My First MOOC

I made the decision to MOOC my course over summer-break as I regularly update material at that time and the prospect of crowd sourcing it struck me as a grand experiment. 

I was shocked. Over 10,000 visitors had found the site a day and a half after launch and over 30,000 enrolled by course’s end.

MOOCing a pre-existing online course didn’t strike me as a paradigm-shift in the Kuhnian sense. The topic is educational technology, my field of interest, consulting and research. Moreover, each generation of incoming students is more tech-savvy than the last, and most have taken at least one online class. Online offerings have gone from being an option to an expectation for today’s students.

Dr. Cole at Learn dot EDU

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The course evolved with the launch of a laptop requirement in 2005 and the availability of ubiquitous wireless network access shortly thereafter. My transition from teaching onsite, to blended, to entirely online happened at a comfortable pace over the next five years. I’d already embedded the standard repertoire of asynchronous discussion forums, graphics, relevant hyperlinks, ebooks, video snippets, narrated PowerPoints, wikis and applets in the learning management system used for the course. More recently, I’d added synchronous video conferencing, social bookmarking and even a Twitter backchannel requirement–the latter as measure of class participation–to raise the level of engagement.

From my perspective, MOOCs are a natural extension of an open learning movement that’s been underway for well over a century. The Open University, for example, has educated millions online. If you Google the words “World’s Largest Universities” the numbers that come up are constituted by a majority educated via non-traditional means. The difference is that MOOCs have lots more students per class, are free of charge, generally not graded, and usually not credit bearing.

Like all MOOC offerings, my experimental course is offered at no charge for auditors, with no barriers to entry. Auditors are free advertisers. I’ve never understood why universities charge them or let empty seats lay fallow. In the MOOC realm, they’re often referred to as “lurkers”–a term which was first used to refer to non-participants in the early days of online discussion forums. In traditional ‘brick and mortar’ classrooms such attendees either disappear after two weeks, or stick it out, end up being the best students, and ultimately register to pay for an official account on their transcript.

Being a pilot exercise, I decided to try ‘flipping’ the tuition payment and charge only a few hundred dollars to those needing credit and a grade at the end of the course. This approach is akin to standard practice in academic publishing, where you’re lucky to get an advance and only the best books or those that sell of their own volition actually generate residuals. The agenda for professors seeking promotion and junior faculty in pursuit of the tenure grail is to publish or perish. We’re not incentivized by profit.

While my focus is more on content syndication and less on submission aggregation, many students also desire feedback and affordable credentialing. They can get a professor’s book at a library for free or online for far less than the cost of a typical class. MOOCs, however, are commodifying education and disrupting our market much as the advent of ebooks changed publishing. The model I’m experimenting with offers response mechanisms and credit at sub-community college prices.

Given the high enrollment numbers and traditionally low completion percentages, monetizing MOOCs should work quite well if one thinks about the marketing model in a different way. By head-count (and not percentages), the actual number of completers is staggering. Students are naturally vetted by quality standards and can only apply for a grade upon completing the work. They pay for credit, not the content. As John Thompson once said of his teams, “We don’t have starters–only finishers.” Anant Agarwal of edX refers to this as “the inverted funnel.”

Considering the controversy over grading large numbers of anonymous students in a MOOC, the only method of summative assessment that makes sense is a final iPortfolio requirement. ETS has done something like this for years. I once took part in team grading 70,000+ blue books in one week for the written part of the AP Computer Science exam. With a good rubric, grading can be outsourced to a cadre of virtual teaching assistants. Daphne Koller’s Coursera data indicates a high correlation between expert and peer graders, so crowd sourcing formative assessments of unit-level deliverables actually works quiet well.

The iPortfolio contains artifacts of project work, written reflections based on readings, a library of social bookmarks that complement the material covered in class, and a log of tweets to both the instructor and between students over the duration of the course. The latter offers a parallel metacognitive narrative perspective of their engagement.

It’s hard to fake a dissertation defense in the traditional approaches of academe, so requiring a culminating interaction of that sort to justify a grade seems rational. An iPortfolio review is conducted via two-way video conference as a gate-keeper exercise. Students who may be inclined to cheat are less-likely to knowing they’ll be confronted at the end as a matter of course. I suppose anyone who manages to pull the wool over our eyes and convince someone else to do the work has transferable skills and might consider running for public office.

