UMN faculty: MOOCs have made us rethink learning

The magic happens in a Walter Library studio. (MPR Photo / Alex Friedrich)
  1. Listen MPR reporter Alex Friedrich discusses how MOOCs are changing education

    July 3, 2013 Alex Friedrich, MPR News

The University of Minnesota is underway with its first wave of the U’s free Massive Open Online Courses, and the verdict so far:

It’s a lot of work. But professors are awed by the sheer reach their words have. And when they bring thousands of students and experts from all over the world to talk about their subject, the discussion takes on a life of its own.

“It has been amazing,” said Jason Hill, who teaches Sustainability of Food Systems: A Global Life Cycle Perspective to more than 25,000 students from more than 130 countries. “I’m not just talking about a global perspective to these students. They’re living it.”

More than 70,000 students have enrolled in the five courses — known as MOOCs — in the fields of science, health and medicine. U faculty and staff film the videos in a small studio in Walter Library. The online company Coursera streams them and provides software for tools such as online quizzes, polls and forums.

With such tools, MOOC advocates say, one professor can bring university-level education to tens of thousands of people around the world.

So what has the U learned so far from the experiment?

To find out, I spoke with Hill, Provost Karen Hanson and several of the MOOC faculty:

  • Peggy Root Kustritz (“Canine Theriogenology for Dog Enthusiasts”);
  • Chris Cramer (“Statistical Molecular Thermodynamics”); and
  • Karen Monsen (“Interprofessional Healthcare Informatics”);

Here are a few things they discovered:

It sucks up a lot of time.

The real work crunch was in the beginning: writing up the course, shooting the video, and getting all the materials to work online. Faculty said they got a lot of help from U staffers on design and production questions.

Root Kustritz said it took her 80 hours to produce her MOOC. But others spent several times that — including nights and weekends.

Once a course was up and running, maintaining it wasn’t as big of an issue. Root Kustritz said she spent about four hours a week — with her teaching assistant putting in another two to four.

Cramer sounded more hands-on at 20 hours a week. With so many time zones in the world, he said, “somebody’s awake at every moment, and maybe asking a question in the forums. So for me to keep up, it has taken two to three hours a day of running through and trying to be responsive.”

It’s more than just a taped class lecture.

Cramer said he was in for a surprise when he volunteered to teach his MOOC.

“My initial concept was, ‘Oh — how hard can it be to take what I use in the classroom and just throw that up on a screen and chat in front of a video camera?'” he said.

He was quickly disabused of that notion.

That’s because the dynamics of learning online are so different from those in the classroom. Hill said teaching a MOOC “will force you to rethink how you convey material.”

Among the changes: Professors had to shorten lectures, break them into digestible chunks, and use language that’s understood by a broad audience.

Veterinary professor Root Kustritz said, “You have to hit that level of explanation that isn’t over the heads of those who don’t have as much background as veterinary students. But you don’t want to be insulting to … veterinarians who are taking the class.”

And professors can’t just change their presentations on the fly. Online lectures don’t give faculty the instant feedback they’d get in a lecture, such as a raised hand or quizzical look. So Cramer said he had to redo every slide to make sure nothing was ambiguous.

Still, he ended up spending hours answering basic questions in the forums — questions that have caused him to think harder about how to explain fundamental concepts.

The heavyweights will join the newbies.

It’s not just students and dilettantes in the MOOCs. Pros and experts in each field are logging on — and they can change the dynamics of classes.

Monsen said they raise issues “that I’m not touching with a 10-foot pole — the controversies and political things that are inherent in any cutting-edge topic. They’re creating perhaps new solutions in this venue.”

And Root Kustritz says she and her pros “have been discussing ideas for studies – things that we just don’t have literature to support.”

Hill said the benefits of a global audience became apparent after he recently posted a paper that looked at the domestication of wild fruit trees in Africa.

After reading the forums, he realized, “there was somebody who had actually worked with the group that was featured in that article. And so that person was sharing his experiences.”

Such opportunities, faculty say, are unlikely in a campus class.

Size creates data all its own.

The sheer number of people in MOOCs make the courses a goldmine for research.

Monsen surveys the thousands of students in her informatics course on a variety of health-related subjects. Then for homework, students themselves mine the data for patterns and trends.

The U itself will also gather information about how students perform in the courses.

“We’ll be seeing how that might be useful to us as we think about pedagogy on campus,” Hanson said. “That’s a huge area for us now. And the MOOCs are helpful for that.”

Students are demanding — but show great enthusiasm.

The fact that they’re getting education for free doesn’t stop many from complaining, pointing out errors or expecting extra help.

As Cramer put it: “If you’d like to know if you’ve made an error anywhere in any of your materials, just show it to 8,000 people.”

Root Kustritz says that on campus, having two or three complainers in a 100-person class means she’s doing OK. Now that she has 8,000 students in a MOOC, “if I have 200 students complaining, I have to remember that this class is going great.”

She also said some students don’t seem to realize they’re in a class with 8,000 others.

“They have my personal email,” she said.” They send me pictures of their dogs. They send to (my teaching assistant’s) Facebook page, ‘I can’t wait till you’re done with school, and we can have you as our veterinarian.’ I mean, it’s lovely. … But it could be intrusive if you didn’t set yourself up for it.”

MOOCs are not necessarily for every professor

Many of the professors teaching the U’s MOOCs are either tech savvy, or have had experience teaching online. Faculty interested in teaching a MOOC, they said, should at least take one first.

And teaching MOOCs hasn’t paid off financially, considering the time faculty spent. Each faculty member got $3,500 to lead one, and $10,000 to pay for extra staff help.

“The reward system is not necessarily structured to make the investment of time in a MOOC worthwhile for certain classes of the faculty,” Cramer said. “So most assistant professors, arguably, just shouldn’t do it. It’s not the sort of thing that’s going to impress a promotion-and-tenure committee, necessarily. .. So I’d say it’s people who’ve reached a stage in their career, and they’re really interested in the pedagogy aspect.”

Students are flighty. Or they’re just exploring.

The U’s MOOCs haven’t been spared the high attrition rate seen at other universities, Hanson said.

Take Cramer’s course. Out of the more than 10,000 people who signed up, about 5,000 have watched at least one video. By the end of June, about 1,600 students were still considered “active” — which Cramer says means they were clicking on course items online. About 800 turned in the most recently required homework.

Many students, he said, “seem more to be on a personal enrichment tour.”

Hanson said the experiment will continue. The U will keep producing MOOCs, and she has already put out the call to more faculty for the next set of courses. The aim is to include more subjects, but she said she’d like to run only a handful at a time.

“I don’t see it as crucial to our enterprise that we have to produce them at a high rate,” Hanson said. “If it turns out to be enterprise that doesn’t sustain itself, that won’t be end of the world for us, either.”