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Experiments in Open Education and Active Learning: A Report from the Celebration of Teaching

Posted by on Tuesday, May 21, 2013 in News.

by Derek Bruff, CFT Director, and Sarah Collier, 2013 Teaching Certificate Recipient and 2012-13 SoTL Scholar

Colleges and universities across North America focus a significant amount of attention on the student-to-instructor ratios in their classrooms, often touting low ratios as reasons to enroll. In recent months, however, it has been fashionable to announce incredibly high student-to-instructor ratios, as much as 100,000:1, thanks to the advent of massive open online courses, or MOOCs. What can one instructor do to foster learning in a course with tens of thousands of students? That was just one of the questions addressed by panelists David Owens and Doug Fisher during a session titled “Open Education: New Students, New Communities, New Roles for Faculty” at the CFT’s Celebration in Teaching on Friday, May 3rd.

David Owens, Professor of the Practice of Management and Innovation, described his experience as the instructor of one of Vanderbilt’s first MOOCs, “Leading Strategic Innovation in Organizations,” the first MOOC on the Coursera platform to successfully implement course-long team projects.  With 50,000 students, he couldn’t interact with each of them individually.  He could, however, try to foster an online environment where peer-to-peer learning takes place.  Weekly discussion questions helped to shape the conversations on the course’s discussion forums, and peer-graded assignments provided a structure for students to provide feedback on each other’s work.  Some of his students opted for his “studio mastery” track, which involved course-long team projects.  See, for instance, the following final presentation from a team that tackled a local bicycle parking problem:

Or this team’s project, which involved motivating co-workers to keep their office kitchen cleaner:

Or this team, consisting of members in South Africa, Bolivia, Florida, and Mexico, whose project, “Labels for Little Old Ladies,” addressed a challenge faced by a non-profit using senior adult volunteers:

David was impressed at the creativity and effort shown by the students in his MOOC.  What motivated these students to collaborate with others around the world to learn and solve problems together?  David reflected on his own experiences as a learner.  In his youth, when he wanted to learn about something, he was fortunate to have ready access to library books and encyclopedias.  More recently, he relied on free online videos to teach himself some of the technical skills he used to prepare the lecture videos for his course. Might a MOOC provide a similar learning opportunity for self-motivated students who lack access to more traditional resources? And what can we learn about student motivation and engagement in the MOOC context that might inform our on-campus teaching?  We’re just beginning to see answers to these questions as part of Vanderbilt’s Coursera initiative.

Doug Fisher, Associate Professor of Computer Science & Computer Engineering, hasn’t taught a MOOC, but he has used open educational resources in his graduate and undergraduate courses here at Vanderbilt. Since the spring 2012 semester, Doug has incorporated into his on-campus courses lecture videos created by faculty at other universities. He draws on “nuts and bolts” lectures from MOOCs and video sharing sites such as YouTube to teach his students fundamental ideas and techniques in computer science.  Students watch these videos outside of class, allowing Doug to spend more class time helping students apply these concepts and techniques to interesting problems.  Doug recommended looking for videos on topics with which students frequently struggle, and he noted that online lecture videos often provide better explanations of these topics than he could provide at the front of his classroom.

Doug was initially worried what his students would think of his “outsourcing” his lectures in this fashion.  However, he reported that his ratings on end-of-semester course evaluations have improved, with the means for overall instructor and course ratings going up and standard deviations for those scores going down.  Students seem to appreciate the ability to watch and re-watch lecture videos outside of class, as well as the more interactive, discussion-oriented class sessions Doug is now able to facilitate. Doug encouraged other instructors to consider ways they might integrate open educational resources into their instruction as part of “flipped classroom” models or other design structures.

Seeing the value in these kinds of videos, Doug has experimented with making his own lecture videos and sharing them on his YouTube channel.  Here’s an example:

Doug’s two videos on B+ trees apparently filled a need among students taking courses (perhaps MOOCs) elsewhere, as they have received over 1,500 views each in recent weeks.  Describing his contributions to the computer science education community, Doug echoed his remarks from a blog post of his last fall:

I have long regarded scholarship as the noblest aspect of academia– the scholar’s tenacity in identifying, acknowledging, addressing and building on the intellectual contributions of others. I have not experienced the same profound sense of community among my colleagues in the education realm, however – I have largely been a lone wolf. Now there has been a profound shift in my mindset – I use and build on the educational production of others; I do it openly on public sites, of which I am proud rather than embarrassed; I contribute back, and my students see and learn from this practice of scholarly appreciation, and are even encouraged to contribute to it through their own content creation and sharing. This opportunity for “scholarship” in educational practice is what, as an educator and scholar, I find most exciting about this nascent and exploding online education movement.

For more on these topics, see the CFT’s teaching guide on MOOCs.


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