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Developing and Delivering a MOOC: Lessons from the Front Line

AUDIO | Developing and Delivering a MOOC: Lessons from the Front Line
As institutions look to partner with external providers to develop MOOCs, they should be aware of challenges they might face, ranging from faculty buy-in to course design compatibility.

The following interview is with Gary Matkin, dean of the UC Irvine Extension. At the recent UPCEA National Conference in Boston, Matkin presented on UC Irvine’s experience in joining Coursera. Coursera has been highly successful in partnering with elite higher education institutions worldwide and working with them to create Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) to be distributed and hosted on Coursera to millions of students. In this interview, Matkin discusses the process of creating a MOOC and how to navigate some of the challenges institutions face in this endeavor.

1. Why are so many institutions looking to offer MOOCs through providers such as Coursera and edX?

I think it’s one of the first well-publicized channels where open education, free education, can be offered and really get a lot of people involved and enrolled in it. Open education has been around for a long time. Open CourseWare started back in 2001 with MIT putting all its open stuff online. And then we had a lot of other universities joining the Open CourseWare movement and open education resources, and then we had iTunesU and YouTube with hundreds of thousands of hours of free lectures and courses.

But all this huge amount of open stuff really never clicked with institutions until the MOOCs came along. And when Stanford [University] came along and offered a MOOC, somehow open education, quality of education, online education, all came sort of flooding into the consciousness of higher education in a brand new way. And so, MOOCs really have moved the bar, not only in terms of open education, but also in just plain online education. There’s much more acceptance of online education now … that MOOCs have been demonstrated and people can see what it really looks like.

2. What are the most significant challenges institutions must overcome when they partner with a MOOC provider?

First of all, the biggest challenge — and it underlies a lot of problems — … is that MOOCs differ from full online courses in very significant ways. And, yet, they look, seem and sometimes feel like online courses to the students.

So, for instance, … we had one MOOC that’s serving 37,000 students. Well, a professor cannot serve 37,000 students in the same way he or she serves 40 students in an online class. So, there’s automatically a difference. And yet, if you look at the online MOOC, it really looks like online courses, sometimes they even look better … than many online courses. So, big confusion underlying what the use of MOOCs are, what the audience is for MOOCs, how the audience reacts to MOOCs. This whole notion of dropout rates is really one of those total misunderstandings of what a MOOC is, and yet it becomes important in the press. There are many, many challenges … when you go from a regular online course or even a classroom course to a MOOC. There’s just some big differences and people don’t really recognize what those differences are sometimes.

3. Why do you think some faculty are opposed to the idea of their institution making use of MOOCs and, by the same token, how can an institution overcome the challenges that are brought on by faculty?

… My counsel always is, “MOOCs are what they are; take a look at them and see what they’re doing now.”

Instead of saying, “Oh, what could they be? What might they be? What might they do? Are they disruptive? Are they revolutionary?”

All these terms and all these things, all these value judgments, get loaded onto MOOCs and people really lose sight of what they actually are and what they’re doing right now. So, for instance, the faculty at San Jose State University, they say this is a kind of a plan by the administration to reduce the cost of education by reducing the number of professors that they actually pay to do the work and so forth. Boy, that’s as far away from reality as you can get in terms of what MOOCs are doing right now.

And then, on the other hand, you see some places like … Georgia [Institute of Technology] is using MOOCs as the basis for a very low-cost master’s degree. So, in that case, the faculty has endorsed the notion of a MOOC and used it for their own, according to their own standards, to produce a low-cost, very accessible degree. So, again, individual faculty and collective faculty can … see MOOCs as being threatening, being an opportunity; it goes all over the map. If you look overall, there is a pretty good balance among faculty about what they’re thinking about in terms of MOOCs.

4. Were there any specific challenges your institution came up against in developing MOOCs and, if so, how did your institution overcome them?

Well, certainly the challenges were not with the faculty members. We obviously wouldn’t do anything the faculty member didn’t want to do and wasn’t really enthusiastic to do. We tried to make sure that the faculty member knew what they were expected to do if they did agree to put a course up as a MOOC, although we were certainly in the dark about what that was, so we had to find faculty that were really a little bit flexible. Because all of us knew that we didn’t know what was really going to happen when we put these things up there.

But the challenge, first, there were technical challenges because the standards for Coursera [were different than our own]. We used our already-existing online courses that we developed, but putting them into a Coursera framework — using Coursera specs — cost us a bit more than we expected it to. We had to … rework the courses. So, that was a little bit of a surprise. It wasn’t a challenge but it was a surprise.

And then the second thing, the big surprise, was of course that — particularly for the faculty members — was the audience was very, very different from the audiences that they were used to. So, for instance, very few people really kept up with the lessons. If you’re a faculty member, you’re expecting something else or you’re used to something else, that’s disappointing. And then of course … since if you have 30,000 people you’ve got people from every kind of political viewpoint, particularly even viewpoints on how the instruction of this course should be undertaken, and those people have no qualms about voicing their opinions. And so, the faculty have to be a bit thick-skinned and try to ignore that.

In fact, what we’re saying now to faculty is, “We will probably not respond to any individual students. If we’re going to respond at all, other than our pre-programmed prompts, it will be to groups of students rather than to individual students, for sure.”

But anyway, there were some challenges in terms of actually conducting the course and getting into some areas where we hadn’t been before.

5. How much support can institutions expect in the creation and development of MOOCs from their chosen MOOC provider?

… We think Coursera has a pretty good platform and they’re improving it all the time. And their support, their technical support, has been, I think, pretty good and their support with regards to public relations and other things has been pretty good.

Of course, they too are in a big experiment. So, some of the business aspects such as, and particularly around, the intellectual property are still being worked out; not an issue, but as you jump into this, there are some stitches that we didn’t catch and we had to go back and pick up these stitches a little bit with regard to legal stuff. But, overall, I would say that Coursera was a very good partner for us and really supported us in what we were doing.

6. Is there anything you’d like to add about the experience of developing online courses for Coursera and the experience of joining up with a MOOC provider?

I think the main advantage we had is that once the MOOC phenomenon came on and once my campus, our campus, got onto Coursera, the whole discussion around online education — its applicability, its value and so forth — changed.

More people began coming to us with ideas about online courses. … Although on our campus we were very progressive, I think our faculty were really using online. And we had 40 courses online courses so we’re ahead of everybody in the UC system. But the MOOC and our joining Coursera completely turned the conversation in a very positive direction. So, in any event, the publicity we got — we had 250,000 people who enrolled in our Coursera courses — all of that was a really great experience.

We learned a lot and, as I say, it shifted the conversation on our campus about online in a positive direction. It could easily go the other way soon if we hit snags and so forth, but so far it’s been really very positive for us.

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