• September 17, 2014

Will MOOCs Change the Way Professors Handle the Classroom?

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Massive open online courses: Either the answer to the biggest problems in higher education, or a sign of the commodification of college. What’s all the fuss about MOOCs? The article on this page is an excerpt from a new e-book, Beyond the MOOC Hype, which provides a helpful and compelling guide.

The e-book’s author, Jeffrey R. Young, technology editor at The Chronicle, says that while MOOCs are not the typical tech fad, they may not be the savior their proponents promise. Succeed or fail, they have touched off a battle over the future of higher education. The book is available here.


Buried in all the hype about MOOCs is a somewhat surprising admission by some of the world's leading universities—that their teaching methods may not be very good.

Lectures are the norm for introductory courses at colleges worldwide, from large research universities to local community colleges. But there's a growing sense that monologues by professors are of limited effectiveness for many of today's students. The teaching style is a tradition passed down through generations of academics, and despite the addition of computers, projectors, and PowerPoint, little has changed in the basic model: A professor talks, large numbers of students listen, and one or two brave souls ask questions in the final moments. Class dismissed.

When Harvard and MIT announced that they would pump $30-million each into edX, they stressed that a key reason was to use the MOOC platform as a laboratory to test new teaching methods that could be brought back to their renowned campuses.

That reasoning was laid out during a conference at MIT in June 2013, in a speech by Sanjay Sarma, who leads MIT's MOOC efforts. Ironically, the speech took place in a large lecture hall. The talk was called "The Magic Beyond the MOOCs."

"The question that's often asked is, Why is MIT so excited about it?," Mr. Sarma said of MOOCs. "You could argue that correspondence courses were a form of online even before we had online."

The answer, he said, is a recognition that the lecture model needs an upgrade. "Surely something's got to change in 1,000 years," he said, noting that the lecture model dates to at least 1088, when the University of Bologna was founded.

The method does risk encouraging an attitude among professors that their job is simply to deliver the material. "Giving these one-way lectures masks a lot of disinterest," Mr. Sarma said. "You just walk up and you just deliver a lecture." If the students don't learn, that's their problem.

His hope is that new teaching methods won't just make information delivery in classrooms more efficient. Instead, conveying some basic information online could help free up more time in the classroom for what he said is the real magic of a place like MIT: those moments of learning and mentoring that happen when students work together on projects, work closely with professors, or dive beyond the information in a lecture or a textbook to try on ideas for themselves. MOOCs are part of that, because they promise automated teaching tools that can be assigned as homework to free up classroom time for interactive discussions.

Sure, there have long been professors who become early adopters of technology and new techniques. But colleges have been largely unable to move those experiments to the mainstream. That's partly because teaching is not professionally rewarded on most campuses, especially not at research universities. Yes, instruction is one of the duties of a college professor, but doing anything beyond the minimum can feel like volunteer work to a professor fighting for tenure or promotion.

Then along came MOOCs, which cast professors as heroic providers of knowledge to the masses. The high-profile projects have led many faculty members to consider trying new teaching approaches, even if they don't teach MOOCs. Professors seem eager to trade stories of their high-tech teaching projects, most notably experiments with "flipping" their classrooms. Such flipping essentially means asking students to watch video lectures for homework and reserving class time for interactive projects and discussions. Some colleges are giving release time or grants to professors to encourage MOOCs or teaching experiments, or are offering to share any future revenues.

These new approaches challenge fundamental notions of the role of the professor in the classroom. The lecture is not just a teaching method, after all, it is a state of mind, based on an assumption that the professor's place is as the expert with rare knowledge—what critics of the lecture call the "sage on the stage." These days information feels like a commodity, available through a simple Google search. Education reformers have long said the new role for professors should be that of a "guide on the side," like a coach watching a player and correcting flaws in technique. A flipped classroom, in which the professor sends students online for the basics and leads more-interactive sessions, embodies that approach.

