Massive Open Online Adventure

Teaching a MOOC is not for the faint-hearted (or the untenured)

Keith Negley for The Chronicle

April 29, 2013

When I was first approached about teaching a MOOC, my initial response was no. I wondered how anyone could possibly teach writing in a massive open online course—a question that many of my colleagues are still asking. But I decided to accept the challenge, because when so many people are hyping this new pedagogical technology, I didn't want anyone who was already an eager proponent to misrepresent what is really involved in designing and teaching a MOOC. There is no way to ignore MOOCs, so becoming part of the conversation by also becoming part of the process is the only way to find out what is, or is not, possible.

It has been a steep learning curve, as I have reported in periodic postings on The Chronicle's Wired Campus blog. Among the lessons I have learned so far: The time demands, logistics, and politics of developing a MOOC will bury you—particularly if you do not have tenure. There are also important questions about evaluation. And there are new safety and privacy issues associated with teaching a MOOC, issues that no one seems to be discussing.

In November my 19-person team at the Georgia Institute of Technology was awarded a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to explore the possibilities of teaching a first-year MOOC on college writing. We were one of four institutions to receive such grants.

Originally we were set to begin in late April, but we pushed back our start date by a month because of technical problems and misunderstandings about procedures. A month ago, we hired an expert to consult with us about the Coursera platform, which our course will use. Then we learned that in addition to extending our timeline, we needed to change certain curricular features. For example, we wanted to have students review the short writing samples they would produce in quizzes during sessions of the course, but we discovered that students' answers would not be available to them after quiz completion. Based on our early enrollment, we expect to have at least 20,000 students. The largest course I've taught before had 62 students.

Even if you routinely teach large courses, a MOOC requires far more time to prepare and execute. To prepare the three lectures offered in a single week, my team spent about 20 hours planning and developing content. I spent an additional eight hours rehearsing my lectures. It took just under four hours to record the video for three formal lectures. I cannot speak to the editing process, because another unit at Georgia Tech does that work, but it usually takes five to 10 days to receive the edited video and get Coursera approval. Even then there is more work to incorporate any quiz links or other "in-class work" that takes place during lecture pauses. Finally there is the "Courserafication" process of uploading and configuring the content for use on our Coursera site. Formatting assignments and other content takes still more time.

So, what will happen when we finally launch? How many hours will it take to read and respond in forums? What about unexpected issues? I don't know. Given the stumbling blocks we have already faced, I am sure there will be additional challenges. The MOOC feature that troubles me most is the formal, recorded video format. When I record these videos, I'm standing in a small, dark studio. The other principal investigator on the project, Rebecca Burnett, hunches behind the camera. She is my only audience.

This is not how I usually teach. I prefer discussions to lectures, and I crave the connection I have with students in a traditional course. In fact, this MOOC format is in direct opposition to everything I believe good teaching to be. Perhaps I will have a greater sense of connection to the students once we start the course, but I will never know them the way I know my traditional students. This troubles me because knowing my students well helps me understand how best to teach them.

One of the most important conclusions I've drawn from the experience is this: If you are an untenured faculty member, you really shouldn't attempt a MOOC. The planning process alone is overwhelming. Because I have a grant and because research about writing instruction is part of my accepted research portfolio, I will submit all MOOC-related work as part of my future tenure case. I am very fortunate that Georgia Tech values this kind of inquiry. However, for faculty members in many other disciplines, I doubt that a MOOC would count as anything more than a line item in a teaching portfolio.

The other disadvantage of being an untenured MOOC instructor is politics: Many constituencies want MOOCs to be the great new educational revolution, and their motivations can vary widely. As I mentioned in a recent blog post, we have regular videoconferences with the three other universities that are designing composition-related MOOCs. This consortium has been important because all four teams must confront certain political and practical realities. Those who do not have such a support mechanism might find themselves in difficult territory, and should ask some important questions before undertaking a MOOC.

Will you be able to publicly express your concerns if something about your MOOC seems pedagogically unsound? If your university doesn't have the technological capacity to support you, will you have to solve the problems yourself? Who will pay your video-production costs? (Our MOOC has spent $32,000 on production so far.) Will you be able to challenge administrators who want to control your content? Will you be forced to submit to evaluation schemes that would allow your course to carry credit?

Battles about evaluation and credits may become too risky for untenured faculty members to fight. In all four of our cases, we have been asked by administrators if we want to take steps toward making our courses for-credit. Two groups currently evaluate MOOCs: The American Council on Education operates a credit-recommendation service that evaluates individual courses. And as a possible first step, Coursera offers Signature Track, a fee-based system of validating completion of one of its MOOCs.

Our consortium's members—in what I believe will become an important moment in the history of our field—collectively decided to add intention statements to our syllabi, stating that our courses are not equivalent to semester-long college-composition courses. The main reason for this decision was not that we believe our courses have inferior content, but that there is simply no way to adequately evaluate the writing of thousands of students—something we would need to be able to do to certify their work. The evaluation of student work in our course will employ guided peer assessment.

But, some of you might ask, what about new machine-grading technologies being touted in recent articles? The answer to that question is a long one. For now, I will say that such mechanisms remain unable to provide substantive evaluation, and I recommend that those who want to learn more on the subject look into the extensive research done by Les Perelman at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Aside from the actual course preparation, I have encountered other unexpected issues. Days before enrollment opened for our course, one of our IT specialists advised me to change my public e-mail address because there is a good chance that some students may try to reach me outside the course platform. This has the potential of overloading my inbox, making my regular university duties harder to manage. This conversation quickly led to a consideration of other potential privacy issues. Might students call me at work? What if a local student decided to come to my office at Georgia Tech? What about my general privacy and personal safety? Those were questions I had never considered. Suddenly this adventure had a darker element.

I hope the worst outcome is the sobering, hourlong conversation I had with the chief of Georgia Tech's campus police. The director of security for my building suggested that I temporarily move my office to a more secure location, in a different building on the campus. I had decided that all of this was ridiculous until some unknown person began repeatedly calling me. He refused to leave messages, saying only that the call was in reference to MOOCs, and he pressed my staff to give out my personal mobile number.

Instances like that suddenly feel ominous. If universities ever require faculty members to teach MOOCs, they will also need to consider the possible implications of requiring someone to become a public figure.

When my colleagues see me (which isn't very often these days), they ask if I would still make the decision to teach a MOOC, given what I now know. As the French author André Gide wrote, "One doesn't discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time."

While it hasn't been smooth sailing, I still see this as an important adventure. I already see the potential for MOOCs to provide certain supplemental content for my traditional classes, freeing me to do more of the work that only I can do with students. This form of a hybrid classroom excites me very much.

Karen Head is an assistant professor in the Georgia Institute of Technology's School of Literature, Media, and Communication, and director of the institute's Communication Center.