Learning in MOOC Years

Eight weeks and 30,000 students gave me a crash course in the future of digital learning technologies

By Professor Douglas C. Schmidt

During the past decade I’ve taught software design and programming courses to roughly 600 undergraduate and graduate students at Vanderbilt. Our low faculty-to-student ratio is one of the reasons I like my work—it’s gratifying to watch students’ progress and envision the futures that lie ahead of them.

Doug Schmidt

Not every bright student has the chance to come to Vanderbilt, of course. And worldwide, there’s an acute need for the kind of expertise we provide. So when I had the chance to teach one of Vanderbilt’s first Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) through the digital consortium Coursera this semester, I was intrigued. MOOCs pose many social, economic and technical challenges for the future of higher education, and here was my chance to experience some of them.

Since March, I’ve been teaching an eight-week MOOC, “Pattern-Oriented Software Architecture for Concurrent and Networked Software,” to more than 30,000 students from all over the U.S. and scores of other countries. In a traditional classroom it would take me 500 years to reach that number of students! Teaching a MOOC has been a learning experience for me, too—beginning with intense preparation that started months before the course launched.

Filming a video lecture used by 30,000 students as their primary exposure to course content requires much more preparation than a traditional class, a tighter script and great slides. It took two solid months of filming to produce 20 hours of video (split into more than 80 individual videos), and I prepared more than 1,200 slides for those videos.

Each week of my MOOC has featured more than two hours of lecture videos, broken into 10- to 20-minute chunks. I quickly had to master the art of presenting slides smoothly and at an even pace—and to maintain a high level of energy and enthusiasm while staring into the steely gaze of a video camera for hours on end.

The first session launched March 4. It didn’t take long for us to start receiving feedback, especially from students on the other side of the globe, where March 4 began hours earlier. That allowed us to quickly make corrections before students closer to Vanderbilt had even viewed the first materials.

Since that first session, the diversity of students—the bulk of whom are in their 30s and 40s—has proven to be both rewarding and challenging. For instance, I can rely on my Vanderbilt students having taken the course prerequisites, but Coursera enforces no prerequisites. For the MOOC we filmed an additional six hours of supplemental material to prepare less-experienced students.

Likewise, MOOC students with 20 or more years of experience as software professionals have much stronger preferences for particular programming languages, runtime platforms and software tools than typical undergraduates. I’ve found they ask more probing questions about the pros and cons of different technical approaches presented in the videos. We therefore spent much more time in the online discussion forums motivating and justifying the topics and techniques covered in the lectures, as compared with a traditional undergraduate course.

Learning involves much more than watching videos; it requires meaningful conversations between students and teachers. We used two primary social media tools—online discussion forums and webcasting—to make our MOOC feel much more like an interactive on-campus course. We used Google Hangout in conjunction with a YouTube channel to hold “virtual office hours.” Students asked questions via instant messaging, and I broadcast answers live. Google Hangout also automatically recorded all this material so students could review it at their convenience. As this social-media technology matures, it becomes feasible (though very time-consuming) for MOOC professors to engage in conversations with students that are similar in quality and quantity to those found in large lecture courses in many universities.

But how do you assess the performance of 30,000 students? In my traditional classes at Vanderbilt, I review and comment upon every line of software written by my students. That level of personalized scrutiny couldn’t happen in my MOOC. Moreover, the auto-grading tools available to assess students in a “fact-based” MOOC aren’t of comparable maturity for design-oriented courses in terms of assessing such attributes as reusability, understandability and evolvability. Peer assessment might provide one means of measuring student work, but we’d have to rely on students with a wide range of abilities evaluating each other’s solutions. These limitations only serve to underscore the invaluable role that expert judgment and evaluation play in fostering critical thinking for our on-campus courses at Vanderbilt.

So, aside from increasing knowledge for a greater range of learners, what benefit do MOOCs offer Vanderbilt? Coursera courses are free to the students and do not earn them Vanderbilt credits. However, the months spent preparing videos and lecture materials for my MOOC have significantly improved my on-campus courses. My material is organized better than ever, due in no small part to contributions from MOOC students. The high-quality material we produced for my MOOC will enable my on-campus students to personalize their learning. They can watch videos at their own pace, read transcripts, and learn from the discussion forum. Moreover, I’m restructuring my on-campus course for this fall to apply a “flipped classroom” model, using the videos we created for the MOOC to shift some of the lecture content outside of class time, leaving more time for classroom interaction.

The material we’re creating for our MOOCs also can be applied to better connect with Vanderbilt alumni and involve them more in the intellectual life of the university. Likewise, our high-quality education is now visible to thousands of bright students around the world, which encourages them to apply to Vanderbilt and partake in the exciting learning culture happening here.

In this rapidly changing and globally competitive environment, we must continue to clarify and refine the value of an immersive college education that builds upon our interdisciplinary strengths in teaching, research, entrepreneurship and innovation. I’ve had a great experience creating and teaching a MOOC at Vanderbilt during the past few months, which seem like an eternity in “MOOC years.” Vanderbilt’s experience has positioned us for a leadership role in the most effective use of MOOCs and other emerging digital-learning technologies in the coming years.
Douglas C. Schmidt is a professor of computer science, associate chair of the computer science and engineering program, and a senior researcher at the Institute for Software Integrated Systems, all at Vanderbilt University. He has published 10 books and more than 500 technical papers about software-related topics.

Watch presentations about Doug Schmidt’s experience with MOOCs.