A Hands-On Perspective of Teaching MOOCs

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Some higher-ed technology managers are skeptical about massive, open, online courses (MOOCs) as an opportunity to drive revenue and educate students. But for now, one thing is clear: Enough faculty are teaching MOOCs that tech managers need to support them.

Margaret Soltan knows a thing or two about MOOCs. She was the first George Washington University professor to teach a MOOC and is a frequent speaker at conferences about the future of education. We recently interviewed her about how MOOCs differ from the traditional classroom environment and what that difference means for faculty and technology managers.

AVT: What are the top logistical, technological or pedagogical things that faculty can expect to be different between a traditional classroom and a MOOC environment? For example, with so many students, how can a professor communicate effectively with them, especially those who are behind?

MS: The main thing for me is that you're speaking to the ether; or as Gertrude Stein would put it, there's no there there. When you teach traditionally, you're standing twice a week for over an hour in front of the same 20 people. You get to know them, their names, their quirks, their interests. You can read their faces to get a sense of how you're doing. (I don't allow laptops in my classrooms.) Who knows who your audience is for a MOOC?

As the months have passed, I've gathered that my audience is people all over the world with an interest in poetry. It's also clear that various secondary school classes, for example, have been assigned my lectures.

But the main difference, I think, is simply this leap-into-the-invisible business.

The same thing can be kind of wonderful, however. I love the fact that my image and my ideas are going out to all sorts of people who are taking what I say in all sorts of ways. It's kind of exciting, and I like the feeling that I'm doing a good deed, reaching people who might have trouble getting a conventional college education.

Pedagogically, this unknown-audience thing means that in formulating the MOOC course you have to be as it were self-driven. You're not tailoring something to 20-something American undergraduates only. So knowing where to pitch your course now has to do with imagining a generally educated global audience of interested spectators.

Since my MOOC is comment enabled, I have over time gotten a sense of who some of my more active students are, and indeed I've added lectures with some of their comments and requests in mind, so there is that level of interactivity. But my MOOC is neither graded nor credit-bearing, so my exchanges with students are purely intellectual. (Sometimes students send me their poems, and I critique them.)

AVT: How can campus IT staff help faculty get comfortable with those differences?

MS: I think the main thing IT can do on campus is assign a tech-savvy student to each professor: someone who can set up the camera and microphone, someone who is producing the thing, someone the professor can call or email with quick questions that need quick answers.

In my own case, Udemy sent me the microphone and other stuff, and my tech-savvy sister simply produced the thing for me at my house. Each weekend we'd meet and I'd do a couple of lectures. So you need someone pretty close by and pretty available to handle the uploading, etc.

AVT: For faculty who have never taught online, are MOOCs a good way to prepare for teaching a standard (graded, credits, fees) course online? Or is it the other way around?

MS: I think MOOCs – at least as I've known them – are very different from standard online courses. You have far more independence in most cases because money, grades, credit, all that stuff isn't necessarily there.

A lot of standard online university courses these days are really a team thing: A for-profit vendor is handling courses for a school, and as a professor you're simply part of a rather large team of "facilitators." Speaking personally, this model has zero appeal to me. I'm a professor, not a facilitator.

MOOCs tend to be personal, as much about the professor's personality as her expertise. Standard online [course] feature what I call air traffic controllers: faceless nameless drudges moving data around. I know this description will be met with howls of protest, but this is my impression for what it's worth, and it's shared with other professors.


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