The Flipped Classroom

Douglas H. Fisher, an associate professor of computer science and computer engineering at Vanderbilt University, was eager to try a flipped classroom. "I just didn't want to lecture anymore," he said in an interview. "It was just getting old."

But he didn't have the time or support to film his own lecture videos. So he decided to adopt another professor's lectures that were made for a MOOC offered through Coursera.

He wasn't sure the idea was going to go over well. "I was worried about perceptions by Vanderbilt—my students and other faculty—about outsourcing lectures," he said during a video chat about flipping courses hosted by Coursera. "That was a real concern."

After his initial hesitation, though, he went for it. "I decided that not using these high-quality materials because of insecurity was silly," he wrote on the ProfHacker blog. So in the spring-2012 semester, he taught a database course for about 25 students at Vanderbilt, based on lecture videos by Jennifer Widom, a Stanford University computer-science professor.

Mr. Fisher gave students a quiz each week as they walked into class, to check that they had done the required viewing. Class sessions followed what is called a "design studio" model, in which students created and reviewed database designs.

The students bought into the idea. The professor's instructor ratings went up, and he felt more enthusiastic about teaching than he had in his 25 years as a professor. "I felt a lot more animated and excited about the class itself," he said. "It had this feeling of a kind of lab where I was working through problems with students rather than talking abstractions to them or at them."

He doesn't see assigning the lectures of others as shirking his duties, but as an extension of academic sharing. "I like referencing and citing my fellow educators in the same way I like to reference my fellow researchers and scholars," he said.

Now Mr. Fisher has made some of his own lecture videos, for a course on machine learning. The video lectures have gotten thousands of views on YouTube, many from students taking other machine-learning MOOCs and looking for alternative explanations. "Like a good academic, you don't start using other people's material without getting enthusiastic and feeling a responsibility to produce some of your own," he explained.

Several MOOC experiments involve more-direct collaborations, with professors teaming up with colleagues to jointly produce courses. Udacity has embraced the team approach, often mixing a seasoned scholar with a younger Udacity employee who works to make the lecture materials more entertaining.

Udacity's "Introduction to Psychology" is an example of the approach. The course was part of a pilot project between the company and San Jose State University in the summer of 2013. The course has not one professor but three: Gregory J. Feist, an associate professor of psychology, who has been teaching for more than 25 years and who wrote a popular textbook on the subject; Susan Snycerski, a lecturer who has taught for 15 years; and Lauren Castellano, a Udacity employee who recently finished a master's in psychology from the university, advised by Mr. Feist.

In the introductory video for the MOOC, the three stand together and go over the ground rules, but in most of the videos, Ms. Castellano takes the lead on camera. Mr. Feist and Ms. Snycerski make regular appearances throughout the 16 lessons, often only briefly, to explain a concept or to be part of a demonstration or skit with Ms. Castellano.

Sebastian Thrun, Udacity's founder, told me that he modeled the approach on the way popular television shows are made. "It's similar to a newscast these days—they have a dialogue," he said.

Does it bother the more-experienced professors that they get less screen time than their younger colleague? "That's a Udacity decision," said Mr. Feist. "They've discovered that it works well if you have these younger people doing most of the instruction, but in fact the content is coming from professors. They wanted someone who students can identify with."

The professors said they typically developed the lessons and sent them to the Udacity employee to turn the lectures into scripts, complete with demonstrations and jokes. For the lesson on "Sensation and Perception," Ms. Castellano came up with the idea of staging a "sense Olympics." She and another Udacity employee pretended to be news anchors giving updates from contests that demonstrated human senses. The scenes are playful, and the professors even filmed mock advertisements for related "products.".

The two veteran professors involved in the Udacity psychology course said they planned to assign at least some of the video lectures to students in their in-person classes in the future, citing the "sense Olympics" as an example of a lesson that works better in video than in person. Mr. Feist said he might try some version of a flipped classroom as well: "I think what I'll try to do is have my teaching be a little more Socratic—teaching through questioning more than teaching by lecturing."

Does he think that will improve student learning? "It's an empirical question, as they say." In other words, he'll monitor the test scores and performance of his students and go with whatever method works best for them.

