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Teach Feast: MOOCs November 26, 2014

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On Nov 21, the Friday before Thanksgiving, the Teaching and Technology Collaborative (TeachTech) hosted a one day series of workshops. These are my notes on the sessions I attended.

This session was presented by the Office of Digital Education & Innovation (DEI)
There are some obvious reasons to do a MOOC:
it raises awareness of the University in general and the instructor in particular.
It builds community focused on the U, but not restricted to Michigan, or even to the US.
It can act as a sort of audition for prospective students: if they enjoy a MOOC and think the instructor was good, they may decide to come to the University for the chance to work with that instructor.
It generates revenue (students who choose to get verified pay a fee, and a fraction of that fee comes to the University and the instructor).
There are some not so obvious reasons as well:
There are stories from students who took a MOOC, and it gave them the confidence to go back to school or change careers.
It broadens the diversity of students the instructor gets to interact with (this is most helpful in smaller scale MOOCs, where interacting with students is still feasible.) Some instructors who travel hold office hours in the cities they travel to in order to meet their students.
Re-working the course to make it into a MOOC significantly improves the residential experience as well. It essentially forces the instructor to adopt a flipped classroom model, provides some resources to enable the development of new materials, and includes additional analytics and people to assess the effectiveness of the new resources.
There are some reasons NOT to do a MOOC
If you don’t have the personality for it! (you must be comfortable with the camera, the flipped classroom model, and the idea that what you are doing isn’t a lecture, it’s a screen art.)
If you don’t want to commit the large up-front time to develop the materials.
If you’re just jumping on the bandwagon.
Before developing a MOOC, you should consider the following:
Who are the learners you want to reach?
Is a MOOC the way to reach them, or is some other digital learning environment better?
Will what you want to do enhance the learner environment?
When dealing with a class of thousands, peer assessment is the only way to manage assessment. However, relying on peers to judge your work can be very frustrating. They may grade too harshly, or mis-interpret instructions. They may not take it serially, or finish the assessment.
MOOCs have a low completion rate. In some cases, it’s because people only stay in as long as they need to get what they want. You may want to consider a more flexible type of digital learning environment if that is a problem for you.
If you think you might want to develop a MOOC, DEI can help you. They have a “venture fund” to help instructors develop materials. There is a $10k stipend for development, and once the MOC is running, you can get paid through revenue sharing (though you should be aware that the amount of revenue varies widely.)
After you apply to develop a MOOC, the dean has to approve it. Once approved, it typically takes about 4 months to complete all of the development. The timeframe largely depends on the instructor though. They’ve had people work VERY hard and very long hours for 2 weeks, and they’ve had others who took almost 2 years.

Big Data Makes Big Inroads into Schools: Scientific American July 31, 2013

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Big Data Makes Big Inroads into Schools: Scientific American.

Scientific American explores some of the ways technology  is changing the field of education – mostly for the better. New technology means the best teachers can reach disadvantaged students they never could have reached before. But its important not to forget that we still need good teachers.

ES2013 – keynote – MOOCs at Michigan panel May 6, 2013

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Actually, the title of the keynote was “What Have We Learned From MOOCs? A Panel Discussion of the Implications of Massive Open Online Courses for Teaching and Learning ” but that seemed too long to include as blog post title.

First, a bit of a disclaimer. I am a slow typist. I may have missed things and miscopied them. The videtape of the session will be posted at http://ttc.iss.lsa.umich.edu/ttc/ latter this week. It is much more authoritative than me.

This year’s keynote was a panel discussion by 3 faculty members who have taught a course through Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) through Coursera:

Guatam Kaul taught Introduction to Finance (the twitterverse offers this story about Kaul’s course and philosophy: http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2013-03-28/mba-q-and-a-michigans-gautam-kaul-on-his-atypical-mooc ).

Eric Rabkin taught Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World.

Caren Stalburg taught Instructional Methods in Health Professions Education.

It was moderated by Barry Fishman.

Hopefully, no one will mind if I take the liberty of referring to them by their first name from here on. Also hopefully I’ll spell their names right.you wouldn’t think that would be hard, but my computer really wants to “correct” Gautam and Caren.

First thoughts

Guatam started out with a simple definition: “Technology is anything that make teaching effective.” Technology is any tool, whether its a smartphone app, the internet, or a stick (see my post on the poster fair, once I get it ready.) Within this context, MOOCs are a tool we an use to improve visibility, and to allow access to those who otherwise wouldn’t have access. Additionally, MOOCs provide VERY BIG NUMBERS, which has significant impact on our ability to gather data on Learning Analytics. This has potentially huge implications, since small sample size has been one of the greatest hindrances to good data for learning analytics.

Barry points out that MOOCs are really nothing new.  In Colonial America, you could sign up for correspondance courses in shorthand.It the 20s and 30s, there were classes taught via the radio (he didn’t mention it, but by that time there were classes being taught in rural areas via HAM radio, so kids who lived 20 miles from their nearest neighbors still got a basic education, a practice that persists even today in some areas.) Latter those radio courses became TV based (Bob Ross anyone?) The Open University in the UK teaches hundreds of thousands of students every year, most of whom are non-traditional students. So what does this new technology and emphasis mean, and how does it change things?

While UM has focused on the Coursera platform, that’s not the only option. See the Chronicle of Higher Ed for an interesting and brief overview of the major players http://chronicle.com/article/Major-Players-in-the-MOOC/138817/.

