April 16, 2014

‘Broad Range of Students’ Participate in MOOCs

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A panel of Cornell faculty shared their experiences and perspectives from their involvement with the first launch of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, at Cornell Wendnesday.

Prof. David Chernoff, astronomy, who taught Cornell’s first MOOC course, said he was surprised that there turned out to be a broad range of students from all over the world in his class, rather than just science, technology, engineering and mathematics and high school students, as predicted.

“The actual enrollment was pretty concentrated at the age of about 21 with a distribution in both directions.” Chernoff said. “It was amazing that students that signed up in a range from literally an 11-year-old in elementary school to retired professors.”

In terms of the participants of MOOCs, Prof. Louis Hyman, industrial and labor relations, said he was “stunned” to see so many people from different backgrounds “serious” about his class, which he said was evident by their discussions of complex questions online.

“We have about three to four thousand people arguing about slavery and capitalism in the 19th century, engaging in such a serious fashion,” Hyman said. “It has been incredibly [rewarding to see these] conversations going on online.”

Prof. David Easley, economics and information science, also said that the students of MOOCs are serious, especially about their grades, and can even be described as more “aggressive” than Cornell students when pointing out problems.

“The students of MOOCs, who are doing this for free, are really serious about their grades,” he said. “They jump on quickly and get really unhappy if they don’t get a problem right because you weren’t as straight as you should have been.”

Prof. Edward Baptist, history, said having an international audience is “interesting” because of the different perspectives they bring from all over the world — from a small class in Spain to another in Brazil, for example.

“It is hard for me to imagine a context in which I would have these conversations with [such] a wide range and group of people on professional topics,” he said.

Easley said that by teaching a MOOC he became a better teacher, adding that the course impressed on him the importance of presenting sharp messages in a small time period.

“When you teach in a seven- or eight-minute segment, you really have to focus on the message you want to deliver to make it sharp and quick.” he said. “I think it is going to carry on in campus for what I do in the future.”

Easley said he also plans to apply what he has learned by assigning students MOOC videos to watch. Easley said he hopes that this will give his class a more interactive experience.

Baptist said that in the future MOOCs will supplement the classroom experience. He compared MOOCs to a textbook, saying they will enhance the in-person teaching experience through additional regulated content.

“The way we really should think about MOOCs is not as a replacement for the classroom but as a really great set of possibilities for delivering content in a way we can control,” Baptist said.

Although Chernoff said that he had not felt fully prepared for his first lesson teaching a MOOC, he said he believed the second time he teaches the class be an improvement with “incremental changes,” as a result of putting in more time and effort into understanding the system.

According to Hyman, there needs to be more of a focus on promoting the program and forming relationships with professional associations -— like A.P. Physics teachers — who will find it useful.

“Thinking through how we can partner through American education and global education through this, I think it’s an opportunity for Cornell to be a leader,” he said.