October 3, 2013

Pioneering MOOC instructors remain enthusiastic

News and Information

The first reports from the pioneers of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, at the UW contain a mixture of humility and abiding enthusiasm for this new education platform.

Academic and Collaborative Applications, a unit within UW Information Technology that makes and provides user-centered applications for the UW community, interviewed four faculty members who taught such courses this year to find out what this pilot group thought of the experience. This is part of the organization’s mission, to understand users’ experience with new technologies. All four offered UW courses on the Coursera platform for the first time this year. The four represent a slice of the UW’s offerings through Coursera.

This poster explores explores the meaning of "Massive Open Online Courses."

Mathieu Plourde

This poster explores explores the meaning of “Massive Open Online Courses.”

MOOCs are online courses that offer large-scale interactive participation and provide open access on the Web.

As early adopters, the four entered with curiosity and ambition that seems undiminished by what has been a fairly labor-intensive venture, according to the report prepared by Janice Fournier, a research scientist with UW-IT.  Fournier reports that the teachers were “awed and humbled” by their experience – awed by the size and global reach of their course, and humbled by the amount of effort and organization required to teach effectively in a mass online environment.

While the four – three from computer science and one from the Information School – are all interested in technological change, their motives varied. Barbara Endicott-Popovsky, who directs the Center for Information Assurance and Cybersecurity, was primarily interested in MOOCs as a social phenomenon. She was able to engage chief information security officers, and those who aspire to such positions, from around the world and create a dialogue among participants about security needs and risks.  “The result was a global discussion on security issues from varying perspectives,” Fournier says.

Bill Howe, a director at the eScience Institute, had similar motivations: he wanted to influence the national discussion about data science education as well as introduce students to this relatively new field of study.

Daniel Grossman, associate professor in computer science and engineering, and a team from the same department consisting of Arvind Krishnamurthy, associate professor; David Wetherall, professor; and John Zahorjan, professor; offered courses as “a way to increase visibility for the computer science and engineering program at UW and highlight its leadership in education,” according to the report.

Even for faculty who have previously taught online courses, organizing a MOOC is a labor-intensive experience. The pioneers’ additional work varied from dozens to hundreds of hours, recording videos and preparing other course materials. Endicott-Popovsky was able to call on her nine years of online instructional experience as well as the infrastructure of Professional and Continuing Education. She worked with Continuing Education to repurpose much of her existing content and to record supplementary material where necessary.

At the other extreme, Howe built his course from the ground up. Because he could not rely on classroom discussion, he needed to “anticipate every possible question” and incorporate that material into the videos. Because four instructors were competing for time in the same recording studio, he often found himself working until 2 a.m.  While he believes his product was effective, he reports that “the investment in a dedicated resource for editing and material management would pay off in quality and time saved.”

In preparing their first MOOCs, faculty members could take advantage of a special “partners’ portal” — created by Coursera – in how to develop a MOOC. Fournier, who has a background in education, found the Coursera’s support materials “very thorough and fairly strong on pedagogy.”

All the MOOC pioneers said they would be back again with this course or other courses.  As for the up-front time investment, it’s unclear if this will be a one-time or ongoing cost, Fournier says. “It depends very much on the course and the nature of material. If the field of study changes, the course materials will need to be updated.”

The lessons that these teachers have learned may be applicable not just to MOOCs but to hybrid courses and even in-person classes. For example, Grossman is now interested in incorporating peer review into his “residential” course, assuming he can figure out the necessary infrastructure. He also has begun to think differently about the structure of his regular courses. In the MOOC, he released a week’s worth of material at one time to meet the competing time demands of many participants.  But now he thinks his regular UW students might benefit from that. He also thinks that, ideally, the residential class would meet for 90 minutes Monday mornings and again for 90 minutes that evening, meet with the teaching assistant on Tuesdays, with students beginning work on their own on Wednesdays.

“Courses are currently scheduled the way they are … because that’s the way they have always been scheduled,” the report notes.

When asked what one recommendation these teachers would make to anyone interested in teaching a MOOC, the answer was nearly unanimous: “Enroll in a MOOC first to understand the student experience.” For those with less time, Grossman provides a video introduction to MOOCs.