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My First MOOC: Notes from the Trenches

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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