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A Conversation about Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)

Posted by on Friday, March 1, 2013 in News.

by Derek Bruff, CFT Director

Last Thursday, February 21st, the Center for Teaching and the Library hosted “Teaching to Thousands: A Conversation about Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs),” an event featuring faculty panelists Douglas Schmidt (Computer Science) and Jamie Pope (Nursing). Doug and Jamie are participating in Vanderbilt’s Coursera pilot, each offering a MOOC on the Coursera platform this fall: Doug’s “Pattern-Oriented Software Architectures for Concurrent and Networked Software” and Jamie’s “Nutrition, Health, and Lifestyle: Issues and Insights.” During the event, Doug and Jamie shared what they have learned about teaching MOOCs as they have prepared their courses, and they answered questions about their experiences from the audience.

Below you’ll find video of Doug and Jamie’s opening remarks, as well as my summary of those remarks and the discussion that followed. For more on MOOCs and Vanderbilt’s experiments in this area, see the CFT’s teaching guide on MOOCs.


Some Context

I opened the event by saying a bit about Vanderbilt’s Coursera pilot, which was announced back in September. Vanderbilt is launching five courses on the Coursera platform between now and July of this year, including Doug and Jamie’s courses. The Center for Teaching has been involved by providing course design support, organizing educational research projects, and helping the campus community learn more about this emerging educational context.

The term MOOC is used in a variety of ways in the higher education press, so I attempted to clarify its definition for those present last week. MOOCs are courses, in that each focuses on a coherent body of knowledge, has a defined start and stop date, and involves a learning community of students and instructors who move together through the learning experience over time. MOOCs are online, with the primary learning experiences occurring on websites and other digital platforms. Some MOOCs are more open than others, but they generally invite anyone with an Internet connection to participate–there’s no admissions or selection process. And because MOOCs are open and online, they can be massive, enrolling tens of thousands of students. Indeed, Vanderbilt’s five MOOCs have enrolled over 150,000 students among them at this point.

Doug Schmidt, Computer Science

Doug Schmidt described some of the ingredients in his upcoming MOOC, “Pattern-Oriented Software Architectures for Concurrent and Networked Software,” which is based on a few courses he has taught and books he has authored. A key ingredient is the set of online lecture videos he and the Coursera pilot tech team have created over the last two months. Each of the ten weeks of Doug’s course features about two hours of lecture videos, broken into 10-to-15-minute “chunks,” resulting in about 80 individual videos and over 1,200 slides used across those videos. Doug shared a few lessons learned about this production process:

  • With students coming to the course from a much wider variety of backgrounds than is typical in an on-campus course, it is important to provide supplemental material to help students with less experience in the field get up to speed.
  • Filming a lecture video used by thousands of students as their primary exposure to the course content requires more preparation, a tighter script, and better slides than is typical for an on-campus lecture.
  • Conveying one’s personality exclusively through video is challenging, too. It’s important to smile occasionally!

Doug also described some of the potential benefits to Vanderbilt from our experiments with MOOCs. Many of Vanderbilt’s Coursera courses will feature local “meetups” of enrolled students, providing opportunities for lifelong learning for Vanderbilt faculty, staff, and students and our Nashville neighbors. Doug is planning to “flip” his on-campus courses this fall, using many of the lecture videos he has created for his MOOC to shift content delivery outside of class time, making more time available in class for interaction and feedback. He also sees potential in MOOCs to better connect with Vanderbilt alumni and involve them in the intellectual life of the university, and to reach out to potential undergraduate and graduate students around the world and interest them in the research happening here on campus.

Doug concluded his remarks with a few words of caution, pointing toward technical challenges in using educational technologies, financial and credentialing challenges posed by MOOCs and other open educational models, and the need for universities like Vanderbilt to clarify the value of a college education in this rapidly changing higher ed landscape. Doug is clearly excited by Vanderbilt’s experiment in this area, and he argued that we are in a good position to be a leader in the use of emerging technologies in the coming years.

Jamie Pope, Nursing

Jamie Pope talked about the origin of her MOOC, “Nutrition, Health, and Lifestyle: Issues and Insights,” the syllabus for which she put together over a couple of very busy days back in September. Instead of adapting one of her existing courses to the Coursera platform, she focused on the questions about nutrition that her on-campus students routinely ask her, and crafted a standalone course around these topics. Her course will run for seven weeks, with each week devoted to a topic such as food labeling, nutrition and fitness, and food allergies.