Transitioning my class into a MOOC entailed more effort than anticipated because I naively assumed that an online course shell designed for a small audience would scale. I’m still at it. Far more eyeballs catch your mistakes, or misunderstand your instructions. You should also utilize as many open source resources and free software as possible so you can reference a common software interface that’s platform agnostic. The biggest time-sink was redoing videos at a higher resolution and putting them up on YouTube, which to my surprise has become a significant source of students.

I’m in the creation phase, and the hungriest students are pushing me to stay ahead. A second iteration of the course would entail less work as I’d be in maintenance mode with far more time for online interactions. I also needed a crash course on the hardware and network requirements needed for a MOOC. These exceed the requirements for the typical online course. Put on your propeller caps and allow for a brief technical digression…

You’ll need a “load-balanced server array” on a high speed trunk-line of the Internet to handle the increased traffic. If you can’t afford Amazon Web Services, ask the provisioner of your school’s hosting services if they’d consider sponsoring the site. Our provider jumped at the chance to enter this burgeoning market with the promise of vastly increased exposure and business at no charge to us. Professors make or break textbook publishers by virtue of their adoptions. So it goes with hosting providers. We are their conduit to the student market.

Anybody can obtain a 15 gigabyte web-accessible Google Drive at no cost. So, using Google repositories for both course content and student work makes sense. The iPortfolios also contain links to work stored on the students’ drives, not the professors’, which conforms with the ownership principle in modern constructionist pedagogy, i.e. students care most about content that they choose, create and possess.

You should also test your content in a variety of browsers along with Android and iOS (Apple) mobile devices. Students have reported making headway on their assignments from the back of a bus, trains, delis, coffee houses, and parks. One texted from church that a lecturette video was her “salvation” in the midst of an apparently onerous sermon. The moral of the story is that everything in the MOOC has to work at any time, pace, or place.

You should also obtain a virtual Google Voice number and attach it to a phone dedicated exclusively to the course. Mine rings on a dedicated “VoIP” phone next to my desk (Staples carries a good selection). Heed this advice or the bill for your cell or land-line will go through the roof. I’m also using a digitizer tablet I picked-up at Best Buy for less than the cost of a book. This in turn allows me to doodle on screen for less than the cost of an interactive whiteboard and is portable. You’ll also need a headset with a noise cancelling microphone or risk generating more feedback than Roger Daltrey at a Who concert.

I’m rediscovering that the best organization for a course is based on action words, like Watch, Read, Reflect, Bookmark and Tweet. Everything on the site gives direction and invokes a response. Most students participate on schedule, but self-pacers require affordances that enable them to go it alone. Like Coursera, the MOOC’s reprise would be scheduled, but I’d also leave it open like a Udacity free flow course to accommodate casual students. The semester as a unit of measure may be obsolete.

Robbie McClintock coined the term “study support environments” which seems more apropos of the independent learner’s utilization of MOOCs. Contrary to the popular perception that MOOCs are for dilatants, I’m finding that the top 10% of participants are as good as or better than those in the traditional version of the course.

The best students are autodidactic, and Tier 1 institutions have always sought to admit people from that strata. Aren’t they also the demographic most sought by employers? When I look out at graduation each year, I see lots of average students. If average means 75% mastery, does that mean half didn’t retain 25% or more of what I had to say? That 25% was probably the most important content, but at least they’re getting credit for time served. Most will never find employment in their fields of study and graduate with insurmountable debt. Perhaps we, the professoriate, have lied to them so long that we’ve lost sight we’re lying to ourselves. Woody Allen once said, “Ninety-nine percent of life is showing up.” I’m not finding this to be the case with MOOC students. Most are outside brick and mortar institutions and by site metrics are watching, listening, reading and writing more than students at the average residential four-year, “resort-style” campus.

