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Illustration of mobile devices and charging cables as square academic convocation hats.
Illustration by Scott Balmer

Screen Time

Online courses are big, bold and potentially game-changing for higher education

Steve Joordens absolutely loves teaching large classes. “I like to think of them being akin to the NASA space program,” says the U of T Scarborough psychology professor. “In order to make something work in very challenging conditions, one is pushed to be innovative and to come up with unique solutions.”

Good thing, then, that Joordens teaches Introductory Psychology. It’s always been the Woodstock of university courses – the one guaranteed every year to attract vast hordes of young people deeply curious about the workings of their own minds.

Joordens is the kind of infectiously happy prof who would probably fill a room no matter what he taught. The recipient of numerous teaching awards, he’s a devoted vegetarian who zips around town on a motorcyle, plays in a rock band and looks much younger than his 48 years. It’s no surprise that his Intro Psych class normally packs in almost 2,000 students. “The more people in the crowd,” he says, “the more energy you have to work with and shape.”

Of course, Joordens’ love of crowds runs counter to received educational wisdom. Giant classes are often scorned as a bad thing, for student and teacher alike. So you might ask why, this past spring, he chose to make his class size even bigger. How big? Try 40,000 students.

Joordens is one of several U of T professors now teaching a “massive open online course,” or MOOC. MOOCs are shorter, video-based versions of regular university courses, and they’re often completely free. With a single mouse click, a prospective student anywhere in the world can now sign up for a class taught by a U of T professor on psychology, computer science, statistics, education or social work – and that’s just for starters. Nine U of T MOOCs have “gone live” since fall 2012; three more are being launched over the next several months.

“A MOOC is more a form of public outreach than it is a traditional university course,” says Cheryl Regehr, U of T’s provost. “We see this as a way of giving the world access to some of our finest instructors.” To do this, the university signed deals with two well-known providers of MOOC software – the for-profit Coursera, and the not-for-profit EdX. MOOCs “provide incredible access to universities for people who ordinarily wouldn’t have it,” says Charmaine Williams, who teaches a social work course on mental health. “They reach people at all different levels, in all kinds of different places.”

The term “MOOC” was coined in 2008 by a group of academics in Manitoba and P.E.I. who were interested in expanding the possibilities of online learning. The first class, offered by the University of Manitoba, bore the name “Connectivism and Connective Learning,” and boasted some 2,300 students. Faculty and administrators at three of North America’s most prestigious universities took note and created their own online learning platforms – Coursera was started by computer science professors at Stanford; EdX at Harvard and MIT. Now, schools around the world are signing on: whether you’re sitting on a park bench or snuggled in bed, you can now return to class at U of T, attend Harvard or study at a university in India or Hong Kong.

Venture capitalists are hugely enthusiastic about investing in MOOCs: so far, Coursera says it has raised some $65 million. Bill Gates is a big supporter. EdX president Anant Agarwal, an electrical engineer, somewhat grandly likens the MOOC revolution to the invention of the printing press, while Andrew Ng, one of Coursera’s co-founders, crows that it’s growing “faster than Facebook” did when it started.

Ng and Agarwal talk about changing the face of higher education – and on the surface, it looks like they might be right. But they are still searching for a viable business model.

U of T’s MOOCs, like most others, are really mini-courses: four- to eight-week versions of the real thing, with no formal credit provided at the end. But some institutions are beginning to experiment with MOOCs that substitute for traditional university courses. This fall, the Georgia Institute of Technology, for example, is offering a MOOC master’s degree in computer science at one-sixth the price of a conventional one. And in Canada, the University of Alberta has just launched a for-credit paleontology course; it costs half of what an in-person course does. One has to wonder: could MOOCs be a truly disruptive technology – higher education’s version of Kindle and Napster?