Just as Doug did, Jamie pointed to the diversity of the students in a MOOC as particular challenge in planning her course. She is expecting students who know very little about nutrition but want to be more informed consumers, as well as her own nutritionist peers interested in hearing her perspectives on particular topics. Jamie also noted that the students in her MOOC will come from all around the world, requiring her to internationalize her content in several ways that will enhance her on-campus courses, too.

Designing an online course requires attention to learning goals, content delivery (video lectures in this case), student learning activities, and assessments of student learning. Jamie shared the planning document she used for her course, which addresses each of these components for each week / topic of the course. The bird’s-eye view of the course allowed her to align these various components of the course, to map activities and assessments from her on-campus courses to this new online course, and to start thinking creatively about the various bits and pieces of the online course.

Although most of Jamie’s lecture videos feature her, she has filmed a few segments that feature interesting guest speakers, including a photographer who has documented food and nutrition issues around the world, an expert in sports nutrition from another university, and local vegan students discussing plant-based nutrition. Just as Doug plans to use his videos to enhance his on-campus courses, Jamie plans on using these recorded segments in future courses here at Vanderbilt.


During the Q&A at last week’s event, a number of other aspects of teaching a MOOC were raised.

  • The Coursera faculty are planning to use various assessment mechanisms available on the platform, including “pop-up” multiple-choice questions embedded in lecture videos, automatically graded weekly quizzes, and peer-graded assignments. Doug Schmidt noted that students in the MOOC won’t receive the same quality of feedback he gives to students in his on-campus courses, but that with well-structured peer-grading assignments we can get “within striking distance” of instructor feedback.
  • Outside of peer-graded assignments, both faculty intend to invite their MOOC students to contribute in meaningful ways to their learning communities. Doug spoke of “crowdsourcing” future offerings of the course through student-generated content applying ideas from the course to different programming languages. And Jamie talked about using the Coursera discussion forums to invite students to share their perspectives and experiences with nutrition as one way to internationalize her course.
  • It was noted that moves to offer forms of credit for MOOCs have occurred faster than most involved in these experiments predicted. Several suggestions were made regarding ways students might use the Statements of Accomplishment provided to those who complete Coursera MOOCs. A student might work through a MOOC to satisfy prerequisites for a course he wants to take. Another student might be able to obtain continuing medical education credits for completing a MOOC. (There is another nutrition course on the Coursera platform that offers such credits.) Students at high schools not offering particular Advanced Placement (AP) courses might take MOOCs as substitutes.
  • When asked what learning looks like in a MOOC, the panelists described expected outcomes they have for their students. Jamie said she wants her students to be better consumers and to be more able to evaluate claims about food they see in the news. Doug said that he hopes his students will use pattern-oriented approaches to problem solving in their careers, and that they will be better able to articulate to those outside his discipline what it is that computer scientists do.
  • At one point, Doug expanded on his plans for his class this fall using his MOOC materials. He noted that enrollments in computer science programs are increasing, and faculty are finding it hard to keep up with that demand. He is considering co-teaching a course next year with an advanced graduate student, with Doug providing online lecture videos and supervision of the course and the graduate student providing support and feedback to the students. He argued that this might be a way to stretch the time of busy faculty members.
  • A student in the audience asked an important follow-up question: Once a professor’s lectures are available online, what’s the motivation to come to class? Doug discussed class participation grades as one way to respond to this question. I added to this by saying that in the “flipped” classroom model, an instructor must think very differently about how class time is used. The 150 minutes one has each week with one’s students is precious time. What are effective ways to use that class time when content delivery is moved outside of that time? See the CFT’s new flipped classroom teaching guide for some answers to this question.
  • A couple of intellectual property issues were raised relevant to MOOCs. Since these courses are open to the world, faculty have to be more careful about copyright than they do in settings where educational fair use policies apply. Another difference: The video lectures created for Vanderbilt’s MOOCs are co-owned by Vanderbilt and the faculty member because of the higher levels of tech support provided for this initiative. (Faculty own the course materials they create for more traditional Vanderbilt courses.)

If you’ve made it this far in the blog post and are interested in hearing even more about MOOCs, I’ll point you again to the CFT’s teaching guide on MOOCs. And stay tuned to our blog for more posts from the CFT staff about Vanderbilt’s experiments with MOOCs.

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