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Teaching MOOCs: A Guide for Ph.D.s and TAs


Massive open online courses (MOOCs) are a learning revolution that have the power to impact millions of students around the world. The offering of MOOCs has been compared to the invention of the printing press, opening higher education online to the masses, and it’s clear that this revolution is showing no signs of slowing down. There are hundreds of MOOC courses currently available, and more universities are opening their courses to the MOOC format at a blindingly fast pace. For educators participating in this revolution, there are unique motivations and challenges, as well as great rewards and promises for the future.

The Motivation Behind MOOCs

For many professors, the motivation behind offering MOOCs often goes deeper than a simple career duty. Teaching MOOCs offers educators a great opportunity to teach not just students who are able to take their courses on campus but students around the world, many of whom don’t have access to traditional forms of higher education.

Legendary MIT physics professor Walter Lewin estimates that in 47 years of teaching at MIT, he has had about 25,000 students in his classroom. Compare that with the 33,000 students who are now enrolled in his 8.02x MOOC offered by EdX.

“My goal is to educate the world. My dream is to reach out to one billion people on a time scale of about 10 years, and that all of the good universities in the United States, in Europe, in Japan, in India, that all of them will reach out to the world and give people an opportunity to effectively, a free education. That will have a huge impact on the world. You’re not talking about teaching a million people, you’re not talking about teaching 100 million people; you’re talking about a billion. In principle, we can educate a billion people,” says Lewin.

Not every student will take MOOC courses that seriously, but for those who make the most of the opportunity, it can be life-changing. With access to free higher education resources, they can get a job, become inspired to earn a degree, or take on a career change. Universities may even give credit for this work, potentially through qualifying exam placement that, with MOOC experience, students now have the knowledge to pass. Many professors, Lewin included, view MOOCs as an opportunity to make a real difference in the lives of their students.

And those students are often quite appreciative, making the experience of teaching online very rewarding. “My lectures change their lives, and it changes their lives in a way that is enormous,” Lewin says of his students. “I get fan mail every day, and I have changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in the world. They’re people who were bus drivers and are now back in the classroom. There are people who say, ‘You’ve changed (the way I look at the world), and now that I know how I should really look at the world, I want to see more.’ And so, they change their careers, they start taking courses. Now of course with MOOCs, there’s a beautiful opportunity. And that’s enormously rewarding.”

Offering a MOOC allows professors to not just influence the lives of their students but also be a part of a worldwide revolution. Lewin compares the availability of open online education to the invention of the printing press: “Before the printing press, it took one person five years to copy a book. They copied it by hand. One book, five years. Then the printing press was invented, now you can print in one month, 500 books,” says Lewin. “This revolution is of comparable magnitude, because now, we reach out to the whole world.”

The Challenges of Teaching Online

The MOOC revolution is an exciting movement, but there are challenges that arise when courses go online, especially when they’re offered to thousands of students at once. Professors and support teams regularly deal with issues including cheating, translating course materials into interactive content and discussion, and maintaining a connection with students. Here are some things you should know if you’re planning on leading a MOOC.

A Disconnection from Students

Understandably, it’s difficult to recreate a brick-and-mortar experience online. There is no substitute that offers the same experience as face-to-face interaction between students and educators and among students themselves. But instructors and students are able to connect with tools like discussion boards, and the ability to communicate and collaborate online can be an advantage. Students are able to more deeply participate in social learning, with more room for discussion in the course than they might find in a lecture hall of hundreds or even thousands of students. And for some students, this disconnect is a welcome departure from the traditional classroom, allowing those that are less willing to speak up in class shine when participating in online discussions.

Darren Adamson, an associate professor at Northcentral University, finds that the challenge of communication is one of the most exciting aspects of teaching online. Unlike a physical classroom where students may hide behind a desk, online students are often required to participate in discussions and interaction. “The online classroom can be as engaging as any traditional classroom if the teacher and the student are willing to deal with the challenge of rapid and broad-ranging technology changes,” he says.

Preparing Courses for a MOOC

Outsiders, and even current students, may not appreciate just how much work goes into making courses appropriate for MOOC offerings. Lectures that were once recorded and uploaded online are made interactive, with challenge questions, quizzes, and exams added to the experience. For large and involved courses such as Lewin’s, that process can take months. In fact, it took a team of six people a full six months to get Lewin’s 8.02 course ready for EdX.

The work that makes MOOCs ready for the web may be extensive, but once a course is properly designed, it can function on its own largely untouched as the course software does all of the hard work. Instructors do, of course, need to maintain presence and support in online discussions, but probably not as much as you might think. According to Lewin, “There is a natural evolution that students are going to talk with each other. These 33,000, they are beginning to form groups, and they even exchange emails with each other, which is fine, we like that.” Lewin says that students in his course with EdX often discuss the work among themselves, answering questions that otherwise would have to be addressed by Lewin or a course assistant. Social learning and student self-assistance are encouraged by the online format of MOOCs.

What About Cheating?

Students taking exams in a lecture hall may have 50 minutes and nothing but a pencil and the knowledge in their minds to help them, but online students typically have a few days’ time and the ultimate open book: the Internet. It’s not necessarily fair, but most schools have taken measures to minimize cheating in open courses.

