Reflections on a Foray into MOOC

I had dipped my toe into MOOC (Massive Open Online Courseware) teaching years back but had not plunged in till this past semester. Circumstances forced me (as many of us) to plunge into remote teaching with full gusto. I launched my graduate level class called “Big Data for Reliability and Security” into the ether via a popular MOOC platform. The class attracted 170 learners from 38 countries plus a tenth of that in on-campus students … so not one of those huge classes, but nevertheless enough of a scale to draw some conclusions from. I consider myself a newbie in this brave new world of MOOCs. This is a world that is going to be increasingly a part of our teaching lives. I anticipate that we have gotten a taste of its conveniences and there will be an impetus to adopt this more and more, some coming bottom-up from us and some from external factors. So in this article, I ruminate on the joys and pains of teaching through a MOOC, as a newbie. I also give my highly individualized list of 5 things that I found to be useful for making my course effective, without needing me to sink a large fraction of my time into teaching. I give as a footnote a collection of writings by others on the topic that I found valuable reading — several of these reflections are by faculty colleagues who are veteran hands at this.

  1. The joys of teaching hundreds of faceless learners
  2. The unsatisfying feeling of teaching hundreds of faceless learners
  3. Five things I did, or wish I had done, to make the course effective and efficient for my time

The Joys

  1. Expanding the reach of the material. There is no reason only the 20 graduate students who can be in your class in person should benefit from the material. I have long had a grandiose ideal of reaching out to a much larger group of learners, going over the barriers of geography and finance as much as possible. Enabling anyone with an internet connection to try out my class material gets surprisingly close to that ideal.
  2. Structured material. Many of my colleagues are not that organized in terms of the exercise of teaching — I bring up the head of that line. Putting my course material online, importantly with curation by some other unit, made the course material infinitely more structured. (In my case, the curation was done by the online education unit of our college first and then the MOOC provider outside our university.) The material is now neatly arranged in terms of learning objectives by each week and lectures and quizzes (along with sample solutions) that go with each objective.
  3. Multiple modes of learning for multiple kinds of learners. We have all been told that there are different categories of learners (visual, aural, reading/writing, kinesthetic, etc.). I had found it hard to accommodate all different kinds of learners in a classroom setting. This happens now without my doing much extra — a student can listen to me or listen and see me or just read my hand-written notes or any other combination. And I am available for playback whenever needed and however many times as needed.
  4. Different paced learners. This is an obvious one, but as it turns out a big one. Learners can learn at their own pace. Of course the assignments and the exams are checkpoints where students have to sync up. But within those checkpoints, they have flexibility in the rate at which they view the different lectures and how many times they listen to any material or try out a quiz.
  5. Eternity beckons. It gives me a ready resource to point people to — the well-packaged course available at the click of a mouse. I can point this as part of any bean counting exercise (like a CV) or to potential students who I would like to master some material before doing research with me or simply for bragging to friends and relatives. This material will be there for eternity, or less dramatically, for at least as long as I will care about it. This is a pleasant departure from the usual course of action where with each semester the class website changes.
Credit: Julia Suits, New Yorker Cartoons, Dec 7, 2020.

The Dissatisfactions

There are several nitty-gritty dissatisfactions, like the number of retakes I have to do before I find the recording to be non cringe-worthy, the time I have to spend to come up with unambiguous grading rubrics so that the quizzes can be automatically graded. But these are trivialities and there are two big gripes. Unfortunately neither of the big grips is fixable (within a reasonable level of effort).

  1. Disembodied learners. For the vast majority of the learners, you do not get a sense of them as being sentient individuals. They are merely usernames obscured in the vast reaches of the internet. And some of those usernames are imaginative but reveal little about the person at the other end of it. This does not have to be so, but is because most of the learners do not come online synchronously with you to interact with you. I kept two office hours, one in the morning and one in the late evening. There were only about 5-10% of the class that showed up for these office hours and mostly, the same set of learners.
  2. Asynchronous teaching. In other words, I teach looking at the camera perched over my computer screen. And the camera does not give me any hint when it is understanding the material that I am throwing at it or when my droning is putting it to sleep or the material is so far above its comprehension that I better stop and go back ten paces. I would much rather be teaching with students online at the same time (i.e., synchronous teaching). I look out for cues from the students as I am teaching and let that guide the flow of what I cover and at what pace I cover it (within the bounds put by the syllabus that I want to cover). All that is lost in this online mode.

