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Wrapping a MOOC: CFT Study Published in the Journal of Online Learning and Teaching (JOLT)

Posted by on Monday, September 30, 2013 in News.

by Derek Bruff, CFT Director

Last fall, Vanderbilt computer science professor Doug Fisher “flipped” his graduate-level course on machine learning. Instead of having his students read their textbook before class or watch lecture videos that he created, as is typical for a “flipped” classroom, Doug asked his students to prepare for class by taking another professor’s course, a massive open online course (MOOC) offered by Stanford computer science professor Andrew Ng on the Coursera platform. Doug’s students watched Professor Ng’s lecture videos and completed quizzes and other assignments within the MOOC, then came to class to discuss that material with Doug along with additional readings that went beyond the MOOC material. When Andrew Ng’s course ended, Doug’s students spent the remaining weeks of the semester engaged in projects that required them to apply what they had learned throughout the course.

Doug refers to this course structure as “wrapping” a course around a MOOC, borrowing a term from the machine learning domain, where one algorithm can be “wrapped” around another to leverage strengths of both algorithms. Wrapping a MOOC offers one possible vision for the future of MOOCs in higher education, not as replacements for existing courses but as enhancements. To explore this vision, Doug partnered with the Center for Teaching to investigate the student learning experience in his machine learning course. The results of that investigation were published in the Journal of Online Learning and Teaching (JOLT) earlier this month in an article titled “Wrapping a MOOC: Student Perceptions of an Experiment in Blended Learning,” authored by me, Doug, CFT graduate assistant Kathryn McEwen, and teaching and learning doctoral student Blaine Smith. Our key findings were as follows:

  • Students appreciated the MOOC’s ability to support structured, self-paced learning. Students often watched the short (10-to-15-minute) lecture videos at double speed with the captions turned on, at times that fit the students’ schedules. Students described Andrew Ng as a highly effective lecturer, which added to the value of the lecture videos.
  • Students did not actively participate in the discussion forums provided by the MOOC, choosing instead to use each other and Professor Fisher as resources when they needed help with the material. Occasionally, a student with a specific question would check to see if that question had already been asked and answered in the forums. It often was, and so the forums were a study resource for the students even if they didn’t post to the forums themselves.
  • Doug’s students appreciated the in-class active learning facilitated by the “flipped” approach. By shifting explanatory lectures outside of class, class time was made available for more discussion, interaction, and application of that material. The students described Doug’s role as “facilitator,” guiding class discussions and making sure that every student understood the material.
  • The biggest challenge identified by the students was a misalignment between the MOOC material and the additional readings Doug provided. These readings took the students beyond the introductory ideas presented in the MOOC, focusing on recent and seminar research in the field. The readings weren’t designed for novices in the field, as Andrew Ng’s lecture videos were, and they required “a different kind of learning,” as one student put it. Nor did the readings always build on the week’s MOOC content in clear ways.

In the paper, we refer to the latter issue as a “coupling” problem, again borrowing a term from the machine learning domain. Wrapping a course around a stand-alone MOOC, taken as a coherent whole, poses a design challenge, particularly when the “wrapped” material is more advanced than the MOOC material but encountered concurrently with the introductory material. We argue that “flipping” a course using a MOOC is more difficult than doing so with a textbook, since textbooks are often designed to be “remixed” by instructors who skip sections and take other sections out of order. Given his experience with this “wrapper” approach, Doug has more recently been selecting pre-class content for his students from a variety of sources, including but not limited to a single MOOC.

For more on our study, see our paper, available for free on the JOLT website. See also the CFT’s teaching guides on MOOCs and the flipped classroom and the rest of JOLT’s special issue on MOOCs. Doug Fisher was appointed director of Vanderbilt’s new Institute for Digital Learning this summer, where he leverages experiences like this “wrapped” course to help Vanderbilt experiment in the area of educational technologies. Doug is hosting a teaching visit for the CFT on Thursday, October 17th, and Vanderbilt faculty are invited to see his current flipped classroom approach in action.

In related news, the CFT launched the Blended and Online Learning Design (BOLD) Fellows program this fall, to support more experiments in online teaching. We have four faculty-grad student teams currently building online learning modules. Look for reports on their experiences later in the academic year, along with a call for applications for next year’s cohort.

Image: “Up,” Joe W., Flickr (CC)

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