Published on 2013/07/05
My First MOOC: Notes from the Trenches
While the concept of teaching a Massive Open Online Course can be exciting, there are some scary moments in the planning period leading up to its launch.

When I was first approached by the Rutgers University central administration to teach a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), my initial reaction was: why not? I had already been teaching an online course based on astronomical software for the past dozen years. How different could a MOOC be? How much more work could it be? The short answers are: very and very

As an award-winning professor, few of my colleagues could understand my initial foray into online education to begin with, let alone a desire to attempt a MOOC. Why do this at all? The simple response I gave myself at the beginning was, “This is what astrophysicists do. We look at data, analyzing observations with sophisticated software, and create models of the phenomena we observe. The only way to truly communicate this to students is to have them do it themselves.” Hence, the basic online approach. I certainly wasn’t sure whether an online course in, say, psychology, was called for, but to explore the universe writ large, doing what scientists do, it seemed like the way to go.

The surprising thing, though, learned after my first experiences with online education was that several other facets emerged, which I suspect will carry over into the MOOC environment. The first surprise was participation in the online threaded discussions brought forth many more students, especially women and minorities. It is much easier, it seems, to commit to a well-thought-out written response than it is to expose yourself to spontaneous verbal comments in a lecture hall. The second facet was not really surprising, but more of another initial reason for trying the online environment,  namely, the advantage of a permanent written record of material as the course progressed. Over the past decades, it became clear to me that many of the important subtleties delivered in a verbal lecture were simply lost in the passing moment. Being able to read, re-read and re-read again provides a vital link toward understanding difficult ideas and concepts.

This brings me to the first terrifying aspect of the MOOC. The permanence of the video lecture, while enabling the student to peruse the material fruitfully, also means the recording needs to be close to perfect. At times, I feel like I’m losing ground. A 10-minute lecture segment can take three days to get right. New software needs to be mastered. I need a haircut! I need to change that shirt! I need to add a sentence six minutes and 28 seconds into the segment, because I forgot to mention x !

The list of things to do seems endless. I need to embed quizzes. I need to worry about copyrighted material. Everything is an issue. Ah, for the days of just picking up a piece a chalk and winging it …

I tell myself it will get easier, and it has, somewhat. I’m starting to understand I need to compromise at each stage and accept the vulnerability of imperfection. And I’m starting to have fun. I’m taking photographs of hummingbirds at various shutter speeds, to demonstrate the effects of integration time on the determination of time variability of astronomical objects. I’m shooting videos of skipping stones over my pond to show how x-rays can be focused in satellites.

But the work load is staggering. I’m both grateful and terrified by the deadlines I have to meet. Grateful, because it means seeking after an elusive and impossible perfection will end. Terrified, because the final quality is yet to be determined. Will the students stick it out? (After all, they don’t have to do this.)

This brings me to the final reason that sustains my desire to do a MOOC: the fact that tens of thousands of students want to experience this. A class that is not taken because of a science distribution requirement, but because it sounds really interesting? Teachers yearn for this. And the fact that this exciting opportunity exists for kids in developing-world slums as much as it does for students in the United States is just icing on the cake. What professor could resist?

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Readers Comments

WA Anderson 2013/07/05 at 9:13 am

I would be paralyzed if I was filming a video lecture that millions of people could potentially watch over the course of my lifetime.

The really neat thing about these MOOCs, though, is the idea that an instructor can impact and guide instruction on a topic for years. You can personally support an individual’s learning on this topic 150 years from now!

Yvonne Laperriere 2013/07/05 at 12:02 pm

Do you have a support team to help you develop the MOOC?

This is to say, are you doing it by yourself, or do you have instructional designers, graphic designers and video experts working with you?

My fear is that through MOOCs, universities are translating their typically poorly-prepared online learning programs onto the global scale without taking the necessary steps to improve the delivery…

    Kristine Harris 2013/07/05 at 3:06 pm

    My question is similar to Yvonne’s, but more focused on the Coursera side. How much support does Coursera grant you in creating the course?

    Are you completely in charge and directing the piece, with a final approval from Coursera? Or do they have an idea of what they want in mind and work with you to develop it to completion?

      Terry Matilsky 2013/07/30 at 1:46 pm

      Coursera seems to be giving me quite a bit of freedom here. However, since the course requires an unusual software component, I am responsible for all the hardware costs (new 64 core server to ensure reliability for many thousands of users, etc….) They do have guidelines for content, but these would typically be met by any college level course worth its salt. Their engineers have been quite helpful in providing guidance and demographics to ensure that I won’t incur a major meltdown at some point. We’ll see how well everything works, very soon!

    Terry Matilsky 2013/07/30 at 1:39 pm

    I have an incredibly talented producer, who can guide me through any rough spots and fix a lot of small things without having the necessity of “re-shooting” a whole lecture. A lot of the still photography I am doing myself, since I am a pretty good photographer and it’s a lot of fun.

    I agree that much of the on-line content in some courses is done quite poorly, but the MOOC is a whole other ball game; very little of my “standard” on-line course translates well into the MOOC. I was surprised that this is the case.

Deborah Ruth 2014/10/19 at 8:00 am

I’m taking your coursera class right now. It’s great! Thanks for sharing with all of us! How can we get more universities to contribute MOOC courses?

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