreme levels. I feel that I need to rethink my approach to instruction in the classroom. This is my twelfth year of teaching and one of the most challenging!
– Second grade math and science inclusion teacher

When there are only four special education teachers in a school of more than 1,000 students, it is not realistic to meet individual student needs with push-in resources. There has to be room during a class period for students to show their individual strengths and for teachers to help with individual weaknesses. The HOW is the big question.
– Middle school mathematics teacher

This is the beginning of my twentieth year of teaching. I am currently teaching kindergarten, which I have been doing for the past 13 years. Among the 20 children in this year’s class, I have one little girl with Down Syndrome, one with autism spectrum disorder, and two identified as learning disabled. Last year was my most challenging year EVER and I promised myself that I would never feel as helpless to reach a child as I did last year.
– Kindergarten teacher

In order to increase their knowledge of learning differences and expand their repertoire of strategies for working with students with diverse learning needs, hundreds of teachers from around the country and around the world signed up to take part in a Learning Differences MOOC-Ed offered through the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation at NC State University.

The purpose of this paper is to examine the spectrum of value that educators found through their participation in the Learning Differences MOOC-Ed and the ways in which the design elements of the MOOC-Ed supported value creation and impact on practice. We begin by describing the Friday Institute’s MOOC-Ed Initiative as a whole and highlighting the design elements that guided the development of these MOOC-Eds. Following the general introduction to MOOC-Eds, we describe the Learning Differences MOOC-Ed specifically. We then use a value creation framework to analyze qualitative data collected during and following three implementations of the Learning Differences MOOC-Eds and illustrate how the design principles of the course augment value creation, fostering teachers’ professional growth and impact on practice.

We argue that the Learning Differences MOOC-Ed provides a valuable form of professional development that can be used to help education professionals around the world advance their knowledge of learning differences and better meet the learning needs of their students.

MOOC-Eds hold potential for helping educators advance their expertise and improve professional practice.

The Friday Institute MOOC-Ed Initiative. Beginning in 2012, the Friday Institute launched a set of MOOCs for Educators to explore whether MOOC-like approaches could be adapted to address the professional learning needs of educators, providing scalable, accessible, and cost-effective professional development (PD). MOOC-Eds build on models of effective professional development, professional learning communities, and online communities of practice, and are designed to help educators improve their professional knowledge and practice. Each MOOC-Ed is developed based on the following four core design principles:

Multiple voices allow participants to learn about the perspectives of other teachers and administrators and those of students, researchers, and experts in the field.

Self-directed learning enables participants to personalize their experience by identifying their own goals, selecting among a rich array of resources, and deciding whether, when, and how to engage in discussions and activities to further their own learning and meet their personal goals.

Peer-supported learning occurs when participants engage in online discussions, review each other’s projects, rate posted ideas, recommend resources, crowdsource lessons learned, and participate in Twitter chats and other exchanges appropriate to the individual course.

Practice-based learning takes place through the use of case studies and classroom- and school-related projects, the development of action plans, and other activities that center participants’ work on critical problems of practice and data-informed decision making in their own classrooms, schools, or districts.

The Learning Differences MOOC-Ed. The Learning Differences MOOC-Ed is one of six MOOC-Eds that have been developed through the Friday Institute MOOC-Ed Initiative. With funding from the Oak Foundation, the Learning Differences MOOC-Ed was created to help teachers better understand learning differences and how they apply to all students; foster a growth mindset or problem solving approach among new teachers as they work with students; and provide teachers with job-embedded strategies that will help them as they meet the diverse needs of all students. To date, the six-week Learning Differences MOOC-Ed has been offered four times (Fall 2014, Spring 2015, Summer 2015, and Fall 2015) with a total of 6,300 participants actively engaged in the course.

A new lens can be used to illuminate the spectrum of value educators find through their engagement in the MOOC-Ed.

End-of-course survey results from the three Learning Differences MOOC-Eds indicate that the MOOC-Eds were largely successful at providing professional learning experiences that deepened educators’ knowledge and skills and impacted their practice. On unit feedback forms and end-of-course surveys, educators frequently reported that the content and activities helped them “grow,” “develop,” and “deepen” their understanding of learning differences. Further, 98% of respondents agreed that the MOOC-Ed was effective in preparing them to make positive changes to their practice. While these survey results paint a promising picture of the impact that the Learning Differences MOOC-Ed had on participants’knowledge and practice, we wanted to develop a more nuanced understanding of the value that educators found through their participation.

In order to do this, we used a “value creation framework” developed by Etienne Wenger, Beverly Trayner, and Maarten De Laat (2011). This conceptual framework, further described below, provides a useful tool for examining the value that educators find through their participation in online learning experiences. For the purposes of this paper, we view “value creation” from the perspective of the MOOC-Ed participant and define it as personal learning enabled through involvement in the MOOC-Ed, knowledge sharing, and networking. As described in the value creation framework, we propose that participation in the MOOC-Ed enables learning through accrued knowledge capital, which can be leveraged to improve practice and help educators’ redefine successful practices.

Wenger, Trayner, and De Laat suggest that, in order to appreciate the richness of the value created by learning communities or networks such as MOOC-Eds, it is helpful to think about value creation in terms of cycles. The first four cycles presented in their framework are an adaptation of a program evaluation model developed by Kirkpatrick in the mid-1970s. The fifth cycle was recently added to specifically address value creation in online communities and networks.

Cycle 1: Immediate value includes activities and interactions that produce value in and of themselves.

Cycle 2: Potential value includes activities and interactions that produce various forms of knowledge capital that have the potential to be realized later.

Cycle 3: Applied value includes activities and interactions in which participants leverage knowledge capital to changes in their practice.

Cycle 4: Realized value occurs when the application of knowledge capital results in performance improvements of varying types.

Cycle 5: Reframing value occurs when social learning causes a reconsideration of the ways in which success is defined.

Immediate. Potential. Applied. Realized. Reframing.

In this paper we use the value creation framework as a lens for examining qualitative data collected from Learning Differences MOOC-Ed participants. Specifically, this data includes individual participants’ interviews, open-ended items on end-of-unit and end-of-course surveys, and pre-post course reflections submitted by participants. A random sampling of 500 open-ended survey items from over 6,000 items, transcripts from 14 individual interviews, and five in-depth pre-post course reflections were coded and analyzed. Using the value creation lens we illuminate a spectrum of value that educators found through their participation in the Learning Differences MOOC-Ed – thus providing a more nuanced understanding of the social learning potential of MOOC-Eds in general, and the Learning Differences MOOC-Ed in particular.

View Resource

Authors and Contributors