Sweating the Details of a MOOC in Progress

Karen Head, a guest blogger for Wired Campus, 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. She reports periodically on her group’s efforts to develop and offer a massive open online course in freshman composition.

Because I grew up in a military family, the expression “boots on the ground” always informs how I look at the planning and execution of a project. No matter the situation, I believe an accurate assessment of resources and personnel is paramount to success. Like many instructors who have agreed to teach MOOCs (I’m currently working with colleagues to develop a massive open online course in freshman composition at Georgia Tech), I was eager to explore the possibilities. But in recent weeks I’ve begun to feel naïve, and even at times misled, about the necessary resources and procedures.

In defense of all the universities who have signed on to create MOOCs, I don’t think any institution was, or could be, fully ready for the endeavor. There are too many unknowns. As a colleague of mine recently said, “We can’t build the track fast enough for this train to run on.” And this is where eagerness and naïveté really caught up with me—I signed on to this project assuming that the track was already there. It wasn’t, and that has meant a series of disruptions.

In my last blog post, I talked about the missing member of our team—an expert on the interface of MOOC platforms who understands completely what an instructor can and cannot do when using the technology. A few days after that post appeared, I got my wish.

Our specialist is new to MOOCs, but she has the appropriate IT-platform experience and is a very quick study. I am amazed at how much information she has given us in only a couple of weeks. However, some of that information has been sobering—in the way that lets you know you aren’t as prepared as you think.

She has been our “window” into the production side of creating a MOOC. For starters, she quickly helped us to see that we needed to entirely reconsider our timeline. She has also been indispensable in helping us understand how to prepare materials for the Coursera platform—a process I’ve begun calling the “Coursera-fication” of materials.

The preparation of a MOOC, unlike that of a traditional course, requires working with videographers, instructional designers, IT specialists, and platform specialists. For many MOOCs this means that an instructor and a teaching assistant must fill most of those support roles. In fact, one of my colleagues who taught a MOOC actually built a recording studio in the basement of his home. Even with our team of 19, we still needed several other people to provide support. We now also have an internal project manager to coordinate our videography needs. I’m very thankful to have these people helping us.

While we have been busy with logistical questions, we have also been concerned about larger pedagogical issues. We have been holding regular videoconferences with three other universities that are designing composition-related MOOCs. A major topic of discussion among our consortium has been accreditation. As our discussions evolved, we became increasingly concerned by the differences between evaluation methods in traditional classes and in MOOCs. In all our cases, we have been asked if we wished to pursue course accreditation, which is currently carried out by two organizations: the American Council on Education, which evaluates courses that offer transferable college credits, and Signature Track, Coursera’s fee-based system of validating completion of one of its MOOCs.

Our consortium’s members collectively decided to add intention statements to our syllabi, stating that our courses are not equivalent to a semester-long college-composition course. The main reason for that decision is 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.

Without substantive evaluation procedures, granting course credit would be a disservice to both our traditional students and those enrolled in our MOOC. This means that ACE accreditation would not be appropriate for our course. We are, however, open to the idea that a student might present work done as part of a MOOC to an evaluation committee at a particular college, and we are happy to encourage students to pursue that option. But that process would be outside our purview.

My team has also decided against applying for Signature Track validation because we believe that doing so would contradict the spirit of the grant we received from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The grant requires that our content be free to students for at least three years.

So, where are we now? Last week I began the process of recording videos. My first video, which advertises the course, took more than an hour to record. It will run approximately three minutes in edited form. I’m planning to spend a great deal of time in the studio during the coming month. In the meantime, my team will be busy formatting and uploading additional course content. Having begun this process late last November, we now plan to launch in mid-May.

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