Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Interview with Sameer Bhatia, ProProfs.com: Innovators in E-Learning Series

Thanks to improvements in access and bandwidth management, massive open online courses (MOOCs) are rapidly gaining in popularity. Two different types of MOOCs have emerged: the first, the x-MOOC, emphasizes content mastery and incorporates self-grading activities; the second, the c-MOOC, emphasizes learning through collaboration and incorporates connectivist learning theory. The x-MOOCs are making learning and assessment an automated, 24-7 endeavor. The big challenge for organizations that wish to get involved, however is finding a platform that is robust and flexible enough to handle huge volumes and highly variable content. One company that has dedicated itself to overcoming that problem is ProProfs, a popular, easy-to-use provider of tools that allow the easy construction and deployment of quizzes, courses, tests, and surveys, all of which are ideal for creating MOOCs. Welcome to an interview with Sameer Bhatia, visionary and founder of ProProfs.com.

1.  What is your name and your relationship to e-learning?

I am Sameer Bhatia, founder of ProProfs.com, an online learning community which provides comprehensive tools for building, testing and applying knowledge.

Over the years, I have worked with many trainers and educators, which has helped us in developing market leading elearning tools such as our popular quiz software and an all-in-one online learning management system (LMS) that are geared towards solving the core issues that teachers and trainers face while creating online courses and assessments.

I feel the biggest contribution to elearning that ProProfs has made so far is in making online education accessible and affordable to people from all walks of life. We have not only made an enterprise level LMS, which would traditionally cost tens of thousands of dollars, available at a fraction of the price but also taken this a step further with our free offering of public courses. Our products are free when you share content such as courses or quizzes with the world. This has made us one of the largest MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses) platforms with hundreds of thousands of free quizzes, tests and courses. I have received many emails from educators and trainers about how the free courses and quizzes have saved them hours of time and effort.

2.  What are some of the future directions and potentials of MOOCs, in your opinion?

Where a university class could only accommodate a maximum of few hundred students, MOOCs can help educators and trainers reach out to millions of learners. The potential of MOOCs as a platform through which education and training can be created and disseminated instantly to a vast population is one worth investing in and exploiting.

In the coming years, we could see more universities using MOOCs as the primary mode of creating and disseminating learning. However, currently there are a limited number of courses on a few topics that MOOC platforms are offering. The potential of MOOCs will be fully realized when open online courses are available on multiple disciplines and topics. I feel the ability of anyone to freely build and share knowledge will be a motivational factor for people to use MOOCs as the primary platform for creating and disseminating learning.

Such a cohesive system would mean the crumbling of economic and geographic barriers, since anybody from any part of the world would be able to freely access education and learning.

3.  Why might an organization want to host a MOOC, and how can they benefit?

Firstly, irrespective of the industry an organization belongs to, MOOCs can help it establish itself as a thought leader in its field. A company can achieve this by creating a knowledge resource consisting of open online courses which answer the questions of their audience. For example, a company manufacturing fire fighting equipments can create open courses on fire safety; an automobile company can create a certification course on driving motor vehicles, so on and so forth. The possibilities are limitless. By providing solutions to the questions of potential customers, a company can establish itself as a brand and thought leader.

Secondly, as it is said that the best way to learn is to teach, organizations can quickly collect aggregate learner statistics from their courses and learn about what exactly are the knowledge gaps. For instance, when you create a course using ProProfs, you get advanced reports and aggregate statistics based on data across all attempts to a particular course. These reports help instructors learn and understand what questions are commonly wrong, difficulty level of each question, what information the course is not addressed well and so on. All of this can be used to make improvements to the course and to identify and bridge knowledge gaps.

4.  What are some of the "must have" elements in a MOOC?  Why are some organizations nervous about offering a MOOC?  What are some of the barriers that must be overcome, and why might it be difficult for an organization to do it on their own? 

Creating an online course is not enough. For MOCCs to be really successful as an alternative learning model there must be comprehensive course statistics such as detailed course and assessment reports as well as learner feedback reports accompanying an online course.

Course and assessment reports are essentials parts of an online course as they help instructors judge whether learners have actually understood the course. For instance, ProProfs test making software, provides users with detailed assessment reports such as the total attempts made on the quiz, the average time taken to complete the quiz, the average percentage score and the difficulty level of each question in the quiz. The statistics are presented in a clear and concise manner, which help instructors understand how each learner performed in a given test as well as identify the areas where knowledge gaps may exist so that they can revise their teaching and training materials to improve learners’ performance.

Likewise, gathering learners’ feedback at the start, middle or end of a course helps in judging the relevance and efficaciousness of a course. Regular learner feedback surveys drive up instructor-learner engagement, which is crucial for the success of online courses.