Five steps to Nirvana

There are five things that I tried, or that I heard from colleagues who I would trust blindly on such matters, which increased the effectiveness of my online teaching. These are all ostensibly “hacks”, i.e., do not demand that I do too much differently or spend too much time on the logistics of teaching. That in particular adds to their appeal to me.

  1. Tablet and pen. I used a tablet and a pen (aka stylus) for creating notes. This could be live streamed during the synchronous sessions or captured in the video for the recording. Specifically I used an Apple iPad Pro (4th generation), a software on it called Notability, and an Apple Pencil (gen 2). There are many many other options. Trust me, give up trying to contort yourself writing on your Powerpoint using your mouse. Your fingers will thank you, as will your students who now do not have to deal with incomprehensible writing.
  2. Live office hours. I kept live (aka synchronous) office hours which were optional for the students. But they could drop in any time during the hour. I would record the office hours and post so that all could benefit from the discussion. I kept it at two different times of the day, one during the daytime and the other during late evening. This appealed to students dialing in from different geographies.
  3. Get to know your learners. Expectedly the learners come from widely different backgrounds. I wanted to know a little of their technical backgrounds and their expectations from the course. So I asked them, in the first warm up exercise. The responses were helpful to me in removing a little of the black curtain that obscures who the learners are, in an open online setting, and conveyed to the learners a sense that I wanted to engage with them actively through the course.
  4. Encourage collaboration among students. We of course used an online discussion forum (Piazza in this case). I made it clear that it is allowed … no, encouraged, for students to discuss problems and help each other out. (There were certain rules so that I could judge individual effort on the assignments, but those are in the weeds.) This formed a sense of community, something that is so easy to miss out in online classes. I even allocated a certain (small) credit for class participation and chiming in on the online forum counted toward that.
  5. Be compassionate. This means being compassionate to the fact that different learners have different circumstances and I needed to personalize some logistics. The examples are numerous and varied. I had to allow extra time for some learners who realized they did not have the right background in some concepts and had to dig up a book and do self study, for a learner who had to travel within his country for visa purposes and so needed an additional day for turning in an assignment, or a learner whose phone camera did not have high enough resolution to scan in her exam. So just the simple realization that everyone in my virtual classroom does not walk in the same comfortable shoes as I do was a crucial ingredient.
Credit: “Felipe Rojas-lombardi Teaching Children To Cook” by Frances McLaughlin-Gill

In Conclusion

So, I did it. I went out and taught an online class with learners across 38 countries and Purdue learners. I complained bitterly when I was being regimented to put together all this material a couple of months before the class was to begin, as opposed to finalizing the slides the night before. But having come through it with my dignity and my ego intact, I know I am going to do it again soon. I will work to amplify the joys of the experience — democratizing the reach of the material and my teaching, creating structured material that can cater to learners of different styles and different levels of preparation, and having a well-packaged course content available online for years to come. There are several minor annoyances, which I know will become even more minor in the next go around, and two major ones, which I do not know how to solve. And there are five ideas and activities that can help in this brave new world, (ok, not so new, but not that ancient either world), of online teaching. Now jump to it and tell me which of these are a north star to you and which are pure baloney.


Footnote

This is a list of a few of the prior writings on online teaching that I found insightful.
[1] Nick Feamster. “Online Courses Aren’t Better or Worse. They’re Different,” July 4, 2020.
[2] Tina Seeling. “Taking It To the Screen — Lessons Learned from Teaching Online,” July 5, 2020.
[3] Benedict Carey, New York Times. “What We’re Learning About Online Learning,” June 13, 2020.

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