It’s doubtful. Even the professors who teach MOOCs say they are unconvinced of this. First, there’s the problem of community. MOOCs boast lively discussion boards, but “I don’t see them replacing universities,” says Paul Gries, a computer science professor whose Learn to Program course (taught with Jennifer Campbell) is so far U of T’s largest, with an initial enrolment of 70,000 learners. “I think students really enjoy being connected to a human being. It’s so important to be able to say ‘I don’t understand this line,’ and have somebody sit down and explain it to you.”

Then there’s the infamously low completion rate, which averages from seven to 10 per cent. “It’s very easy to register – and then your life takes over,” says Laurie Harrison, U of T’s director of online learning strategies. Joordens thinks MOOCs are more about process than product: “a lot of people told me they didn’t want the certificate of completion,” he says. “There are some people who say, ‘I watched every lecture, I learned a lot and that’s what I came here for. I wasn’t looking for formal accreditation; I was just looking for the knowledge.’”

It’s also a challenge to ensure academic integrity in a setup involving one professor and thousands of students – and in this respect some courses are more difficult than others. “Plagiarism could be a problem in any MOOC where there’s writing involved,” warns Charmaine Williams. This includes her own social work course. (Registrants to any MOOC are asked to click on an honour code, which, for all its old fashioned charm, is hardly a guarantee that everyone will follow it).

Further, marking is tough. Because a single instructor can’t possibly be expected to mark the work of a student population twice the size of Yellowknife, many lecturers will use computer-graded tests or support additional learning by having the students grade themselves. You simply submit your assignment to up to five other students and they mark it according to guidelines provided, sometimes with additional comments. But is a fellow student’s evaluation as valuable as a professor’s?

Finally, MOOCs cater to an unusually broad group of learners, and it’s sometimes difficult for professors to know exactly who’s out there. Technical snafus can occur: says Gries of his final exam, “you could start it any time you wanted, but you had to finish it in three hours. And we had people posting from Ghana saying sorry – I don’t have electricity for three hours straight, let alone an Internet connection!” He also had to extend his course by a week because of difficulties posed by Hurricane Sandy.

The university’s research suggests that the typical MOOC student is a motivated, curious adult who already has at least one degree. The age range is vast, spanning anywhere from 12 on up. The data also show that more than half of U of T MOOC students are not native anglophones, and Paul Gries says one student actually took his course to improve his English. “He was already a computer programmer. The English was more accessible to him because it was contextualized in a domain he was familiar with.”

So while U of T faculty and administrators are as keen as anyone to know what will happen with MOOCs (“there’s a lot of fog of war around them,” sighs Joordens), few believe they will leave “brick-and-mortar” institutions in their dust – which isn’t to say they aren’t a perfectly interesting complement to the educational landscape.

Earlier this year, Jennifer Campbell and Paul Gries of U of T’s computer science department taught Learn to Program, which attracted an initial enrolment of 70,000 learners. Typically, only a small percentage of MOOC students complete a course

MOOCs represent the kind of fast and easy learning that seems to herald not only a changed university, but a changed brain. Lectures are divided into 10- to 15-minute nuggets and placed on video; they cater perfectly to the YouTube generation – or indeed to any of us who might find a subject interesting, but are intimidated by our lack of background in, say, science or math (not to mention tired after a day spent at our regular jobs).

This past summer, I registered for Charmaine Williams’ course, the Social Context of Mental Health and Illness. The resource material was excellent – the readings were varied and surprising, and Williams was an enthusiastic, smart and friendly lecturer. The MOOC community lacks that personto- person je ne sais quoi, but I found the online discussions fascinating nonetheless. In her introduction, Williams asks students to describe how mental health is treated in their own countries; the information gleaned from her global survey (readily available on the discussion boards) makes for wonderful reading. Students around the world seemed to make common cause; for example, a mother in Bogota, Colombia, frustrated with the treatment of her child’s ADD, found ready counterparts in other countries.

