Monday, March 10, 2014

"Teaching" a MOOC

It's Week 3 and the course has settled down. Students are posting about content more than they are about logistics. As before, their fellow students are volunteering help: I'm enjoying the contributions of kame, SusanArizona, motley, dennniswadams, weyedide, BaoAng, and others whom I'll name as the weeks pass.

Once a course is well established – and in the infant world of MOOCs, "well established" seems to mean "ran once and went reasonably well" – there are calls for it to be re-run. This happened with Stat 2X last August, as soon as the first run ended. "We'd like to run your course 3 times a year," someone on campus said blithely, clearly not expecting the loud squawk of alarm that emanated from me.

What was my problem, he wanted to know. What was the big deal? All the materials were there; we'd just get a GSI (= Teaching Assistant, at places other than Berkeley) to run the forum; I'd just have to glance over things, oh, once every couple of weeks max.

Really? That's what it means to "teach" this course?

Not to this teacher.

Teaching is communication between teacher and student. It's not simply plopping down a set of course materials in front of the students and then stepping back: no classroom teacher would just hand students a textbook and take off.

Yet in the online world, "the course" has become conflated with what I think of as "course materials." I'm resisting this every step of the way.

Though I'm a veteran (on the "ran once and went reasonably well" scale) of MOOCs, it continues to be hard for me to have little connection with the people I'm teaching. Yes, I've created a good set of materials. Yes, many students are able to learn just by using the materials in Courseware (they'd have been fine if we'd just mailed them a textbook, probably). But it's the forum that make the class a "class", and me a teacher.

That's why I run my eye over the forum whenever I get a chance. I don't use a GSI – the forum is my only chance to get to know my students, even if it's a small self-selected group of them. I answer questions that others haven't got to yet; I fix errors inadvertently posted by students in their haste to be helpful; and I try to throw in examples that have helped my students on campus. I tend not to answer those who clearly haven't watched the lectures, and I don't answer those who are rude. But there are very, very few of the latter. The Stat 2.1X discussion forum is a delightfully civil community.

It doesn't take much time. Years of teaching the course on campus have made me a great predictor of what the questions will be and what students will suggest in response. I have a mental bank of different ways of answering the same question; most likely at least one of those ways will make sense to the student, and if I'm lucky, I'll have picked the right way the first time around based on what I was able to guess about the student from how they wrote their question.

But it does take some time, and I certainly can't do it year-round. I do have a full time job doing other things. So I'm working on ways to hand Stat 2X off to other instructors.

Will it make a difference to students? I hope not much. The author of a text isn't the instructor of every class that uses the text.

I'm going to savor every minute of this pass through Stat 2X. I might not be teaching it again for a while.

1 comment:

  1. Well then I'm glad I got on board on time. You never know what somebody else is going to be like, and you are definitely doing a very good job. I was a little dissapointed at first by lectures being slide show presentations rather than in-the-classroom lectures because I thought that format might make them quite dull. This is my first MOOC, so I don't know if that's the standard - I've been watching various OCW lectures until now, and those use recorded classroom lectures. But you have a way of making the lectures lively despite this somewhat "detached" format. Not sure the next person will be able to do that.
    Also, your position on how communication with students is important even in MOOCs is really admirable. Even more so if you know that there actually are classroom teachers who just hand students a textbook and take off (provided there is a textbook), especially in some countries, let's call them academically deprived, that I think many of your MOOC students come from.