Lessons Learned from the World’s Best MOOC

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MOOCs are badly misunderstood within higher education. Reports focus on their low completion rates as a sign of failure, but to do so uses the wrong rubric. Students are not taking these classes to fulfill degree requirements, but simply for the knowledge they offer; they pick those topics within any course that appeal to them, like reading a newspaper. Judging a MOOC by completion rates is like judging the New York Times by how many people read every single article.

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MOOCs are badly misunderstood within higher education. Reports focus on their low completion rates as a sign of failure, but to do so uses the wrong rubric. Students are not taking these classes to fulfill degree requirements, but simply for the knowledge they offer; they pick those topics within any course that appeal to them, like reading a newspaper. Judging a MOOC by completion rates is like judging the New York Times by how many people read every single article. In reality, MOOCs constitute the full development of the web as a teaching medium. Previously, online courses were translations of face-to-face courses.  In contrast, MOOCs were designed from scratch for the web, so they dispensed with the baggage of face-to-face course assumptions to make maximum use of the web as a medium. Learning How to Learn, developed and taught by Barbara Oakley and Terrence Sejnowski, through the University of California, San Diego, and hosted on Coursera, is one of the most popular MOOCs of all time. With over one million participants from over 200 countries, the course has drawn widespread praise from students and instructors alike (Oakley, 2016), and the teaching devices it uses provide insight into creating highly effective online courses. Content Like nearly all the best MOOCs, Learning How to Learn uses green screen videos of the instructor speaking to the students as the primary means of delivering content. These are ideal for communicating in a web medium because a face and voice grab our attention. While they might sound daunting, they were actually quite simple to produce. The videos were made in the basement of one of the instructors following the installation of a backdrop and some lights. They required no more than a cheap green screen, ordinary lights, a microphone, a camera, and someone with basic video-editing knowledge. Importantly, the videos include not only the speaker but also images interspersed to illustrate and amplify the points made. When the instructor discusses how the mind connects ideas during “diffused” thinking, an image appears next to her of a pegboard with lines connecting the pegs. This represents how we connect concepts together in our brains during this mode of thinking, and it helps the viewer visualize what the instructor is saying to better grasp the concept. The instructors also added movement to the videos to keep the viewers’ attention. All too often, I see faculty members standing perfectly still when shooting webcam videos of themselves, but viewers rapidly lose interest in a talking head. All it took was for these instructors to occasionally turn to one side or the other while speaking to add movement without detracting from the message. Another powerful device was shooting each segment twice: once in a full-body view and once from the waist up. This allowed the videos to switch between the two perspectives, which further maintains the audience’s attention. Green screen videos can easily be created with equipment available at any institution and the skills of the average instructional designer. See the article on “green screening” in the June 2016 issue of Online Classroom Newsletter to learn how to shoot green screen videos yourself. Communication Style Too often instructors create online course content within the mindset of merely “covering material.” They simply roll through the topics without any real attempt to communicate with the students. But the point of education is to produce learning, not simply to cover material, and that means always teaching with a mind toward reaching students in a way that is meaningful to them. Documentaries are perfect examples of how to engage viewers online. The movie March of the Penguins did not just list facts about penguins. It told a story that engaged the viewers, and as a result, everyone left the theater with a deep understanding of the life of penguins. Learning How to Learn demonstrates this principle of communicating over just covering content.  The course is about the topic of how we learn, and it dives into deep neurological principles of learning to explain it. But it covers those principles in a way that is meaningful to the viewers. One video begins with the instructor’s talking about the experience of not being able to figure something out. The instructor continues that we might just keep pounding at it in frustration, which she likens to a zombie pounding its head against a wall. We have all experienced this frustration. She then tells us that this is the wrong way to do it and that there is a better and less painful way to do it. This opening demonstrates the importance of starting any communication by getting the audience’s attention. Just as all TED Talks begin with something to grab the viewers’ attention, the instructors in this course begin each topic by connecting it with the viewers’ experiences. This makes the viewer interested in the subject and invested in what comes next. Also notice how the instructor is not afraid to use humor to keep her audience’s attention. Even if a joke elicits a groan, the viewer appreciates mere fact that the speaker is making the effort to communicate. Finally, the instructor always demonstrates genuine interest and excitement in her topic by her tone and expression. She smiles, emphasizes her points with cheer, and generally conveys the impression that she wants to help improve the lives of her viewers. Too often, academic videos feature speakers with blank expressions that only demonstrate disinterest to the viewers—a readily visible example of the “covering content” mentality that suggests nothing so much as the instructor’s punching a clock without any real interest in reaching the students. In contrast, the instructors in this course act like they are speaking to friends, and in fact, students have indicated in their post-course surveys that they come to see the instructors as friends. Quizzes and Questions The working memory that we use on immediate tasks can retain up to only four discrete items before it fills up and starts losing items. This means that learning requires periodic pauses for reflection for the brain to move information to long-term memory. The instructors in this course force reflection by including frequent pauses during the videos to ask questions of viewers. The questions sometimes require simple recall and at other times application of the concepts: students might be asked, for example, which of the activities in a given list best represents diffuse thinking. Each break helps viewers move the recent information from their working memories to their long-term memories, leading to better retention. There are also short multiple-choice quizzes at the end of each module on the same information that was covered in the video questions. This is done because learning is best achieved by spacing out study of a subject over time rather than cramming it into one session. Too often, we assess students on content and then move on to the next topic. But the best learning occurs when we return to prior topics, because that forces us to draw up information from our long-term memories, which helps harden it in those memories. Many times, too, we don’t really “get it” until we have thought about something for the fifth or sixth time, so returning to past content repeatedly improves understanding as well as retention. Bonus Material Another of the course’s important teaching devices is bonus material in the form of interviews with outside experts. While faculty members often add “optional resources” to their courses to help students, these resources are often just more academic articles that students are unlikely to read out of interest. Our students are not like us in that they do not read academic articles for pleasure. If you want students to take up optional content, it needs to be in a format that will attract them, and in this course, that format is engaging video interviews or stories on practical topics that provide real-life application of the course concepts. The instructors also included videos simply for their humorous connection to the material, such as an article on Chinese high school students studying with intravenous tubes in their arms. This content helps create an atmosphere of inquiry for its own sake, rather than for a grade. Note also the label “bonus material” rather than “optional material.” The former implies that the students are getting something for free, while the latter implies that the material is not important to their grades. The label itself will influence how students think of the material and whether they will engage with it. It is easy to find engaging videos, articles, or other material related to course topics on YouTube or in newspapers, among many other sources. Save the links to interesting material that you come across and post those in your course. Invite your students to post content that they find as well to create a community dedicated to mutual exploration of the topics. Reference Oakley, B., Poole, D., and Nester, M. “Creating a Sticky MOOC.” Online Learning 20, no. 1 (2016).