Joordens’ Intro Psych students are especially spirited. They started calling themselves the “Cognitive Cannibals,” picking up on a phrase in his introductory video, and even created their own flag. It’s an important point: MOOCs are fun. They seem to bring university professors down to earth, transforming them from theatrical Laurence Oliviers into televised Jon Stewarts. MOOCs also demystify profs. Williams says that many of her international students are taking a university course for the first time; when they hear PhD, they envision a gallery of pipe-puffing, white-haired, white men. “I don’t fault them for thinking that’s what a university professor is, because that’s what I mostly saw when I went to university,” she says. Part of her motivation for teaching a MOOC was to be “a black woman out there, representing an elite university with elite instructors.”

Like other MOOC instructors, Williams has attained a greater measure of celebrity than she’d otherwise have. People now approach her on the street, and her already overstuffed email inbox now contains 800 more messages each day during the MOOC’s run. As for Joordens, he was able – in response to his adoring fans – to livestream his band’s gig to the worldwide Intro Psych community. And to some degree, he’s attained professional immortality. Once a MOOC’s done, it’s preserved for all time in the cloud, and can be repeated even after the instructor dies or retires.

It’s the kind of reward that makes the onerous task of setting up a MOOC seem worth it. In the future, the laborious process of recording lectures on video, mounting and monitoring discussion forums, and placing PowerPoint lectures online will surely be streamlined. But the future hasn’t happened yet.

Gries says that recording 10 minutes of video takes him between four and eight hours to do each time, and Williams says her family felt like she “disappeared for a long time.” But, on the positive side, she notes: “I’ve developed a whole set of skills that I didn’t have before.”

For all of this, many professors would prefer not to mount MOOCs; the thought of immortality scares rather than excites them. This is because MOOC materials are not only used by lifelong learners in their pyjamas – they are making their way into regular classrooms, too. In a recent edition of The New Yorker, Peter Burgard, a professor of German at Harvard University, articulated his disdain for this latest development. “Imagine you’re at South Dakota State,” he said, “and they’re cash-strapped, and they say, ‘Oh! There are these HarvardX courses. We’ll hire an adjunct for $3,000 a semester, and we’ll have the students watch this TV show.’ Their faculty is going to dwindle very quickly.”

This will not happen at U of T, senior administrators assure. Cheryl Regehr says that while U of T is not averse to letting other schools use their MOOCs, they will not import material from other schools. “We are only using MOOC content created by University of Toronto professors in our inverted classroom pilots,” she says.

The “inverted classroom” is where MOOCs may well have the biggest impact on higher education. Alison Gibbs teaches a MOOC on statistics, which she’s decided to use in her regular second-year course as well. In the “inverted classroom,” students watch Gibbs’ lectures on video at home and tackle problem-solving in class. “Real learning happens when you’re grappling through a problem set – but you typically do that at home, without the guidance of an instructor. So we’re going to actively engage students in class. And the more passive stuff where they’re just watching and taking in information, they’ll do that at home.”

The technological innovations that Joordens is honing within his own MOOC – such as peer assessment and a research instruction tool called the “Digital Labcoat” – can also be used in his regular Intro Psych class; after all, at nearly 2,000 strong, it’s practically a MOOC itself. And he has added features to his online course to better ensure students are actively absorbing material – features that can certainly be used to improve learning capacity across the board.

At U of T, exploration and evaluation of the MOOC experience is ongoing. Researchers are attempting to understand the appeal and potential of these new online course formats. They are also examining the range of teaching strategies that MOOCs make possible, such as peer assessment and the inverted classroom model.

So it’s difficult to argue that MOOCs won’t positively change education, especially if they’re used to improve rather than replace traditional education. And for those outside the classroom (including U of T alumni eager to learn something they missed the first time) online learning could be the next best thing. “My dad used to brag that his son taught over 1,500 students,” Joordens writes in a note on his course blog. “I wish he had lived to see all this!”

Cynthia Macdonald (BA 1986 St. Michael’s) is a writer in Toronto.

Watch a video about the course “Learn to Program: The Fundamentals” by Jennifer Campbell and Paul Gries from U of T:

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