hillbilly MOOCs

Note – I realize that using the term “hillbilly” might strike some as insensitive and some as rude. I apologize for that. The fact is that it has a strong relationship to the notion of “rural” and “backwards” and, in comparison with the other MOOC programs I want to discuss, it is appropriate. So yes, I am taking some editorial/artistic license in the name of a better “hook” of a title. I’ll change it if anyone speaks up.

Massive Online Open Courses – or MOOCs – have been basically THE topic of the past couple of years. Whether it’s a company – Khan Academy – or part of a university – HarvardX – the creation and delivery of these courses has taken on a decidedly formal manner. There are offices devoted to helping design and deliver these programs, with dedicated staff. They have reached a level of maturity that, for instance, faculty whose curriculum have become part of the HarvardX program have written a formal letter asking for more oversight on the program itself. Faculty are injecting themselves into the program. Which means they are taking the impact of MOOCs on the larger issue of education and Harvard’s educational “brand” quite seriously. Which is a big deal.

For small institutions, though, delivering content online can be quite challenging. At Menlo College, for example, which is a very small college – 700 students – the first question is about getting something online. Not an entire courses. A MOOC is so far down the line that while it might be on the horizon, we’re still far enough away that we’re not sure if the world is flat or not. Perhaps we’ll fall off the edge of the world before we get to the MOOC implementation.

Lately, I’ve been contemplating how we might build a program overtime that would lead to an effective implementation of online course materials in a hybrid and/or “flipped” (rather broad description from Wikipedia) environment that could, in theory, eventually lead to acceptance and creation of effective MOOC-style curriculum. Since we don’t have an academic computing/educational technology program right now, this is an important issue for me and for Menlo. Is this a topic we wish to address as we build a program from scratch? If I had to pick, say, 5 low-cost, low-overhead, high-impact solutions, would any of them be the building blocks of online content delivery? Or should any of them be, with an eye towards that horizon?  One always wants to make tactical moves that align with strategic goals but is there enough clarity?

One thing we know is that the MOOC model is not going away.  From a purely business perspective, it is just too compelling to ignore. Right now the “open” part of the MOOC acronym suggests that profit should not be a factor at all. But at some point people will want to make money on any venture, and the notion of being able to deliver one set of content to 100, 200, 300 or any number of students in a ridiculously scalable model (single delivery system, single assessment model, etc – all scalable) is just too compelling and enticing. So MOOCs are here to stay. If you reel in the “ideal” that underlays MOOCs just a bit, courses delivered entirely online are equally obvious. They might not be massive and not as scalable (depending on implementation), but they are still very compelling. So, from a strategic planning perspective, I guess we do need to build up to a significant online presence for our curriculum.

For us, where we are starting from the ground up and with no staff dedicated to this purpose, we have to take this one step at a time.

Demonstrate Value of Placing Traditional In-Class Content Online

It’s critical that faculty understand that putting materials such as lectures or presentation online is of significant value.  And that this content has to have context.  So a powerpoint file is not very useful unless someone remembers every bit of the lecture during which that slide show was used.  And some presentations are merely supplements to the lecture – when I present, for instance, I try not to have anything more than the topic on the slide.  No bullets.  How useful would that be?

So the file has to have some kind of context.  Maybe the audio of the lecture.  Maybe video.  That would be a really easy way to start on this – take the in-class material (which the professor presumably thinks is valuable in that form) and put it online.  But that has its own problems.  It makes faculty think that a recording of a lecture – one that is designed to be heard in person – is “enough” in terms of putting content online.  Also, it isn’t a supplement.  It isn’t adding anything to what you’re learning in class.

I propose that we start with little “modules” from different faculty.  Even if you have 5 faculty all teaching the same topic, each one is going to have a slightly different perspective on it and, most importantly, will likely be experts on different sub-topics.  An easy example from my previous life working at the Santa Clara Law School is Constitutional Law.  Multiple faculty – up to 6 – will teach this course.  Let’s say Professor 1 is a recognized expert on the Commerce Clause.  Why not have him or her record a 10 minute module on that clause that is a deep, deep dive on some of the nuances?  The other faculty will still teach the topic, but now also assign – as a required component of the course – this 10 minute video module.  And why not make it a video recording but also with annotated slides and examples?

Let’s say another of the Con Law faculty is an expert on Equal Protection.  There is another module.  This will likely snowball – Professor 3 sees that Professors 1 & 2 have contributed, so he or she creates a module.  Then faculty that do Contracts start creating and sharing modules.  Then Con Law faculty realize that the Contracts modules are relevant and then those are assigned.

In short order, faculty can really see the value of putting meaningful, required supplemental materials in a rich format, with context, that will then add to the in-class discussion and overall understanding of the issues.  This also builds up a camaraderie and a group – rather than a 2-3 “early adopters – of users.

Demonstrate Value of Emphasis on Discussion for Class Time

Not the best heading for a section.

A key part of a flipped course is that by moving the “passive” activities (sitting listening to a lecture) outside the classroom, then one can focus on discussion and seminar-style interactions during class.  Even for really large classes you can build this enhanced engagement (see SCALE-UP at NC State).

It’s not a big jump from assigning some supplemental materials, created by others,  and using them as fodder for richer conversation to using your own material in a similar way.  And since those modules are designed to be rich, contextual materials, hopefully faculty will not go straight to “just record my in-class lecture and put it online.”  They will see that some work needs to be done to make the most out of any online materials.

Again, one needs to start small.  Perhaps a module by the professor for his or her own course.  There must be some topic that just doesn’t fit into the syllabus, or one that isn’t covered in enough detail.  So create a module and assign that.  The key is that this is supplemental.  It’s a small and therefore dangerous jump to take the primary materials and just throw them online.  But supplemental?  That makes things richer and, perhaps more importantly, requires planning and work.

And So the Ball Rolls

I think that at this point it’s not too far to get to a fully flipped course.  It might be another year of incremental change but I think that is almost better than a sudden one.  It is a lot more work – especially without a dedicated instructional technology department or staff – to flip a course all at once.

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