Now that the MOOC on Copyright for Educators and Librarians has finished its first run, it seems like a good time to post some reflections on what I learned from the experience.
The first thing I learned is that offering a MOOC takes a lot of work, and it is easier when that work is shared. In my case, I was working with two wonderful colleagues — Anne Gilliland from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and Lisa Macklin from Emory — who made the effort of putting the course together much more pleasant. Both are lawyers and librarians with lots of experience teaching the issues we were dealing with, and we are all friends as well, which made the whole process a lot easier. We also benefited from the terrific support we got from consultants working for Duke’s Center for Instructional Technology, which may be the single most MOOC-savvy group at any university.
That we had a great team was not really a surprise. I was a bit more surprised however, and quite pleasantly, by the quality of the student discussion in our MOOC. I had heard from other instructors about how effective the online discussion forums could be, but was just a bit skeptical. Then I was able to watch as MOOC participants would pose difficult questions or struggle with the application of copyright law to a particular situation, and repeatedly the other course participants would work through the problem in the forums and arrive at surprisingly good answers. Peer-to-peer teaching is a reality in MOOCs, and is certainly among the best features of these courses.
One thing we know about MOOCs is that they often have participants with considerable background in the topic; often they have enrolled for a refresher or to see how someone else teaches the topic. These people are a great asset in the MOOC. Even if they are not amongst the most-likely participants to complete a course according to whatever formula for completion is in place, they are tremendously important to the success of the course because of the contribution they make to peer-learning in the discussion forums.
Acknowledging the contribution of “expert students” also offers a reminder to MOOC instructors to take a more humble approach to the standards we set for completion of our courses. The open and online nature of these courses means that students enroll with a wide variety of goals in mind. As I just said, some are experts looking to see how others teach the topic. Completion of quizzes and such may be unimportant to such participants, even though they are getting valuable career or personal development from the course.
Along these lines, I agree wholeheartedly with this essay by Jeff Pomerantz about apologies for failing to complete a course. Like Jeff, my colleagues and I got multiple e-mails in which participants explained their “failure” to complete the course. Like Jeff, we often smiled to ourselves and chocked those messages up to a misunderstanding of what MOOCs are. And like Jeff, we learned that there are so many reasons for taking a course, so many different goals that participants bring to their involvement, that it is more likely we instructors who need to get a better understanding of MOOCs.
Many of the participants in our specific course were librarians and educators; they were our target audiences, so that makes sense. These are groups that take assignments and course completion very seriously, which was reflected in our very high completion rate (over 15%). But it also means that these were folks who wanted to explain to us when they were not going to complete the course according to official standards. Maybe they did not realize that we were unable to track participation at an individual level due to the technology and the volume of students. Nevertheless, we needed to treat their desire to explain with respect, and to recognize that many of those who did not earn a certificate of completion probably got what they wanted from the course, and also very likely made important contributions to what other participants learned.
Last week I attended a meeting of Duke’s MOOC instructors, which focused on discussions about how we can use data available about the MOOCs to learn more about the teaching and learning process. It was a fascinating meeting on several levels, but one thing I got from it was two stories about the kinds of goals that MOOC participants might have.
- One faculty member who had taught a MOOC explained incidentally his own motivation for taking a different online course. His own career as a student had been so focused on his own specialty that he had never gotten a chance to take a basic course in a different field that had always interested him. “There was so much to learn,” he said, “and so little time.” A MOOC gave him a chance to fill that long-felt gap, and I will bet that he was a valuable student to have in the course; very highly motivated, like so many MOOC participants, whether or not he finished the assignments that lead to completion.
- One of the administrators of Duke’s online initiative told about overhearing two students discussing the fact that each was taking a MOOC, and interrupting the conversation to ask why each had enrolled. One of the women was a Ph.D. student who explained that there were certain areas of study or skills that she needed to complete her dissertation that were most efficiently gained by taking parts of a MOOC or two. She registered in order to listen to selected videos that have relevance for her specific research. She is a perfect example of someone who will not count toward a completion statistic but who is gaining something very valuable through her participation.
The other thing I learned from this meeting about potential research enabled by MOOCs is the myriad ways that these online courses can help improve teaching and learning on our own campus. Duke has said all along that improving the experience of our own students was an important goal of our involvement with MOOCs. When I heard this, I usually thought about flipped classrooms. But that is a very small part of what MOOCs can do for us, I discovered. I was privileged to listen to a comprehensive discussion about how the data we gather from MOOCs can be used to improve the student experience in our regular classrooms. Very specific questions were posed about the role of cohorts, the impact of positive and negative feedback, how we can harness the creative ideas students raise during courses, and how to better assess the degree to which individual students have met the unique goals they brought to the course. All of this has obvious application well beyond the specific MOOC context.
The most important thing I learned from the experience of teaching a MOOC actually has little to do with online courses as such. It is a renewed respect for the complexity and diversity of the learning process itself, and a sense of awe at being allowed to play a small role in it.