November 4, 2014

University profs like teaching MOOCs, though few pupils actually finish

One year after the University debuted its first massive open online courses (MOOCs), professors and students have varying thoughts on how they compare to traditional classes.

MOOCs at the University are programmed through Coursera, an education platform that offers free courses worldwide. Current UChicago courses include Understanding the Brain: The Neurobiology of Everyday Life, Asset Pricing, and Global Warming: The Science and Modeling of Climate Change, taught by professors Peggy Mason, John H. Cochrane, and David Archer, respectively.

The professors all see benefits in teaching MOOCs. Cochrane wrote a post highlighting his experience teaching the course last fall on his personal blog.

“MOOCs represent one of the few places in which people are actually studying pedagogy, and trying to improve it,” he wrote. “The data collection and analysis that MOOCs provide may change that.”

Mason became very enthusiastic about the idea of teaching an online course last year because of the different kinds of people that her online course could reach. “I really wanted [my lectures] to be available to anybody who was smart and could do the work…regardless of whether or not they had the background knowledge of a college or med student.”

Like Mason, Archer emphasized the ability of MOOCs to reach a larger audience than traditional classes.

“I recently wrote a textbook that covers the same exact stuff [I taught in the MOOC course],” he said. “The textbook reaches some people, while online courses reach an entirely different community.”

About 15,000 people had registered for Archer’s first Global Warming online class through Coursera, 55,000  for Mason’s, and 4,000 for Cochrane’s. However, only around 300 people actually finished each course.

The Coursera format requires students enrolled in the MOOC to participate in all required elements of the course in order to finish it. Students take quizzes at the end of each lecture to foster understanding of the material. However, these quizzes are not scored and are not part of a student’s grade. For larger projects or papers, there is a peer assessment system that allows students to proofread or grade other students’ papers. Unlike the normal University system where teacher assistants grade papers, students in the online course are able to teach each other simple concepts and discuss bigger ideas.

This format requires shorter lecture and lab times than a traditional class. Archer sees this as an advantage as it saves time. “[My] normal in-class lectures have many, many more minutes by a factor of three,” he said. With a shorter format, there is less repetition of information and more time spent on explaining concepts.

Second-year Gabriel Levine, who took Understanding the Brain: The Neurobiology of Everyday Life, said that he likes MOOCs because the time commitment is lower in traditional classes. Levine was persuaded to take the noncredit course so that he could delve into the particular subject matter, instead of waiting for his third year to actually sit in on a neuroscience class in the College. Biology majors can specialize in neuroscience, but the department suggests waiting until third year to take the courses.

“Each week had a series of short (five- to 12-minute) video lectures…[which] could be watched any time during the week, in any setting…. This meant I actually had time to take four classes and still keep up with Mason’s course but was motivated not to fall behind,” Levine said in an e-mail.

Archer said the experience of designing a MOOC is completely different from making lesson plans for a traditional class.

“The actual interaction among students and between students and the professor happens later. Making an online class is like building a playground or writing a book,” he said. “A real sense of community forms among students that derives from interesting conversations on online discussion forums.”

Second-year Blaine Crawford said that he liked the format of the MOOC as compared to a traditional class.

“[I] wish all lecture classes operated more like MOOCs do,” he said. “I remember reading some of the forums for the Global Warming class I took and they were extremely helpful with the problem sets and when it came time to understanding concepts for the tests.”