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The Potential of MOOCs to Impact Face-to-Face Teaching:  Lessons from University of Minnesota MOOCs

14 Apr MOOC types

Recently I went to an event celebrating the University of Minnesota’s MOOC effort, which rolled out about a year ago.  The program recognized faculty and staff who are currently working on the second round of Minnesota MOOCs and provided an opportunity for those who taught first round courses last year to share impressions and lessons learned.

Not surprisingly a version of the common question “How do MOOCs benefit resident students?” was raised at the celebration event.  Clearly, resident students can take Minnesota MOOCs, and at least one MOOC professor required his advisees to do so.  In addition, instructional material developed for MOOCs – the lecture videos, quiz questions, activities, and problem sets – can be leveraged in classrooms and shared among instructors, providing new and high quality learning resources for students taking in-person courses.

Listening to faculty stories about their MOOC experiences, however, it became clear that there are benefits to teaching MOOCs that have the potential to – and do – impact classroom instruction in important ways.  Teaching a MOOC seemed to affect the instructor’s sense of herself as a teacher, her self-knowledge, and her understanding of student capabilities.  And as I listened to the faculty who’d ventured to design and teach MOOC courses, it seemed clear to me that their overall MOOC experiences impacted the ways they operate as faculty in classrooms.  What follows are five key “take-aways” from faculty stories that impressed me and made me want to follow up with future research on this issue.

Self-Awareness

One faculty member described coming to the realization that he’s more fulfilled as a teacher when he’s answering questions—encouraging students, directing them, serving as facilitator—than when he’s delivering information via lecture.  He came to this conclusion through interacting with students in his MOOC discussion forums.  It wouldn’t be hard to image the enthusiasm he felt using student-centered facilitation practices in his MOOC informing approaches to using online forums in face-to-face classes or student engagement and active learning practices during lectures themselves.

Lecture Style and Design

One faculty member discussed the process he went through to rethink the design and purpose of his PowerPoint slides.  He was initially reluctant to make changes to his familiar approach, but given feedback from other MOOC team members he gradually came to see the benefits of new kinds of information design and delivery.  He noticed, too, that his lecture delivery was “wooden” at the beginning of the project, and it improved as he gained comfort speaking into a camera and his slides became less didactic and more illustrative.  Although he didn’t mention this specifically, part of his evolution likely came from working with a diverse group of instructional and graphic design staff to develop the MOOC course.  One often unrealized pedagogical benefit of MOOCs is that they require teams of professionals to produce them, and this working together exposes people to new ideas and approaches to their instructional practice.

 

Formative Assessment and the Opportunity for Reflection

MOOCs provided at least two faculty members with a fresh take on “familiar” material.  Teaching in an environment as new and challenging as a MOOC requires rethinking audience, purpose, instructional context, and the role of the faculty member and her responsibilities as instructor.  One soon-to-be MOOC teacher commented on this and asked the experienced faculty about their use of formative assessment in their MOOCs.  A few faculty members described their experiences and the type of feedback they received, generally comments about clarity of content, design and delivery of materials, and mastery of learning outcomes.  All of these were useful to consider for the next iteration of MOOCs, and may also influence the development of materials for other contexts.  In one particularly funny comment, a faculty member described his amazement at just how demanding students who aren’t paying for a course can be.  The upside: he learned patience as well as learning to rely on the entire student community to regulate students’ unrealistic requests and expectations.

Recognition of the Power of Students to Shape the Learning Environment

MOOCs regularly enroll tens of thousands of students.  Clearly, faculty have to rely on students themselves to take a very active role in the delivery and management of the course for it to be a successful learning experience.  In the Minnesota MOOCs (as in most others) students enthusiastically answer each other’s questions, police bad behavior and unrealistic requests, and spontaneously create study groups or “meet ups” to master the material.  More than one faculty member commented about being profoundly impressed with this level of commitment to a non-credit course.  It provides first-hand illustration of the capabilities of students and the power of student-centered and cooperative approaches—a transformative realization that could likely lead to changes in the way instructors imagine and interact with students in their face-to-face classes.

Risk Taking

Taking risks is an important part of growing as an instructor—and, as many of the experienced MOOC teachers remarked, teaching (or considering teaching) a MOOC does feel like a big risk.  One faculty member’s mantra was, “do it and see if it works.”  Even if you’re worried the MOOC is too long or too large, just try it.  While it’s unclear how or whether this spirit of experimentation will find its way into the classroom, it seems to me that the willingness to teach a MOOC—to push oneself pedagogically—signals an openness to new experiences that has the potential to impact classroom practice in very positive ways.

And, Next Steps

Overall, the experience of the MOOC faculty was encouraging, with many interested in teaching their courses again and advocating for more (and different) MOOCs in the future.  A possible next step of the MOOC revolution is to examine and report on the learning gains resulting from the courses for those resident students enrolled in MOOC-delivering institutions.

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