One of the reasons why business organizations are wary of online courses is regarding cost and infrastructure requirement to support large batches of learners. Expenses related to maintenance, data back-up, software hosting and administration are some of the difficulties that organizations looking to create online courses on their own face. They can avoid these issues and simply put their focus on course creation by adopting SAAS and other third party solutions that effectively solve this problem. We get a lot of questions and concerns about this as well. So we created a Trust page that gives people an insight into our infrastructure that scales to serve million of users each month.

As for educational institutions, the question seems to be whether open online courses can compensate for actual classroom experience. However, there are many tools such as feedback surveys, discussion forums, crowd-sourcing etc which help in bridging the virtual divide and driving up instructor and learner engagement.

5.  What are some of ProProfs products, and how are they used within a MOOC?

One of our popular products is our online training software, which allows users to create a course and deliver it to their learners. It is an all-in-one software, which comes bundles with our other products and provides a complete e-learning solution to companies who want to create online training program or educational institutions looking to create academic coursework.

We also offer a powerful online testing tool called ProProfs Quiz Maker. Our testing tool provides comprehensive features such as the ability to create different types of tests such as matching, checkboxes, true or false, multiple choice and even a timed test - which helps in preventing cheating in online tests. The results of the assessments are fully downloadable and instructors can share them with their learners as well as other stakeholders.

Another import elearning tool would be our learner feedback tool. Our survey software allows users to create course evaluation surveys and learner feedback surveys, making their online courses much more effective in enhancing the learning process.

Besides these online tools, we also offer poll maker and learning aids such as flashcards which make the online courses more engaging and effective.

ProProfs offers hundreds of public online courses. The course categories cover a range of topics such as business, computer science, education and many more. Since our training software is an integrated product, which includes all our other products it is the most ideal for being used within a MOOC. Our Quiz software, is one of the largest online quiz libraries and there are millions of free quizzes on various topics. Another software very popular with learners is our Flashcards Maker, which also consists of millions of flashcards, free and accessible for all. Our Survey Software is a relatively new product but we already have a large bank of surveys which are free for our users to share and reuse.

6.  How is ProProfs helping organizations develop and host MOOCs?

ProProfs Training Software is used by many organizations to create open online courses. One of the primary reasons why organizations prefer using our software is because we allow them to completely focus on course creation, while we handle the course hosting, delivery, data-backup, administration and maintenance. The fact that organizations do not have to download or learn any software coupled with the benefit of not having to hire an IT team to maintain and administer the software, encourages organizations as well as individuals to create and share online courses through our platform.

Since open online courses are taken by thousands of learners at a time, the load spikes are massive and we conduct regular system maintenance so that we maintain a robust system uptime and learners don’t have to face any disruptions. We keep our system maintenance records completely transparent and that is why many organizations believe and trust in us.
We are different from other MOOC platforms because we also provide our customers the option to go fully private and even create paid courses - a great revenue model for teachers who wish to create and sell online courses. This makes us the most flexible platform. So you can start off by making an open course, create a private and secure course/training for the company you work at, and another one where you charge users across the web to take the course ....the flexibility is amazing.

Organizations also do not feel locked in, as we give them complete and absolute ownership of the courses they create with us. They can fully brand, customize and embed their courses onto their website or blog as well as integrate the payment gateway with their site and use ProProfs only for the delivery of the courses.

7.  Do you see any new directions arising for MOOCs and their potential to help organizations achieve their missions? 

The current trend is in making the online courses more efficacious by providing accreditation, where learners at the end of an online course get a degree or a completion certificate, which they can use to further their education or career. Once this is fully realized, MOOCs will become all pervasive. In this respect, we have a certification program already set up, where organizations can create custom course completion certificates using their logos, colors and signatures and award it to deserving candidates.

I believe the new directions will be in the adoption of MOOCs by companies and people from different walks of life as opposed to just academic education - wherein universities have so far been the early adopters.

8. Any final thoughts?

We have already witnessed the potential of MOOCs in making quality education accessible to the public. Premier educational institutions such as Harvard, Stanford and many others have effectively used MOOC to reach out to a global learner base.

However, we believe that not just premier institutions but anybody who is willing to share his/her knowledge should be able to have access to the technological resources to do so. The driving force behind ProProfs being free for open courses has been our strong belief that anybody can and should teach. Everyday people from all walks of life create hundreds of courses, on all kinds of subjects, using our learning management system. Our public courses range from simple fire safety courses to complex Java programming language courses. Also, people learn in different ways, not only through courses but tests and quizzes as well. We’ve realised this because we get many emails from our users telling us about how the quizzes in our site helped them do well in their tests.  A case in point are the DMV quizzes, which are taken by thousands of our users everyday and have helped many pass their driving tests with flying colors.

This I feel should be the future of MOOCs where education and learning is not limited to predefined notions of traditional academic courses but is a healthy mix of different types of knowledge resources on a vast array of subjects and interests.

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