I think that I shall never see a classroom lovely as a—MOOC?
OK, apologies to poet Joyce Kilmer, and also to former three-time US poet laureate Robert Pinsky, whose ode to MOOCs (massive open online courses) is more precise and less derivative than our Kilmer knockoff. In a recent blog post, the College of Arts & Sciences professor of English and creative writing confessed that teaching his online Art of Poetry course has been “more congenial” in some ways than traditional, face-to-face teaching in a classroom.
Pinsky said he marveled at “the large scale of the Web, counterbalanced by the personal scale of access and timing for each student; the fluidity of parts (lecture, discussion, video, prose) ordered by each user’s whim, counterbalanced by the permanent, digital record; that record in digital memory counterbalanced by the MOOC’s spontaneity (I didn’t write out the lectures, and the people in the video conversations did not have fixed instructions). All of those turned out to suit me very well.”
Pinsky’s MOOC is one of a half dozen created by BU faculty that are running or in the works, thanks to the University’s membership in edX, the Harvard and MIT–founded online learning platform. In the year and a half since BU joined edX’s international consortium of universities, membership “has been a catalyst for rejuvenating conversation about teaching and learning on the BU campus,” says Chrysanthos Dellarocas. He leads the Digital Learning Initiative (DLI), the faculty-led team creating BU’s MOOCs and fostering technological innovations in education.
DLI Associate Director Romy Ruukel says the four up-and-running MOOCs have had “above-average learner completion ratios—ratios of the number of people who completed the MOOC over the number of people who registered for it.”
BU will celebrate its edX collaboration in a visible way starting tomorrow, when it kicks off hosting duty for edX’s three-day Global Forum. The fourth annual such event held by edX, the forum gathers member organizations together to share their experiences in online education, hybrid classes (which mix online and traditional classroom instruction), and educational research.
MOOCS enable students around the globe to take courses at their own pace and convenience, for free. Students may choose to audit the course or study for a completion certificate.
The most popular BU MOOC to date has been Sabermetrics, a course about baseball analytics taught by Andy Andres, a CGS senior lecturer, with 18,900 students enrolled, according to the DLI. Pinsky’s course, the online study of an ancient art, drew 15,380; followed by War for the Greater Middle East, a survey of almost four decades of turmoil in that region, taught by Andrew Bacevich, with 10,700; and Alien Worlds: The Science of Exoplanet Discovery and Characterization, in which 6,900 students signed up for a tour of thousands of planets in our galaxy. The latter course was taught by Andrew West, a CAS assistant professor of astronomy.
Two more MOOCs starting in January 2015—Differential Equations and Preparation for AP Physics—currently have 4,040 and 3,200 students signed up, respectively.
Bacevich, who retired in August as a Pardee School of Global Studies professor of international relations and of history, teaches the Middle East MOOC. While he thinks the jury is out on whether students learn better from MOOCs, the higher-than-average completion rates for BU’s MOOCs “was one of my own goals, so I’m heartened.
“What I have concluded is this: to succeed, a MOOC needs to be more than simply a videotaped lecture course,” he says. “And to give a MOOC that ‘something extra’ requires a considerable investment in time, effort, and money.”
Beyond MOOCs, the DLI gives grants to faculty to develop innovative digital resources. Seven projects are in development, Dellarocas says, “ranging from the use of digital technology to help better prepare our international students before they arrive on the BU campus, to innovative new methods of learning assessment, to technological platforms that facilitate the connection of our students with external organizations for project-based learning.”
Stormy Attaway, whose innovative teaching won her the Metcalf Cup and Prize, switched the online materials for her courses to edX’s platform last summer. “It feels clean—easy to use and navigate,” says the College of Engineering assistant professor. Using DLI funds, she hired an engineering student to help put her coursework online. Students review the online materials—documents with the goals for each class session, short videos, and assessment questions—before class, where they work face-to-face in small groups on various problems.
In announcing the University’s decision to join edX, administrators cited, among other benefits, the platform’s ability to snare voluminous data from its learners to help professors assess how well students are learning. “EdX collects every click,” its spokesman said at the time, while conducting student surveys with its member universities. For example, the platform allows professors to see how often students rewind to review parts of online lectures, possibly indicating those parts need clarification.
Dellarocas and Ruukel say that the University won’t rest on its cyber-laurels but has several objectives for the current year. Those include exploring the use of MOOCs with students residing on campus (for example, in hybrid courses); studying the use of MOOC technology to create revenue-generating professional education courses; attracting more faculty to digital learning projects; and developing the ability to conduct analysis and research using MOOCs and their data.