My question more specifically is how many of us have been a student in an academic setting recently? When is the last time you took a class and placed yourself in the role of a student? Even more to the point, when did you last attempt to learn something that was challenging for you?
I have been reading about MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses) for some time. I have read good things and bad things about them. I have even formed opinions about them based on what I have read. What I have not done is experience one. I decided over the Christmas break to change that. I signed up for Calculus One offered by the University of Ohio and taught by Jim Fowler.
I had/have a couple of goals in mind while taking this course. First, I really wanted to take a Calculus class and extend my learning. Second, I wanted to experience a MOOC and evaluate it from the perspective of both teacher and student. I thought I would share some of what I have learned.
The class is administered through Coursera. Course materials are presented in weekly units. The material is opened up on Monday and ends with a quiz on Sunday night. You may work at any pace, but if you get ahead you must wait until Monday for the next unit or module to open.
- There are usually 10-12 video lectures that are 6-15 minutes in duration. Most of the videos are around eight minutes long.
- They have a “Mooculus” page that has interactive exercises that correspond with the course material.
- There is a textbook in .pdf format
- There is an online forum where students may post questions and engage in discussions about the course. Students as well as staff interact in the forums.
The Video Lectures
Since I use a flipped model in my classroom and frequently employ videos as an instructional tool, it has been interesting to experience video instruction as a student. I have to say I really like it. I have a moleskine notebook and take notes during the video. I really like being able to pause and rewind the video while copying information or to have a point repeated. I personally use a modified Cornell Notes form of note taking and like that I can pause the video when I want to jot down a thought, question, or comment related to the lecture.
From a production standpoint I have learned some things. Jim Fowler is over-the-top animated in these videos. It’s like watching Ron Clark. He’s excited and enthusiastic and constantly moving. The teacher side of me is realizing that this is probably acting – to a degree – but I appreciate it. Whether it is real or acting he inspires some enthusiasm for a subject that many people don’t find exciting.
It is a reminder to me to be excited about my content with my own students. All of us are passionate about the content we teach – that’s why we teach it. Taking this course has reminded me that we must demonstrate our passion and enthusiasm to our students. We may need to step out of our comfort zone and even do a little acting at times to make our classes more enjoyable. I know I appreciate the efforts of Dr. Fowler in this course.
I really like the exercises on the “Mooculus” page. They are similar in nature to the exercises on Khan Academy. Questions are populated with a random number generator of some sort. Progress is measured from “red” to “green” on a bar shown on the page. There is a hints button that will walk you through a problem if you don’t know what to do.
These exercises are great. There are exercises that I move through quickly – they give me confidence that I know what I’m doing. There are some exercises that require me to use the “hints” button until I figure out how to approach the problem. It’s great that there is a random number generator that keeps generating problems as long as you want to practice a skill. There are usually 10-15 exercises for the week. There has been one exercise each week that I could not figure out – and that leads to the forums.
I believe the online forums are the Achilles’ heel of this MOOC and possibly MOOCs in general. There are discussion threads dedicated to the lectures, textbook, exercises, quizzes, and general discussion. The idea is to post questions or concerns that are subsequently answered by other course participants or course support staff. I have my doubts about this form of communication based on my experience so far.
There is a great deal of interaction on the forums and the staff can be seen to interact. The problem is that I have not received the help I need in a timely manner. I have posted to three different threads asking for guidance in the exercise that I cannot master. The types of responses I get are, “I looked at the textbook and messed with it until I figured it out.” Hello – that’s not helpful – I have been trying to figure it out. I need help.
I thought I would just e-mail one of the staff – wrong. They post to the forum and respond to the posts they choose – you cannot contact them directly. So that sort of leaves me twisting in the wind – and the quizzes come on Sundays. How often do we fail to offer our students the support they need – when they need it?
