February 4, 2014

Cornell Launches First MOOC

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Updated Wednesday with the most up to date enrollment figure

Cornell launched its first massive open online course Monday, the University’s first of four MOOCs to launch this semester.

The university’s first MOOC, ASTRO2290x: Relativity and Astrophysics, is one of four that Cornell professors have begun to teach this semester. Prof. David Chernoff, astronomy, teaches the online astronomy class in addition to an on-campus class that goes by the same course title.

ASTRO2290x will “explore the powerful and intriguing connections between astronomy and Einstein’s theory of relativity,” according to the class’s edX website.

“I think that every teacher is going to try new things with the edX platform that they’ve never tried in class. I think it requires imagination and experimentation to see ‘what works.” — David Chernoff

According to Chernoff, the edX platform offers more innovative ways to present class material than a traditional lecture, however, it has a few disadvantages.

“[In the MOOC], there are more varied opportunities for conveying information compared to my usual lecture (video, audio, animations, web content), but there are inherent limitations, such as a lack of personal contact, lack of feedback,” Chernoff said in an email.

These limitations can create unique problems that are not common in traditional lectures, so it is unclear whether the online class will be a success, Chernoff said.

“This is great for one-way communication, but the give-and-take of a normal Cornell class is a lot harder to plan for. I’m not sure how this will turn out. I regard this as an experiment.”

Like a traditional class, the MOOC separates class material into different units. Each section begins with animations and several videos of Chernoff speaking and ends with diagnostic and homework questions, as seen on the course website.

The online format allows Chernoff to include several more visuals, aiding the teaching process.

“I especially liked crafting visual demos or explanations that were clearer than what I can typically achieve at the board or in a lecture. I did a lot of animations for illustrating how relativity works. It’s like the old adage, a picture is worth a 1000 words; but here we have at least a few dozen pictures,” Chernoff said.

Chernoff has begun to incorporate MOOC reading materials into his traditional lecture assignments, giving his students a perspective on the differences between the two teaching methods.

Some students in the lecture find the MOOC’s course information to be helpful, but would prefer having personal interactions with Chernoff. This echoes previous concerns raised by some critics of MOOCs, who say that online courses do not allow for the normal face-to-face exchanges between students and professors as a traditional class would, the Sun previously reported.

“I personally like to be in a class. Our class is pretty small, we all get to sit around the table and interact with the professor which is nice. In the MOOC, it’s not as interactive,” Sam Newman-Stonebraker ’17 said. “It’s helpful for supplemental information, and they do some cool visuals, but I wouldn’t want to take a full course on a MOOC.”

However, according to Chernoff, the lecture class and the MOOC are not meant to be equivalent.

A few students said they recognize this difference and felt that the MOOC is not as rigorous as the actual class because it is offered to the general public for a shorter period of time than a semester.

“The [introduction of the] MOOC seemed dumbed down. It makes jumps [between concepts], which in a class like this, you aren’t going to make, because you want to rigorously prove and explain,” Chris Hill ’16 said.

According to John Carberry, University spokesperson, over 17,000 individuals have registered online for the MOOC. People from all over the world, including places such as Sweden, Pakistan and West Virginia, are taking the class and introducing themselves on the course discussion board.

According to the edX website, three more Cornell MOOCs are set to launch in March, spanning subjects such as HIST1514x: American Capitalism, A History, to INFO2040x: Networks, Crowds and Markets.

The university plans to continue developing online courses on the edX platform for the 2014-2015 academic year, according to a Oct. 2013 press release.

“I think that every teacher is going to try new things with the edX platform that they’ve never tried in class. I think it requires imagination and experimentation to see ‘what works,’” Chernoff said. “We’re just at the start of this.”