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Vanderbilt’s Newest Digital Learning Initiative

Posted by on Wednesday, September 19, 2012 in News.

By Derek Bruff, CFT Director

This morning Vanderbilt announced a new partnership with the digital learning consortium Coursera.  Coursera is an online platform for open-access, non-credit classes, available at no cost to participants.  Such courses have been dubbed “MOOCs,” or massive open online courses, and Vanderbilt faculty will offer five such courses via Coursera this spring, in the fields of computer science, nursing, English, management, and bioinformatics.  See the Vanderbilt press release for more information on the partnership, as well as thoughts on this initiative from Chancellor Zeppos.

The term “MOOC” dates back to 2008, when George Siemens and Stephen Downes offered a course called “Connectivism and Connective Knowledge” through the University of Manitoba to over two thousand students around the world.  That course, and subsequent “connectivist” MOOCs, emphasized peer-to-peer learning across multiple platforms, including course management systems, blogs, video chat, and so on.  More recent MOOCs, such as those offered by Coursera, utilize instructor-created videos, discussion forums, and other tools embedded in a single platform, although students in some of these MOOCs have collaborated outside those platforms in interesting ways.  All MOOCs are characterized by their openness, enabling anyone across the world with an Internet connection to participate.  As a result, most MOOCs have thousands, sometimes tens of thousands of participants.

Let that sink in for a moment.  Maybe your class has 50 students in it.  Perhaps you’ve taught one of the larger courses on campus with 200 students in a section.  Can you imagine teaching a class with 20,000 students? You can’t know all their names, much less their individual backgrounds and reasons for taking your course.  You can’t have them all assemble online at the same time since they’re scattered throughout a dozen different time zones.  And you can’t give each student personal feedback on his or her learning, on the student’s attempts to put what you’re teaching into practice.

An online course with potentially tens of thousands of students is a very different teaching environment than face-to-face courses or even “traditional” online courses.  Teaching strategies practiced in other teaching contexts won’t necessarily translate well to this context. Indeed, the sets of choices regarding learning objectives, content presentation, assessment, and instructor-to-student and student-to-student interaction are still being developed in this emergent teaching environment.

This brings me to the three primary reasons that the Center for Teaching is involved in Vanderbilt’s new Coursera partnership:

  1. To help Vanderbilt’s Coursera faculty explore their options for teaching in this new setting,
  2. To investigate what kinds of learning can happen on this scale and what teaching choices help facilitate that learning, and
  3. To determine how massive open online courses and related technologies might enhance teaching and learning here on Vanderbilt’s campus.

I’ll address these reasons in order.

Supporting Coursera Faculty: The CFT offers teaching consultation services to all Vanderbilt instructors, faculty and graduate student, online and face-to-face.  Although the novelty of the Coursera platform means that any consultations we offer to Vanderbilt’s Coursera faculty will take more preparation than our usual consultations, such consultations fit squarely within the CFT’s services to the Vanderbilt teaching community.  See our new teaching guide on MOOCs for information on CFT support for Coursera faculty as well as an overview of common (and uncommon) teaching practices used in recent Coursera courses.  And please note that we’re prepared to extend the same kind of support to any Vanderbilt faculty member teaching MOOCs, regardless of platform.

Investigating Teaching and Learning in MOOCs: The MOOC concept raises several interesting questions about teaching and learning:

  • Video lectures and automatically graded quizzes have the potential to help students achieve some learning objectives, but can MOOCs foster the kinds of critical thinking and analytical skills we value in more traditional settings?
  • We know that learning requires experimentation with new skills and ideas and, critically, feedback on those experiments, but how might students receive such feedback in a course of thousands?
  • Peer-to-peer learning can be very effective in traditional instructional settings, but how effective can peer learning be in discussion forums and other venues open to the entire world?
  • How might faculty teaching MOOCs best facilitate massive online learning communities and plan learning activities appropriate to this teaching context?

These are open questions, and we’re interested in working towards answers with our counterparts at other institutions experimenting with MOOCs.

Enhancing On-Campus Learning with Digital Tools: As Vanderbilt explores ways to leverage digital technologies in support of “the dissemination of knowledge through teaching and outreach” (part of its mission), the university remains committed to the “unique on-campus experience” that Chancellor Zeppos mentions in today’s press release.  How might MOOCs enhance that on-campus experience?

  • The lecture videos and other online content generated by MOOCs might help Vanderbilt instructors “flip” their classrooms, shifting the first exposure students receive to content via lecture to pre-class activities and thus freeing class time for more active learning exercises.
  • The local learning communities we create in our face-to-face classes might interact with and be informed by the global learning communities created through MOOCs.
  • Some of the technologies designed to serve thousands of online students might be useful to Vanderbilt instructors interested in incorporating digital tools in their on-campus courses.

Again, this is new territory, but territory we’re eager to explore with interested Vanderbilt colleagues.

One opportunity for conversation about teaching and learning in MOOCs will occur October 2nd, when Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller visits campus as part of the John R. and Donna S. Hall Engineering Lecture Series.  Koller is the Rajeev Motwani Professor in Computer Science at Stanford University, and will deliver a talk titled “The Online Revolution: Education for Everyone” at 4:10 p.m. in Wilson Hall 103.

Keep an eye on the CFT blog for other opportunities for conversations about MOOCs, including chances to hear from Vanderbilt’s Coursera faculty about their experiences designing and implementing courses on this platform.  We’ll also feature blogs posts in the coming weeks by CFT staff members exploring various aspects of teaching and learning in these digital settings.  My hope is that through these explorations and discussions, we can help shape the creation of more useful and versatile digital platforms for teaching and learning at Vanderbilt.

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