Going boldly where no course has gone before…

Helen Dorritt examines the rise of the SPOC: the Small Private Online Course

With UK tuition fees creeping higher at the same time that technology is becoming slicker, it’s no surprise to see online courses flourishing in the higher education section. First there was the MOOC, the Massive Open Online Course, the first instance of which was offered in 2008 and really took off in 2012. With their unlimited enrolment and access, these were hailed as revolutionary ways of opening up education for more people, and providers such as edX, Coursera and Udacity joined forces with universities to offer a wide range of courses, some of which were taught in parallel with paid-for university courses. Their popularity grew quickly – the University of Southampton reached its 100,000 MOOC student milestone in October 2014 – but the cracks soon started to appear. Ironically, for something that was supposed to make learning more open, often just too many people wanted to take part, and questions were raised over the assessment of students, and whether a MOOC qualification would be formally recognised in an academic context. The inability to make MOOCs profitable was also an issue.

Then in 2013, Professor Armando Fox of UC Berkeley coined the term SPOC – the Small Private Online Course, to refer to a MOOC that was used in a business-to-business context. He explains how it came about: “When my colleague David Patterson and I first taught our MOOC, ‘Engineering Software as a Service’, we asked the MOOC provider to create a separate copy of the MOOC for exclusive use of our on-campus students, because there were course elements that we needed to add or change for them compared with the MOOC students. The ease of doing this made us realise that MOOC technology could be a great way to transfer curricular materials, so we coined the term SPOC to describe this use case, and reached out to computer science colleagues at other universities to see if they’d be interested in using our materials this way.”

Thus a new style of learning was born. Taking the best of the MOOC – the flexibility of participation, the online accessibility – but limiting numbers, SPOCs are now being hailed as the way that universities can open up their access but in a controlled manner. The idea of a SPOC is to disseminate the lectures and course materials online and via video resources, to be done as homework. In the face-to-face time, lecturers can use their time to answer questions, assess their knowledge and go over any points that have been missed, and work on other assignments. The content can therefore be adapted to the curriculum, students’ needs and the preferences of the lecturer. And while MOOC enrolments can be up in the thousands, SPOCs are limited to whatever the course provider feels is a sustainable number.

“An early objection to MOOCs with flipped classrooms was that they would ‘homogenise’ teaching by turning classroom instructors into highly-paid teaching assistants all parroting the same course. Our experience is that that isn’t what happens,” says Armando. 

“Creating good foundational materials is a lot of work and not necessarily every instructor’s strength, so SPOCs allow instructors to concentrate on what they do best and enjoy most – working with individual students, inventing new in-class activities, and so on – rather than having to also create all the basic materials as they go. In that sense, SPOCs are like supercharged textbooks: if someone uses my textbook in their course, that doesn’t make it ‘my course’, but it does provide a good foundation for them to build on. But unlike textbooks, which are passive, SPOCs use MOOC technology to include lots of interactive activities for the students.”

The US has led the way with SPOCs in universities such as Harvard, UC Berkeley, San Jose State University and MIT. In the UK, universities experimenting with the SPOC include Warwick, Reading, the Royal Veterinary College and Bloomsbury College. David Beck, an Academic Technologist at the University of Warwick, co-convened a SPOC course last year on digital tools for researchers, aimed primarily at doctoral students, and he found that the three main advantages were efficiency, availability and fit. “A SPOC can be created by lecturers to fill a specific gap, and respond to students’ needs. It makes a specific guided learning environment available, and unlike freely available online resources, the structure of a SPOC ensures that students access and learn material in the correct order,” explains David. “As for fit, this is best achieved through a taught face-to-face course with personal interaction between tutor and student. A MOOC would be most efficient, and if well-designed would give a similarly available guided learning environment. A SPOC, as might be expected, sits somewhere in the middle.”

The course received overwhelmingly positive feedback, with students citing their approval of its flexible nature, which appealed to part-time and distance learners, as did being able to work through the modules at their own pace. There were some disadvantages, however. “A few of the students remarked that they would have liked more engagement with their peers. While MOOCs are able, to some extent, to substitute weight-of-numbers for closer community, with SPOCs students are engaging with the material at different times, to different depths, and coming from different backgrounds.” If a course is taught online, students often engage with it differently to the way they would for a traditional taught lecture course, so it’s important that people realise that a SPOC is more than just a web page, and properly take part in it, says David. “Overcoming this misconception and ensuring students value the way in which a SPOC guides their learning is an important step that must be made early on in a course.”

As well as using SPOCs to teach students, they are also emerging as an efficient way of offering staff training. Ben Audsley, VLE Manager at the Royal Veterinary College, organised a SPOC for staff to help them gain better understanding of RVC Learn, the
College’s Moodle platform. Previous training events had been badly attended, so this SPOC, which also had optional face-to-face training sessions for each module, meant that 49 out of the 59 people who signed up ended up accessing the course. “The idea of a completely online course meant that participants could learn anywhere, at any time and at their own pace. This suited the needs of our staff who are on two separate campuses,” says Ben.

“Because the SPOC encouraged the participants to dip in and out of sections that are relevant to them, it meant that staff didn’t have to sign up to complete the whole course, which lifted some of the pressure often felt by participants of online courses. The other main advantage of a SPOC is that it can offer a more personal experience than a MOOC.” And as one of the aims was to improve the design and content of courses on RVC Learn, the course’s success means that there has also been a positive effect on the way students learn.

One issue that had been raised with the advent of MOOCs, and will continue with SPOCs, is whether the traditional campus set-up is in danger of becoming redundant, if students find that they can get everything they need online. But the MOOC has already been shown to be unsustainable in a variety of ways, and so the SPOC, with its blend of MOOC technology and traditional teaching methods, could be very well be the best of both worlds.

Frank Steiner from the University of London Computer Centre, a leading IT services which provides Virtual Learning Environments for over 120 UK universities, doesn’t see SPOCs as a threat to traditional university learning. “They have their place, but I think they’re the Emperor’s new clothes – all university courses are small and private. They’re useful for students to check the content of a course and make sure it’s the right one for them, particularly now with tuition fees being so high, and for CPD and staff training, but they’re no substitute for in-person teaching. I’m now seeing some of our customers moving away from the hype and going back to the basic roots
of pedagogy.”

Giving the last word to the creator of the term, Armando Fox feels that, far from making lecturers redundant, offering SPOCs actually ensures better use of their time and more creative ways of teaching course content. “Both MOOCs and SPOCs offer the opportunity to use class time in a more imaginative format than just delivering a lecture. That sounds like a great idea and students can really benefit from it, but it is a lot more work for the instructor compared with delivering lectures. In that sense, I think MOOCs and SPOCs have really raised the bar for ‘on-campus’ teaching and forced instructors to think about what the best use of their time is.”