MOOC Magic

Hartnell College
ASCCC Distance Education Task Force

In January 2012, Stanford University professor Sebastian Thrun founded Udacity, the first MOOC provider, in Palo Alto, and so began the MOOC hype.  Suddenly, policy makers, politicians and the popular press hailed MOOCs as the solution to all of the perceived ills in public higher education: unacceptably low student achievement, severely reduced access to public institutions due to budget cuts, concerns about increased costs of public higher education, and so on.  Some even mused that MOOCs would make the traditional academy obsolete.  From the faculty perspective, MOOCs have been met at best with ambivalence, if not hostility.  Of late, some of the hype has waned (see the San Jose State/Udacity experiment).  However, that does not mean that MOOCs have become irrelevant; far from it.  MOOCs are another tool for delivering online education and our colleagues are finding ways to use MOOCs for the benefit of their students.  For example, Mt. San Jacinto College offers a MOOC through Coursera that allows students to brush up on basic skills before taking writing courses.  As community college faculty, we should ask, “How can we as the professional experts shape the dialog about MOOCs so that they can be used to benefit our students?”  The ASCCC Distance Education Task Force hopes to further this dialog through a brief series of articles in The Rostrum this spring.  On the second anniversary of the founding of Udacity and the start of ”The Year of the MOOC”1, our task force colleague Lisa Storm offers her experiences as a MOOC instructor and her plans for developing a MOOC for Hartnell College.  Enjoy!

Are you about to read another article about Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and their potential to change education as we know it?  Yes.  However, this article will not be an abstract observation.  I actually taught two MOOCs, and would like to share my experiences with you.

MOOCs are like any educational innovation.  A MOOC needs to be taught, its data has to be analyzed, and then the MOOC must be taught again until its strengths have been refined to the point of overcoming its weaknesses.  Two MOOC teaching iterations is not nearly enough to accomplish this feat.  However, it is enough to begin the refinement process and start developing a third MOOC.

Why would anyone teach a MOOC?  MOOCs are, by definition, massive.  This means that developing a MOOC entails a massive amount of work, not to mention the fact that MOOCs are typically non-credit, so that work is usually unpaid. 

So, why did I teach not one but two MOOCs?  As soon as I read about the “invention” of MOOCs I made up my mind to develop and facilitate one.  I have been teaching online for ten years, and have come up with some “inventions” of my own, such as accelerated online courses and an accelerated (three-semester) online Associate of Science Degree in Administration of Justice (ADJ).   Teaching online to the masses was a temptation I could not resist. 

I decided I wanted to teach a cost and credit-free MOOC in U.S. Criminal Law, one of my favorite subjects.  Although multiple emails to three popular MOOC sites, Coursera, Udacity, and edX went unanswered, a colleague informed me that Canvas was allowing faculty to teach free MOOCs on their Course Management System site,  So I contacted Canvas, and they got back to me immediately with a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU).  The MOU provided me with a course shell, and allowed Canvas to access and analyze my MOOC data. I was given the freedom to set the MOOC duration (six weeks), and to select the MOOC content and methods of evaluation.

Canvas helped make the MOOC massive by recruiting students, many of whom were international students, from a variety of countries.  I was amazed to garner 547 students in the first U.S. Criminal Law MOOC (taught in spring, 2013) and 749 in the second U.S. Criminal Law MOOC (taught in fall, 2013).  The first MOOC went so well that the MOOC content and methods of evaluation remained fairly consistent between the first and second MOOCs, with a couple of minor tweaks to facilitate a clearer presentation and better automation.  The MOOC content included textbook reading assignments from a Criminal Law textbook I authored, which is an affordable educational resource ($19.95), PowerPoint and video lectures each week, printable lecture notes for offline study and review, weekly discussion boards,  quizzes, interactive exercises, and a final exam.  Students that completed all quizzes and discussions and passed the final exam with 67% received a personalized completion certificate. 

Is developing and facilitating a massive online course a massive amount of work?  Yes.  But the work is front-loaded with MOOCs.  Once I built the MOOC, the facilitation was fairly simple.  I was able to respond to every email, private message, and question on the frequently asked questions discussion board.  The trick is to set forth the course progression as clearly as possible, and to repeat the instructions and course requirements over and over again in various strategic locations.

It was also apparent that MOOC students deliberately hold back a little with questions, to spare the instructor the obligation of responding.  My MOOC students seemed very thankful for my efforts.  In fact, the amount of gratitude I received more than made up for the time spent grinding away on the MOOC development process.  Practically every day at least one student would contact me to express appreciation for teaching him or her about U.S. Criminal Law. I consider this a lovely employment perk (even though I was working for free).

So what did the teacher learn from teaching a MOOC?  A massive amount, actually.  I discovered that my approach to online teaching requires a paradigm shift in the MOOC context.  While I normally encourage consistent and voluminous instructor-student communication in my for-credit online courses to help meet the instructor-student contact hours, I avoided communication in the MOOC and set the course up so that students could complete course requirements with minimal asynchronous guidance. 

Of course, I also had to revise my definition of student success.  In my for-credit online courses I expect the vast majority of students to succeed by passing the course with a C or better.  I quickly learned that my MOOC students were not successful in that sense, as only 28 out of 547 received a completion certificate in the first MOOC, and 32 out of 749 in the second.  But what about all of those thank yous I received? How can I or any faculty member say that those grateful, happy students did not embody student success?

After teaching two instructional MOOCs I am ready to take what I have learned and create a third MOOC for Hartnell College called MOOC Student Information Center for Legal Education (MOOCSICLE).  MOOCSICLE will be my version of an ADJ learning center or lab; its primary focus is remediation and ongoing student support.  All ADJ students will automatically be enrolled in MOOCSICLE when they sign up for ADJ courses, and they will be directed to access MOOCSICLE once the semester begins on a regular and ongoing basis. I know that students may ignore this directive, because students like to ignore instructional directives in MOOCs.  However if every ADJ student learns even one additional ADJ principle from MOOCSICLE, the effort will be worth it. 

 MOOCSICLE will include modules representing foundational legal topics integral to both the ADJ career degree and the ADJ Associate of Science Degree for Transfer, and will contain a broad array of materials to appeal to various learning styles.  MOOCSICLE materials will include PowerPoint, printable study notes, discussion boards, assessments, interactive exercises, puzzles, games, and videos. I intend to work closely with the other ADJ full-time faculty member and the ADJ adjunct instructors to ensure that MOOCSICLE realizes its fullest potential to improve performance for students in the ADJ program.

I believe MOOCs can be magic, in some ways.  They educate, they assess, and they make students happy.  I look forward to experimenting more with MOOCs, and utilizing them to enhance the educational experience.  I hope this article inspires you to join me!

1. Laura Pappano, “The Year of the MOOC”, New York Times (November 2, 2012),…