In Lewin’s course, every test is different. The format of the questions may be the same, but the numbers are not. This makes it possible for students to help each other understand concepts and formulas, but they can’t just plug in answers without working through the questions independently. Even with help, students will still need to understand the idea behind the question. Westwood College adjunct instructor Mike Feinman cites Turnitin.com as vital to tracking sources. The site is also a good resource for detecting copied text, but it is less useful for paraphrased passages.

Schools that really want to crack down on cheating can utilize more advanced methods. It might be out of the question to ask students to travel to a test-taking center, but remote proctoring, in which students are observed via webcam by a human proctor, seems reasonable. So are identity checks, such as personal history questions, IP address verification, and video interaction, all of which can greatly discourage the practice of students who hire paid course takers to complete assignments.

Best Practices for Teaching MOOCs

Forget about discussions, support teams, and cheating. According to Lewin, the most important part of a great MOOC is a great lecture. Many online students are taking MOOCs out of their own interest, unlike traditional students who may be enrolled in courses as a degree requirement. No one’s making them listen to what you have to share, so be sure that what you’re saying is engaging enough to keep them interested.

Lewin has become a superstar for turning physics into a demonstration, a choreographed show that millions, even those with little interest in physics, will want to watch and learn from. He certainly makes the experience look like fun, but be assured that the process behind creating such an engaging educational resource requires a lot of thought and hard work. Lewin works diligently for months to ensure that his lectures will inspire and educate.

Says Lewin of his lectures, “It has to be comfortable. You have to challenge the students, it has to be inspiring. You have to make them feel good about it, you have to make them laugh at times, you have to make them cry at times, and you have to make them stop breathing at times.” For Lewin, delivering such a lecture is a process that takes months, including dry runs, detailed notes, and even walks on the beach.

Great educational content is by far the most important part of offering successful online courses, but you still can’t overlook the details. A great learning system allows professors to streamline much of their work, and Web 2.0 tools make it possible for learning to be more connected, even as course participants span time zones and even continents. Adequate bandwidth access is an important consideration for professors planning to teach from a variety of locations, as are websites that allow for the sharing of large multimedia resources that can enhance learning and teaching.

In addition to great content and technical details, online professors must make discussion and availability a priority. Offering feedback to students, as well as regular office hours, can really make a difference in the level of support, and ultimately, achievement, that students experience.

Finally, professors should prepare to be challenged. Online learning, and particularly massively open online learning, is undoubtedly different from traditional learning, and in that difference, there are opportunities for learning and growth. Says Adamson, “It is the nature of the online learning environment to challenge the teacher to continually learn new and more effective ways to teach. The technology provides opportunities to enhance the learning environment for the student and is a source of learning and development for the teacher. Anyone wanting to teach in an online environment must be willing to learn.”

What to Tell Your Students

Professors aren’t the only ones challenged by online offerings; students typically find online courses to be a different experience as well. Professors should impress upon students the following tips for success:

  • Take the course as seriously as you would one on campus. MOOCs may not require a financial investment, but they certainly call upon much of a student’s time and effort. To stay on top of your work and pass the course, students will need to take it seriously. Says Lewin, “Take the course as seriously as MIT students would take it. You have to work on it at least 12 hours a week, and don’t cheat.”
  • Make contact with your professor and fellow students as much as possible. Studying online can be lonely, but it doesn’t have to be. To get the most out of learning opportunities, it’s essential to engage with other students, ask questions of your instructor, and maximize your opportunity for mastering the material with all of the help you can get.
  • Know what is expected of you, and understand due dates. Staying on top of your MOOC responsibilities is essential. With thousands of students at a time, professors simply will not check in with you to make sure you’re on track. Go over the course materials and expectations early on, and map out deliverables well ahead of time so that you can be prepared to turn then in on time. For many MOOC courses, once the due date passes, the assignment is no longer available at all. Portland State University professor Daniel Draz recommends working ahead of the schedule whenever possible, as you may be more busy some weeks than others.
  • Use trustworthy, reliable resources. There’s no end to the amount of resources available to students for cheating and cutting corners in class, but Feinman cautions students to use trusted resources and back everything up with facts. “There is an amazing amount of information that can be found online, but there‚Äôs just as much misinformation,” he says.

The Future of MOOCs

MOOCs offer an unusual challenge for professors, as well as an amazing opportunity. This type of education can be exceptionally rewarding, allowing professors to reach students around the world and potentially change their lives in dramatic ways. Professors offering MOOCs are a part of something that’s bigger than a classroom or online course. MOOC professors are offering, now more than ever, knowledge that has the power to change a student’s life, and possibly even the world.

Universities are still hashing out exactly what they want to accomplish with MOOCs and open online courseware, but, says Lewin, they know that it is a revolution, and they want to be a part of it. Lewin believes that the open online learning revolution is as important as the printing press, allowing free education to reach a billion people, or even more. Says Lewin: “It’s viral. It’s spreading all over the world as fast as you can imagine. Everyone wants to be a part of it.”