A Question of Control

In the traditional model of college instruction, each professor has near-complete control of what happens in the classroom. Certainly there are college departments and accreditation committees exercising some oversight—and a textbook often serving as a guide—but professors generally have the final say in what material to cover, how to present it, and how to assess what students learned. That could change in an age of digital instruction, when gaining the benefits of data (like auto-grading homework systems) will require adopting a large-scale system.

The influx of technology into education has already begun that shift away from full faculty oversight of courses, argued Robert Ubell, vice president for enterprise learning at New York University's Polytechnic Institute. "Once technology came in, faculty lost control," he said. He gave the for-profit University of Phoenix as an example of what he saw as a "corporatized" model of education that relies heavily on technology. To help reduce costs, curriculum is centrally planned at such institutions, and instructors are expected to stick closely to standardized syllabi and grading guidelines. "They control everything that goes on in the classroom," Mr. Ubell said of leaders at Phoenix and some other for-profit institutions. Debates about such control issues are starting to take place on more and more campuses these days.

Some observers also worry about MOOC providers and other education-technology companies gaining unprecedented power over the education process if they become de facto standards for delivering education. The technology critic Jaron Lanier sees ed-tech providers as one example of what he calls "Siren Servers," companies that offer free consumer services that put them in a position of more power and influence than many people realize. "Siren Servers gather data from the network, often without having to pay for it," Mr. Lanier explains in his 2013 book, Who Owns the Future? "The data is analyzed using the most powerful available computers, run by the very best available technical people. The results of the analysis are kept secret, but are used to manipulate the rest of the world to advantage."

In an interview on NPR's Diane Rehm Show, Mr. Lanier cited Wikipedia as an example of a Siren Server that has the unintended consequence of reducing the diversity of information:

"In the paper era, it would never have occurred to anyone to say there should only be one encyclopedia. There was an Encyclopaedia Britannica, an Encyclopedia Americana, and it was understood that they all were written by people, and they had points of view. And that's why there were multiple ones. But because of the way we're doing things, there's something called network effect, where as soon as you accumulate a lot of people on a network, you get so much influence that it outstrips other people attempting to rise up to compete with you. So the Wikipedia becomes the only encyclopedia for a lot of people, even for, like, topics in the humanities where there can't be a single point of view. And that's going to start happening with education, where at first it'll seem like we're supporting diversity, but actually we're destroying it."

Mr. Lanier, a longtime technology pioneer who popularized the term "virtual reality," says he is not arguing against a move to digital instruction. Instead, he is urging more-open standards for all types of online services, including ones in education, to prevent any one company from gaining outsized control.

One argument for the creation of edX by MIT and Harvard was to provide a nonprofit alternative to the corporate MOOC platforms run by Coursera, Udacity, and others. And the 13 colleges in the college group known as the Committee on Institutional Cooperation are reportedly considering building their own technology platform for MOOCs and other forms of digital education to avoid ceding too much control to outsiders.

"There is a rather widespread concern about the notion that the core of our academic mission, on the teaching side, is being essentially developed by for-profit companies," Lauren Kay Robel, provost of Indiana University at Bloomington, told The Chronicle of Higher Education when the group's proposal was first reported. "The hope is that we can collaborate around a set of principles for infrastructure that might allow us to take back control over that part of our mission."

Naturally, some professors think MOOCs may turn out to be a fad that leaves little lasting impact on college teaching. But MOOCs can be seen as an increasingly successful rhetorical attack on the lecture model, adding pressure for colleges to try something new and different.

At MIT, at least 10 traditional courses on campus are using the edX platform for internal use, either for flipping the classroom or to automate homework grading, explained Mr. Sarma at the online-learning conference held there.

"We didn't do this because it's a fad. OK, we did it a little because it's a fad," he said, eliciting a laugh from the audience. But technological developments from MOOCs could greatly improve what happens on the campus, he argued. "Professors need to know how to dance with this technology."

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