Monday, November 05, 2012

Fostering interaction and spontaneity in a MOOC -- in-class students as co-stars

MOOCs have shown that the presentation of material scales dramatically -- thousands of people are willing to watch interactive video presentations -- but we have not demonstrated the ability to scale interaction.

One approach is to encourage peer interaction using threaded discussion, peer grading, social media and face-face meetings in study groups.

But, can we also find ways to scale the sort of spontaneity and interaction that takes place in a face-face (FF) classroom? I doubt that we can ever achieve the level of exchange and enthusiasm in an outstanding classroom session, but those are atypical. A more realistic goal would be to scale interaction to the level that occurs in an average FF class session. I think (hypothesize) that is achievable. Let me give a couple of examples of attempts at using classroom interaction in a MOOC -- one that worked and one that did not.

I am currently dropping in on, though not taking with any discipline, "A History of the World since 1300" offered through Coursera by Princeton professor Jeremy Adelman.

In addition to typical video lectures with breaks for quizzes, they have tried to bring in some classroom interaction using "global dialogs," in which Professor Adelman and a guest scholar hold a conversation in front of a FF class. I've only watched one of these conversations from start to finish (45 minutes), but it did not work. The class observed, but did not participate.

The camera was focused on the professor nearly all the time. About half a dozen times it cut to the audience, which was motionless. (The image shown below was just after Professor Adelman tried to lighten the atmosphere with a quip). The fact that the speakers, not the class, are the stars of the show is emphasized by the class shots being badly out of focus.

This is not to beat up on Professor Adelman or Coursera -- we are all experimenting at this stage of the game.

Now for an example that worked well. My first MOOC experience was in 2006 when I "took" Professor Charles Nesson's Harvard Law School course "CyberOne: Law in the Court of Public Opinion." There were three groups of students -- Harvard law students who attended in a traditional lecture hall and received course credit, extension students who met in Second Life and received extension credit and the general public which followed via weekly podcasts without credit. The course wiki, student notes, lecture videos, and student projects were all online under Creative Commons license and we podcast lurkers were encouraged to participate.

I did not watch the class videos, but listened to audio recordings of the class sessions. I heard professor Nesson lecturing and leading discussions with the students in the room. He was informal and encouraged participation. In spite of the fact that I was only listening to audio recordings while working out in the gym, I became quite involved in the class. I looked forward to the podcasts, read the online material and corresponded a bit with Professor Nesson and the TA (his daughter) via email. I remember the class fondly and would say that the interaction scaled quite well.

The global dialog discussions in the history class are interesting and the participants have deep knowledge of the subject matter, but they are presentations by experts which are passively observed by an audience.

What would I do if I were teaching a MOOC?

I teach a digital literacy course, and I would run the MOOC in lockstep with an on-campus section. Like professor Nesson, I would have our instructional technology staff record every FF class session and edit and post those weekly. The FF students would be co-stars of the videos.

As I do today, I would divide FF class time between lectures based on prepared teaching modules and topical material. Let's take a quick look at both the lectures and topical material.

The lectures are based on teaching modules consisting of pre-recorded lectures (5-10 minutes plus breaks for interaction), transcripts of those lectures, and the lecture slides. I present about half of the lectures in class and assign the others for self-study.

The MOOC students could watch the in-class videos of the lectures as well as the pre-recorded videos. While the live lectures are based on the same material as the pre-recorded videos, they are not scripted. I choose different words and speak differently. Unscripted examples or ways of saying things occur to me. I respond to student questions and stop to ask questions, which the students either answer or discuss with their neighbors. The goal of the in-class recording would be to capture as much of this interaction as possible.

In addition to lecturing, I devote in-class time to topical material. I prepare weekly discussion presentations in the same format as my pre-recorded lectures. A portion of the topical material is class feedback -- common misconceptions I find while grading their weekly quizzes and assignments and the results of anonymous study-habit polls with questions like "did you review presentation X before coming to class?" I also present things that occurred to me after class during the previous week.

While some of the topical material is based on our class, most of it is triggered by current events that are relevant to the class. For example, this week (tomorrow) we will talk about the damage to the Internet due to Hurricane Sandy, the concept of fair use in copyright, triggered by a warning I just got for a YouTube video I posted, Google image search, which has been around for some time, but I had not tried until this week, the use of new media (radio, TV, the Internet) in political campaigns triggered by President Obama's holding Google Hangout and Reddit "ask me anything" sessions and the global diffusion of fourth generation cell technology triggered by a trade association report.

Could we capture the spontaneity and interaction of an excellent FF class using video recording and presentation of topical material? Probably not, but my hypothesis is that we could capture some of it -- perhaps as much as goes on in an average FF class.

Teaching assistants and I would also hold online office hours (Google hangouts) discussing topics and questions submitted by students during the hangout or before. (These office hangouts might run considerably longer than typical course office hours). Videos of the hangouts would be posted online.

There is a question of motivation in the FF class. We all know that some classes are more engaged and lively than others. If the class is to be the MOOC co-star, I would explicitly try to involve and motivate them -- to build esprit de corp and encourage active participation. I am not sure how to do that, but I would let them know they had a responsibility to speak for the MOOC students. I would also encourage communication between MOOC and FF students. I would try bribery with refreshments served during class. I would try negative reinforcement like taking class participation, attendance and participation in office hour hangouts into account in their grades. What else?

#digilit #jiscdiglit #highered #edreform #MOOC #pedagogy #EDUCAUSE #bonkopen #coursera


  1. Hi Larry,
    I have taken 3 MOOC’s since midsummer. The professors have all been pretty good; however, the paradigm has been the proverbial “talking head” video, with threaded discussion, reading assignments, and something that is still not working, namely peer evaluation.
    As you seem to be indicating, the opportunities for dialog and interaction with the instructor(s) in a course with 25,000 students in it seem to be, shall we say “limited.” The grading and evaluation of the work performed by the enrolled students are not administered directly by the instructors, a fact admitted right up front by the instructors themselves.
    The blog-type discussions are often completely off-track and largely unmonitored.
    It is unclear just how many course facilitators there are in the background, but, with that many students, there has to be a very large number of them.
    We’ll have to ask continually, and research, the question: Do MOOC’s really work?
    D. Borcoman

    1. Hi Doug,

      I am confident that we will get beyond talking head video for presentation and that presentation can become more interactive and useful. Presentation scales to MOOC levels.

      But, interaction and spontaneity do not. I proposed trying to incorporate the emotion and spontaneity that are possible with a live "studio audience" in this post, and think that might work. We need to be mindful of the fact that a lot of face-face classes are dull and ineffective. I can't imagine scaling the interaction in a MOOC to the level of a good face-face class, but we might be able to match that of an average class.

      As you point out, it will have to be done without hiring a bunch of facilitators if it is to scale.

      It sounds like you are underwhelmed by peer grading. In my face-face class I give several assignments a week, and while I use them for grading, I also provide explanation and feedback when students do them incorrectly. That sort of peer tutoring seems even harder than grading.