I’ve read of the concerns expressed by professors at San Jose State University regarding forced use of Michael Sandel’s MOOC on justice at their institution. Some observations and assurances are in order. While I detected a bit of a neo-Luddite knee-jerk response in their complaint, it’s true that administrators are inclined to reduce the cost of instructional delivery by whatever means possible. The fact is, the transition to multi-modal forms of delivery, including MOOCs, will require investment in a cadre of instructional designers, technical staff, trainers, assessors, etc, just to be in the game. Having taken Sandel’s course, I’d say if you want to compete with guys like that from brand name institutions, put out stuff of the same caliber. Students vote with their feet.

Moreover, I think the experience of onsite lectures, especially those conducted in large auditoriums, is over-rated. Compare that to a high definition multi-point video conference like a Google Hangout or TwitCast, where everyone has a front row seat. There are no wall flowers. No jocks dozing off at the back. No need to hire a baby-sitter after a full-day at work and drive 50 miles in blizzard conditions on a moonless night for the privilege of sitting through a two hour class followed by an exhausting drive home. At least if you’re having a bad hair day, you can opt out of being seen by turning off your webcam.

Let me recommend, parenthetically, the use of fold-out Shoji screens as a backdrop, lest your mother-in-law make a cameo appearance in curlers and a bathrobe wielding a laundry basket during class. Kidding aside, there are real opportunities for face time. Students are interacting with each other in spontaneously formed groups, and with me at Meetups. Based on incidental anecdotal experience, I’m happy to report that the gestalt experience is higher at a coffeehouse or a MOOC than in the typical university seminar room.

I’m recording some of those sessions with student consent, like Dr. Chuck. The sense of presence seems transferable, even on tape, and a couple of studies bolster that finding. Advocates of the flexible learning model take it a step further as there is no differentiation between live, remote and time-shifted participation. Perhaps that’s the secret sauce needed to spice-up my MOOC.

According to a study by Harvard and the Asian Development Bank, by 2010, 6.7% of the world’s population had college degrees, and the trend line was positive. I’m skeptical of that number, but if it’s true, then over 90% of the education marketspace is untapped. I believe we can reach 10 times as many students by offering a quality education that’s convenient and affordable via MOOCs. Given the diseconomies of scale, the implication is that we can and ought to be charging 1/10th the current cost. To quote Jacob Gutnicki, an educational technologist with the New York City Board of Education, “What the world needs now is credentialing iVy-caliber courses at iPad-Mini prices.”

Therein lies the road block to implementing MOOCs at many institutions. The notion of giving away their stock in trade seems antithetical. By flipping tuition payments, however, licensing content as edX has done, or offering job placement in exchange for a finder’s fee, colleges can still make a buck.

I also see MOOCs as a way of sustaining under-performing majors. Just put them out on the web and let volume make up for the paucity of students willing to pay full-freight. I’d love to do a master’s in religion but can’t justify shelling out the $60,000 needed to do it at my school of choice. At the $300 price-point per course, a $3,000 master’s becomes tenable.

Another simple solution to monetize your MOOC is to call it something else. Use another institutional label to brand your “other” offerings, or partner with a MOOC platform vendor as Georgia Tech has opted to do with Udacity and AT&T. Paying professors an advance to develop content with the promise of royalties also makes sense. Even a small percentage per head adds up to a lot when you’ve got thousands of students online. It’s also a win-win for virtual teaching assistants (TAs). At $50 per assessment they can make $250 a day and far more over the life of the course than they’d ever make in academic purgatory as an adjunct instructor.

For me, the intrinsic rewards far outweigh the promise of financial gain. I’ve gone from being skeptical that anyone would value what I have to say, to overjoyed at the deluge of conversations with people from around the world, and fascinated with the perspectives they have to contribute. I’d argue that there is certainly a place on campus for clinical subjects and basic research. Most professors, however, are knowledge consumers, not producers. They disseminate for a living and MOOCs are just another form of courseware that can be used to supplement traditional delivery.

I contend that the majority of students in the liberal arts or soft-skills areas would be adequately, if not better served by MOOCs. The decline in enrollments at Tier 2 and 3 schools is a sign that unless we bring education to them, they’re going to stop coming to us. The future is bright, however, for the advent of this technology marks a turning-point in education. There will be plenty of work for professors, including our colleagues in California, if they’re willing and able to adapt.

To me, there’s no longer a differentiation between onsite, blended, online, and MOOCs.

It’s just teaching.

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