Backgrounds and Behaviors of MOOC Participants and Implications for Faculty

Summar of a presentation by Lori Breslow (MIT), Jennifer DeBoer (MIT), Andrew Ho (Harvard)
(Andrew) Although open sources and online teaching is not new in a passive way, open learning as an active process is new, so there hasn’t been a lot of research. Most of the research has been about how instructors have met the world through MOOCs, but we’re also looking at how the world meets instructors through MOOCs.

EdX is a joint venture between Harvard and MIT and now includes 12 institutions. We have a shared mission to provide open online education, to improve the residential student experience, and to advance research.

What differentiates EdX from other initiatives is that there is a clear institutional brand, eg. HarvardX, MITX, etc. You can actually Google HarvardX research, for example. MITX has a similar structure. Each institution receives all data for its own courses. You can see that on the HarvardX page; there is a way to request access to this data.

(Jen) What characterizes these MOOC experiences is the immense diversity of students participating. Here are some sample stats from an electronics course. First, how are the demographics different, second, what are some of the unique challenges. It’s not completely new, we’ve seen diverse student groups before, but MOOCs are an extreme case.

We had representatives in our course from 194 countries – they didn’t all interact in every part of the course, but imagine how the instructor felt. There was a cluster of high-use countries and then a massive tail. Canada, Colombia, Greece, the UK, Poland – these were the high-use countries. Now students in these countries have a peer group of unprecedented size.

Now the instructor has students sitting in classes from these other countries, with different contexts, which they have to take into account. Different time zones, for example, which impacts awareness of due dates. The class was in English, but many students had different languages – more than 100K answered ‘English’ but 50 other languages were represented, and 50K students responded with more than one language. So we needed to adjust – allowing students, for example, to watch lectures at slower speeds, bonding students with similar language backgrounds, and by contrast, students bonding with students from different language groups.

Finally, we observed students participating with a potentially challenging array of previous educational experiences. Here we had a really heterogeneous classroom. More than a quarter surveyed responded that the highest degree they attained was high school. Some students reported not having a math background, even though that was a prerequisite. So it forces us to question for whom we are tailoring instruction.

We anecdotally observed that students are continuing to participate in the discussion forums nearly a year after the course has finished. So we can ask of LMSs whether we should be allowing students to participate after the course has been completed.

(Lori) I want to talk about some implications for faculty, both in MOOCs and in residential classes.

I can tell you that it takes about 100 hours to prepare a MOOC (source: Chronicle article), and pretty much the case for John (husband) as well. Questions to ask: strength-weakness of technology, how to accommodate diversity of students, how to maintain quality, planning for tech snafus, etc.

Question: is it 100 total for everyone involved, or just for the faculty member, can you break it down?

Response (Lori): I can’t. (Jennifer) Anecdote, from a faculty member, it took about four times the preparation process for a traditional course, but she said she was willing to make the investment because it was a more long-term investment, because she would be able to reuse materials in the future. (Andrew) I don’t think it will change the mission, we hope it will advance the three-part mission in all ways.

Question: online versus offline courses.

Response: (Andrew) we don’t want to infer from one group to the other, we are doing research in both areas. (Jennifer) We should think of it along a continuum, not just as research from one or another category. We think that requiring the online participation will change their local experience, for example.

Question: Are any of the EdX courses constructed as research projects?

Response (Andrew): this whole enterprise is seen as an experiment by our faculty. That’s the advantage of having the committees and cross-university structure is so we can share the data, we’re thinking about how to share it.

Question: can you speak of the tech back end?

Response: (Jennifer) It’s a lot of people, allowing each class to have its own flavour, to offer the course, but also having some continuity across classes. (Andrew) It’s been incredibly energizing for the faculty. Eg. A meeting with junior faculty, usually it’s about “Oh God and I going to get tenure” but today it was all about teaching and how to connect with EdX.

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