Technology enables, frames and constrains our teaching, but learning should never be about the technology. You can do good things with bad technology, and bad things with good technology. It is rare for technology to sweep into education. When it does (like CTools), it does so because it doesn’t challenge what we’ve been doing effectively.

Once the panel discussion really started, a few ideas repeated themselves, so rather than trying to replicate the dicussion, I’m going to try and organize this around the themes.


All three panelists said the MOOC took more work and more time than a residential course.

Caren said one of the biggest challenges was figuring out what material could be used, because so much of what she would normally use (like images from the text book) is copyright protected. In addition to taping lectures, she also has to find or create all the support materials. MOOCs need to be truly open.

Gautam spent a lot more time developing questions. Also, spent more time trying to figure out how to make it be more than just a talking head. He could not answer emails individually, and in fact would not answer most of the email from the MOOC students.

Eric said that teaching a MOOC was far more work than developing an entirely new class. He also said he thought it was ok it you have 100k students register and only 5k actually finish.


Teaching MOOCs makes them better teachers in general.

Caren: MOOCs require more efficiency in how people use their time in class and preparing for class. The materials and strategies developed for the MOOCs transfer to the residential classroom.  The real power is that MOOCs let you disseminate information to a wide audience.

Gautam: The tension encountered when translating a residential class to a MOOC makes you a better teacher. Knowing you are being watched by thousands, and that are representing your institution to them, makes you want to do your very best. MOOCs require more careful thought about what questions you ask, so it forces you to think more about what questions really count. He also found that students are more likly to be open and honest in a really large, fairly anonymous online chat than they would be in face-to-face conversation. MOOcs also offer more interdisciplinary opportunities because of the wide audience they attract.

Eric found due to the size ef the class, students needed to be MORE accountable for pre-class work. Each week he assigns an essay on the reading. The essay is due early, and the results are randomly and anonymously  handed out to other students. The other students hand the essay back, with feedback, so the author can see their thoughts just before class. Everyone has not only prepared their own thoughts, but has been exposed to other thoughts as well before having the discussion.

Ideas that MOOCs are cool and new came up several times, and it really seemed that being able to disseminate the class to such a wide audience help them refrsh their love of teaching, and their desire to be good teachers.


This is a complicated question on many levels.

The person primarily hurt by the cheating in a MOOC will be the cheater, who doesn’t fully engage in the class. The question then arrises as to how much responsibility the instructor really has to prevent and punish plagiarism? How do you punish someone who isn’t paying and isn’t getting credit?

What really constitutes plagiarism?  In a class of thousands, two people can have the same idea at about the same time. Is it plagiarism if someone didn’t bother to read a forum discussion before posting their thoughts? What if two people collaborate on something, and the ideas are joint ideas? What if they don’t credit their collaborators – is this a forum where the dissemination of ideas is more important, or where practicing professionalism and giving proper credit is more important?

Eric had a complaint from a student that another student had nearly copied a section of his essay from a book without citation. It turned out that he was the book’s author. Is it plagiarism if you don’t cite our own work?

Eric offered a solution, which is to make cheating uneconomical. For example, rather than assigning a single paper, assign a statement on the subject (i.e. a thesis), an outline, an abstract, a rough draft, revision, and the final paper. Someone may still buy a paper, but they’ll have to do a lot of work deconstructing it to complete all the assignments.


Guatam: Degree granting should never be the goal of MOOCs. However, their existance is important. It forces the university to consider what it’s role is, and what is the value of a degree from UM. In their current form, MOOCs should NOT be used for giving credit.

Caren: competency should be the measure of success, not hours in the classroom.

Eric: residential programs count for only 25% of degrees. MOOCs pose a challenge to tradition ed, but it is a challenge we already need to face.

Monetizing MOOCs

This needs to happen if faculty are to invest their time in MOOCs in a meaningful way (ie as part of thei regular jobs).

Eric: if you have 50 thousand people register, a course fee of $5 would cover costs. Also, need to consider who should be covering the costs. Maybe instead of the students it should be the companies and organizations who want to employ the trained students.

Caren: Could charge for the assessments – the opportunity to learn is free but the assessment costs money.

Other Thoughts

From Eric – teach a MOOC because it is new and exciting, helps the world, disseminates information to a  wide audience, or is interesting to you, not because it pays well or looks easy (it doesn’t, and it isn’t). He described things like the Kahn academy or TED talks as a buffet: if you want, you can go grab dessert and leave. A MOOC needs to have units that build on each other. To expand the analogy, a MOOC is like a meal in courses. You can always go back to the previous course for seconds, but there is still a progression. You have to sit through the vegetable course before getting dessert.

Caren – the materials need to be engaging, but not flashy. You need to find a way to create a sense of community so the students will invest in the class. Materials must go beyond the video. Links and cross connections enable students to make connections, go back and build on what they’ve already done, or explore further. MOOCs have the potential for a huge impact. That should count for something, especially for tenure-tract and non-tenured faculty.

Guatam: Who cares if the students don’t finish the class. What really constitutes a class in this sense?  In working on developement, it important not to invest too much time making something new and amazing – it is MUCH more than the videos. Also, never forget the residential students. They are the ones paying for the class and they need to be the ones who really benefit.