What’s In It for Us?: Benefits to Campus Course of Running a MOOC

Summary of a presentation from Jason Mock

Let’s talk about the reasons institutions and people are getting involved in MOOCs 

We can look at brand reputation, or just keeping up, for institutions. But I want to focus on the pedagogical innovations, influences on campus courses and improvements in course quality.

Ken Robinson: “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you will never come up with anything original.” In MOOCs, we’re prepared to be wrong. On campus, people have very definite motivations and expectations, but in MOOCs, this doesn’t apply, so we are motivated to experiment.

At Illinois, We’ve had the experience of very large enrollment traditional classes. So an experience in a MOOC can help us learn how to manage an on-campus class of, say, 350. For example, how to manage the discussion forums, especially the graded discussions.

We have tens of thousands of students in these courses, so it’s literally an opportunity to experiment. Eg. We are conducting A-B test in one of them.

We are also experiencing institutional collaboration in new ways, for example, with other colleges involved with Coursera. We learn from each other, and as a side-effect, apply the lessons to traditional classes.

MOOCs also offer courses free to everyone in the world, and that attracts a lot of people. But we can’t pull a bait-and-switch, saying the MOOC is free but you have to pay $200 for a textbook. So we are depending a lot more on open or freely licensed works, like the materials used for these sessions. One instructor collaborated with colleagues to create an open textbook – he could then then around and offer that to his traditional students.

Many MOOC materials are created as videos. These can then be used in the traditional setting; for example, if the professor is sick or away at a conference, he can assign the video. Similarly, in the vein of ‘flipping the classroom’ where all the lectures are viewed by students individually, and the classroom time is used for more interactive activities,

Another question is how we can leverage the tens of thousands of students for our benefit – we are trying to help them, but they can help us as well. Think about the emotions and thoughts we have when contemplating tens of thousands of people at once. 

What do we gain from them? We gain a lot of data. Every click, every video pause. There are research projects going on right now. But even without that, we can learn things. For example, we can identify distractors, we can spot questions that are badly worded or misleading. We can take a large bank of questions and look at where we want to focus our attention, and apply the fixes to the campus courses.

Another thing is that people can submit material for future offerings of the course. We ask them permission, of course. We have tens of thousands of ‘worker bees’ and many of them have been happy to contribute their materials.

A lot of our students are international. A MOOC is a great way to get a diverse set of perspectives. A simple example: ask them ‘what is the strongest earthquake you’ve felt’. You can see the results come in as expected from the geologists – but it’s not cold science showing this, it’s living people. Or, we can ask them ‘how much is a cup of coffee?’ and get a range of perspective.

When we are on the world stage, we are highly motivated. And when we miss something, as Eric Raymond would say, we have tens of thousands of people ready to find everything wrong with the course.

We’ve learned how important it is to express our thoughts clearly and simply.

Question: isn’t MOOC data and campus data apples and oranges? Isn’t the data very different?

Response: yes, there’s something to be said, but there the medium level of education is pretty good, so they have a pretty good sense of things. Also, we don’t just take their responses as the correct answer, just as a way of flagging something to be looked at.

Question: what were the things you had to come to grips with?

Response: first, that the MOOC should be just a mirror of the traditional on-campus course. Eg., some people may be lurkers, just curious, or had a real-life challenge they were trying to solve. Also, for example, using badges, we could offer multiple pathways to success. Or maybe a project, a real-life project, so we could ‘double dip’, getting something done in the workplace, and getting credit (except we don’t offer credit).

Question: where do you seek resources that were equivalent to TAs and librarians and other sorts of non-faculty equivalents that were important?

Response: we often think in terms of staff-student rations, but in a MOOC wouldn’t think in those terms – so we had some independent-study graduate students helped us, not in a TA role, but as a ‘community TA pro bono role’. Their ‘first look’ at the course can be helpful.

Question: do you really think volunteers will be as good support as people who are paid to do it?

Response; they may not be as good individually (though I did have some PhDs providing support) but when you have 20 providing support the best rise to the top. It’s not an exact analogy, but the volume of the community TAs helps offset that.

Question: is the MOOC a good a good vehicle for learning?

Response: It depends on how you define learning. In MOOC learning could be as simple as ‘I want to understand what environmental economics’ means, and if they get that one thing, they’ve learned what they needed to learn. People learn what they can out of the course, but then go beyond that, and learn from the community.

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