Dev8ed Workshop: Teaching a MOOC with Coursera

May 29, 2012 by

Dev8ed Workshop: Teaching a MOOC with Coursera

Charles Severance is possibly our only speaker with a tattoo dedicated to education software. In this workshop, he provided a teacher’s perspective on delivering a Massively Open Online Course (MOOC) using Coursera.

He provided a background to the concept of MOOCs, which evolved organically, often as one-off massive courses, often on low level courses rather than hard subjects. This changed in Autumn 2011 when Stanford University put up a junior level Artificial Intelligence course online with no apology for how hard it would be. 120,000 people signed up. Only 18,000 finished it.

A whole series of MOOC systems were spawned following this development, of which Coursera is one. Severance noted that Blackboard have also been experimenting in this area with their Course Sites tool.

Severance’s background is as a researcher in high performance computing, but changed to researching learning environments in 1995, after hearing a clip describing the potential of streaming audio, which inspired him to build an early lecture capture and streaming system. He was ahead of his time.

To explain why, he outlined the caveats, or “massive” issues associated with MOOCs. One big problem that many institutions face is the perception that online education is going to cheapen residential education. Severance noted that Coursera does not make the claim that it is substituting residential education – it is about outreach, not about replicating the classroom experience. Another issue he identified from a teacher’s perspective, is that when you have 100,000 students you have to think through your teaching materials much more thoroughly, as you cannot make the mistakes you might make in a smaller class as a course develops and evolves.

Severance stressed that Coursera is not trying to do learning objectives: the system is designed with the view that if you can learn from this, great; if you can, drop out. It is not trying to replicate the classroom experience. He illustrated this by describing the quiz feature, which you are allowed to take over and over and over again, as the emphasis is about learning, rather than grading students with an exam.

Severance observed that the teacher is not supposed to run the show when delivering a MOOC. Once the course is built, you can’t mentor 20,000 students yourself. For this reason, Coursera features discussion forums for students to self organise into study groups and help themselves. He emphasised that it is very clear that to students that they will not be getting support from teachers, and they will not get graded or receive transfer credit for taking the course online.

Severance concluded by noting that it is really early days, but there are already a number of courses, focussing on humanities and social sciences, including his own courses.

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