This has been the most eye-opening experience for me as I think about my role as a teacher. We think we explain our concepts clearly – at least we try hard to do so. The problem is that we cannot predict or control when and where our students need help. I think we must always look for ways to offer timely and effective assistance to students that are struggling and need our help.
In the case of my course exercises, I’m sure I just need a ten minute discussion with someone to help me see whatever it is I’m missing. The problem is that I will remain “stuck” until I get that assistance. If enough time goes by without the help I need – I will fall behind and fail. How many of our students has this happened to in our schools?
Another area of concern is the weekly tests. I have only taken one test and it was a surprise. I had watched all the lectures and taken notes. I had read the textbook. I had completed all of the exercises (except one) to a point of mastery. I was ready for the weekly exam right? Wrong again, buckaroo.
I made a 50 on my first attempt – what? Ok, I misread two questions. One question was over something that was never mentioned in the lectures or the exercises. The level of difficulty was also different between the exercises and the quiz. There is a BIG lesson here for all of us as educators.
We must test what we teach. It was frustrating for me to think I had done everything necessary to be successful and then make a 50 on my first quiz. Being an adult and a motivated learner, I went over the material again, Googled a few things and took the quiz again. The next time I made an 80 – much better.
I wonder how a younger student feels though when this happens? Do they feel dumb? I’ll confess I did for a bit. Is that fair? I had done everything I was asked to do and then I felt blindsided a bit. We need to strive not to put our students in that position. I do not believe it was done intentionally in this class, but perceptions are an effective reality.
After my first week these are the lessons I have learned as an educator:
Asynchronous instruction is the way to go.
If we the technology is available, allowing students to work at their own pace is the way to go. I had duty one night at the basketball games; I had to plan lessons another night – I have things to do besides this MOOC. Our students are the same. They have sports, band, birthday parties, church, and family. It is a great service to them if we allow them to work within a reasonable timeframe to accomplish their learning.
Deadlines are important.
Along with asynchronous learning we need deadlines. Without deadlines we all tend to procrastinate and put things off. Deadlines keep us honest.
Videos are a good thing.
Recording mini lectures is a good thing – it won’t mean we are expendable as teachers. It just means we can make information available 24/7 and allow students to pause, rewind, and repeat information while studying.
Practice is important.
There is a big push against homework but I can’t imagine learning Calculus without it. I gain information during the lectures, but it’s when I’m applying it in the exercises that I gain a bit of mastery. It is important that students be able to struggle with concepts and work on them until they reach a point of acceptable mastery.
Standards Based Grading is good.
I can’t imagine doing problems sets and then waiting for them to be graded – I would probably fail. I like the online exercises and the “progress bar.” I can work on a concept as much as necessary until I reach a point of mastery – either I know it, or I don’t. That is good for our students as well.
Communication is critical.
We must be available to our students – when they need help. We can make ourselves available through applications like Edmodo, e-mail, Google hangouts, and good old face-to-face interactions. I think what I take away from my experience is to honor and respect every question. What may seem trivial to us may nevertheless be a point of confusion for a student.
Test what you teach.
This may seem obvious but we need to monitor our assessments to be sure we are assessing the material we are teaching.
Tests (and grades) are necessary.
The weekly exam is important. I want a summative assessment to measure my competency after a week of study – it is necessary to measure what I have learned. We do need to assess what students know – we just need to be careful how we use the information.
In the case of my MOOC, I can retake a quiz up to 1,000 times – I am allowed to reassess if I don’t meet an acceptable standard. Our students deserve the same opportunities.
Blended learning is the future.
Overall I am pleased with the MOOC. I just wish I could interact with the staff directly – occasionally. I want to make my high school physics class a blended learning environment. I want them to be able to work at their own pace within guidelines and have me available face-to-face when they need individualized help. I am happy to report that I feel I am making steps toward that reality.
Being a student is a good thing.
Becoming a student again has been good for me as teacher. I would encourage all of you to take a class that challenges you intellectually – it will make you a better teacher.