Confessions of a first time MOOC professor

MOOC chatter is everywhere. Depending on the perspective, Massive Open Online Courses are going to radically redefine the landscape of education, put most college professors out of a job, offer the opportunity to learn to hundreds of thousands, create havoc with transfer requirements and course credit, destroy the authentic learning associated with a traditional face-to-face classroom…I’ll stop here because you probably get the idea.

I don’t have a crystal ball so I can’t predict the future of MOOCS except to say that we’re just dipping our toes into the water and we should probably all learn to swim a little. I taught my first MOOC last summer and another this fall. I’m working on a new course for next summer, so I can talk about first hand experience and, maybe that’s the place to start.

Modern Genius MOOC

Modern Genius MOOC

My MOOC, The Modern Genius: Art and Culture in the 19th Century, was offered through Canvas, one of the newer platform providers. It ran for five weeks and attracted a little over 800 students—not many by the Coursera and Udacity standards, but Canvas courses close at 1000 so these were quite respectable numbers.

MOOCs take enormous preparation. Imagine having everything you would need to teach your face-to-face class in perfect shape and uploaded the first day you stepped into the classroom. Because MOOCs run asynchronously, you can’t work on the third or fifth or last week’s lecture/homework assignment/quiz the weekend before.

Launching a MOOC is a collaborative process. Jean-Marie Venturini, the Instructional Designer for Otis, handled the technology issues, organized the “to do” list and was the liaison with Canvas. Kathleen Forrest, the video production manager, meshed my PowerPoint’s with garage band voice-overs to turn them into enhanced podcasts, took care of the final editing, and posted the finished podcasts for the course on YouTube.

Besides online reading and links to educational sites, lecture content was delivered through enhanced podcasts. I already had six enhanced podcasts on YouTube and made an additional eight more — about 150 hours of work. My podcasts are fairly informal and conversational; they include the kind of dialogue and commentary that was successful in my face-to-face classes.

I also created a weekly art gallery using the Google Art Project. I selected and captioned 8-10 works for each week’s lesson and brought in issues or concerns that complemented the video lectures…much like supplementary reading.

Students had options to take a weekly, self-graded objective quiz and to respond to a weekly writing prompt. Although not required, I did comment on all the student responses and made a weekly impromptu video that addressed the most common issues they raised. Yes, this was extra work but I answered briefly, kept the comments focused, and the student response to that was very successful. I made the weekly videos at home; they were unscripted and rarely lasted more than 10 minutes. Again, these were both efforts at more effective student engagement.

My MOOC experience was positive and the evaluations were high. Short of the Internet collapsing and a global population turning its back on high quality, free information, I suspect that MOOCs will continue to expand. The more critical question is how can MOOCs be adapted to art and design curriculum. Right now where MOOCs fit into a college experience–a ‘for credit, show me what you learned experience”—is contested.

Learning is the key term here and it’s one that I’ve avoided using so far. I don’t know what my MOOC students learned; I have no way of assessing that. A self-graded multiple choice quiz and optional writing prompts lacking rubrics is hardly grounds for serious evaluation. They had access to excellent content, opportunity to engage with the material and each other, and feedback on what they wrote. They had to take the initiative to question, to reflect, to do additional research and reading.

Learning is quite different from content delivery. The most successful online courses (I’m thinking here of for credit rather than MOOCs) are built around continuous student/faculty involvement–around exercises, group activities and projects, peer and faculty feedback. I think there is great potential to use MOOCs in tandem with credit classes. One fear factor that MOOCs raise among faculty is being replaced with a Coursera course taught by an Ivy League professor. (Is it a better course just because it’s Harvard? Not necessarily, but…it is Harvard.) I’d argue for hijacking that MOOC.Have your students enroll in the MOOC, use that content, assign it as homework and then flip the classroom into the space for commentary, supplementary instruction, critical thinking activities and authentic and active learning. MOOCs are essentially repositories of information, just like libraries; any professor learns how to use and manipulate those sources.

Like everything else associated with technology, pedagogy, and learning today, MOOCs raise more questions than answers, more opportunities than fixed paths. They are not for everyone (faculty or students) and I don’t think they offer the silver bullet to mass education, but I do think that art and design colleges have to decide how we participate in them and use them to our advantage.

Parme Giuntini
Assistant Chair, Liberal Arts and Sciences

This blog post was adapted from a longer paper, Wrestling with MOOCs: Everything and more that I learned while teaching a MOOC, given at the 2013 NASAD conference.