Wrote down some thoughts about MOOCs while sitting at #Scio14 hotel bar…

Tomorrow I will facilitate a session at “Science Online” entitled “MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and Science Online”. I have no idea what direction the discussion will go in but to make sure that I am at least a tiny bit prepared I’ll use this space to organize some of my thoughts on the topic.

First, why me, why am I the facilitator? I don’t have any experience, as a student or an instructor, with MOOCs.  I am an entomological research scientist and lecturer at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. As a scientist I blog at insectsdiditfirst.com. As an instructor I teach both online and face-to-face courses. One of the other many hats I wear is as the coordinator of the School of Integrative Biology Online Learning Team.

One of the courses that I teach as an online course, Bioinspiration (using biology to inspire new technological innovations), was selected by my University also have a MOOC version through Coursera. Since this MOOC will absolutely not mean replacement of my other courses, and since there is no credit attached to the MOOC I accepted the challenge.

One of the challenges will be that the MOOC is supposed to be a collaborative effort between myself and an engineer. This is great since I think my courses could use more pure engineering or tech content. The challenge is that this particular engineer is also my husband. We may attract 30 thousand students, but may also be heading for divorce. Our goals for the MOOC are:

  1. Highlight research done at the University of Illinois in both the Life Sciences and Engineering.
  2. Create content that can be used in many other courses (Material Science, Insect Physiology, Robotics Design, etc.)
  3. Obtain data, all the data, about how students interact with the content and what they do with it….because, Science!

Some other points that are coming up in my head as I sit here at the hotel bar….

  • MOOCs are, of course, not the best way to educate a person. It only touches on the lower levels of Bloom’s taxonomy. There is no modeling of behavior of practice. By watching our MOOC you will not learn how to be a biologist or how to be an engineer.
  • The “general” students in the UIUC MOOCs are highly educated, they often have a BS or BA. They are life-long learners. A large number of students just watch the videos.
  • Only a small percentage is from India, Brazil, Other Central and South American countries, and Asian Countries (very few students are from Africa) – but since these are large courses that is still a large number or students. HigherEd in some of these countries is still of a lesser quality than our MOOCs. Sad but true.
  • The MOOC instructors at Illinois are a self-selecting group. All were early adopters of technology in teaching while also passionate about their field.
  • At the University of Illinois we have seen that innovation through MOOCs can greatly accelerate innovation in traditional online courses, but also in blended face-to-face courses. MOOCs reaches a new group of learners, what we learn by trying to teach them is feeding back to our traditional students.
  • The benefit of MOOCs being open is that it turns out to be an efficient way to share teaching knowledge. The MOOCs, at least at Illinois, increase the rate of pedagogical improvement. It is improvement of actually course/teaching practice, not improvement of a textbook.
  • At Illinois the cost of a MOOC is probably far less than the often quoted $200K. That is because we already know how to do online teaching. The return of a MOOC should also measure the increase in individual-course and institutional knowledge.  Our MOOC proposals are only approved if the submitters can show how other traditional course offerings will also benefit.
  • MOOCs can replace textbooks, and highlight great science writing.
  • The data gathered from these Massive courses are a treasure trove. Some interesting experiments have already been done.
    • Optimal course duration (4, 8, 16 weeks) as it relates to retention.
    • Motivation – start with 0 points and earn points by taking quizzes or participating in discussions OR start with the full complement of points and then possibly decrease.
    • A-B experiment on instructor presence in discussions. Pre-canned announcements versus specific announcements in real-time.
    • Optimal length of videos – or detrimental length of videos.
    • So far MOOC have not been Higher-Ed killers, but they are “Great Course” killers (= those for profit courses on general topics). That is because at least at Illinois we know how to do online, and we create a good quality MOOC.
    • MOOCs need to be massive to work. They NEED to involve networking and a social component.
    • MOOCs have also resulted in great collaborations between Higher-Ed institutions, K-12 teachers, and other science stakeholders (National Geographic comes to mind).

I hope to see a lot of you at the session tomorrow, either in person or by way of Twitter (by using the hash tag #ScioMOOC)

Marianne Alleyne – @Cotesia1


2 thoughts on “Wrote down some thoughts about MOOCs while sitting at #Scio14 hotel bar…

  1. I’m a little worried that your view of MOOCs will be telegraphed to the #scio14 folks. You write

    “MOOCs are, of course, not the best way to educate a person. It only touches on the lower levels of Bloom’s taxonomy. There is no modeling of behavior of practice. By watching our MOOC you will not learn how to be a biologist or how to be an engineer.”

    Yes, a boring xMOOC might seem that way. But my experience with #etmooc (see etmooc.org) was fantastic. I urge you to watch Dave Cormier’s vid “What is a MOOC?” on YouTube. It should excite and inspire you about connecting with others and becoming more expert-like.


    • Peter, thank you for your comment. I especially appreciate your links to resources. I am definitely not a connoisseur of the whole field of MOOC, just facilitating a session at the un-conference. These are my ideas/notions before I really become involved in the instructional design of a MOOC.
      No idea which direction the discussion will go this afternoon. The point you bring up here might be one point to discuss, it all depends on the audience in the room and on twitter. Hope you can follow along/contribute via #ScioMOOC. M

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s