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This blog was started as my reflections on the 2011 Change MOOC. It is now an on going journal of my thoughts on Higher Education, specifically teaching Biology.

Friday, August 17, 2012

How to build a MOOC

This post came from discussions in #MOOCMOOC today.  There was a brainstorming session about MOOCs, and a live twitter discussion at #digped.  Among the many things that came up was a discussion as to the scale of a MOOC, and an assertion that they had to be MASSIVE.  This was followed by a concept that the only way to make a course sustainable was for it to be massive so that it could accumulate revenue.  There was also a discussion of how to keep people motivated.  So, after a little bit of reflection, I decided to tell a story.

About two years ago, I came to a realization that biology students were not learning biology.  What were they learning, no idea.  This epiphany came when I was teaching a senior level course.  I asked them to define translation, which for biologists is the genetic process where RNA is used by a ribosome to construct a protein; it is the translation of the nucleic acid code into an amino acid code.  They couldn't do it.  Well, at least not at first.  I spent nearly an hour coaxing the definition out of them.  They were all upset that I did not just tell them.  It may be the first time that I really blew up at a class.  For those who are not biologists, this is one component of the CENTRAL DOGMA of biology.  Let me say that again, CENTRAL DOGMA.  It is something taught in freshman classes, and nearly every course we teach covers it again in more depth.  They have come across this term every semester, but none of them could give me a definition of it.  One of the students actually said "well if we saw it as an answer choice I could have told you." 

This was disheartening, and was a real blow to my desire to teach.  I suffered burnout after that semester, and started looking at any alternative I could find (even different careers).  It was as bad as my first bout of teacher burnout, which occurred when a student said to me, "you can't fail me, I paid for the class."  That is when I came across MOOCs.  They were an incredible adventure.  It was not about passing a test, but instead, about actively taking part in learning.  NOT active learning, but actively taking part in your own learning.  BTW...I find most of what is called active learning little different from the instructor playing a game with the students; it rarely makes them an active part of the class.  I knew I had to find a way of doing this with my freshman students, but that was the problem.  These were not sophisticated learners, they were not actively engaged in their own learning.  How to do you get a student to actively become engaged?

My answer was to do certain things in stages, but to make them working on tasks daily a major function of the course.  Why?  If you are a biologist, then you live with biology every day.  The paradigm colors how you perceive the world, as it does with any discipline.  Becoming engaged with your discipline is ultimately the only way to master it. 

So, I built a structure I originally called a pseudo-(or petite)MOOC.  Since then, I've just started calling it Biology Open Learning Opportunities (BOLO).  What I did was adapt elements of the MOOC for my audience.  I built a structure for their learning, and provided a central virtual place for them to meet (not just the LMS).

The course content was divided into 15 week long topics.  Each day, students received a Newsletter that went into depth about an important concept linked to that week's topic.   As part of the content, there was a daily challenge for them to blog about.  These blogs became the background research for their milestone papers (about 5 weeks worth of material) that were peer reviewed.  The three milestone papers became the foundation for their semester end reflective learning paper, which I graded.  Along with that, each week had an online quiz that lead to a milestone quiz, which led to an in class final exam (multiple choice, as that is most likely what they will see later).  There were other elements as well, but these were two major components of the framework I set up.

Was there resistance?  Yes, but by the end, I could actually tell just from the questions being asked and how rapidly my questions were answered, that they were picking up more than any previous semester.  It was incredible.

Now, back to what prompted this.  An open online course does not have to be massive to use the foundations of a MOOC.  A massive class is something that happens, and it does not really work for anyone to try to engineer it.  Trying to build a MOOC from the top down, that is, from the administration, does not work.  I have yet to see an example of a mandated MOOC that actually worked.  MOOCs occur when an instructor opens their class, not when a University VP or Dean decides the school needs one.  MOOCs are built by the faculty, and only those that want to go through the effort. 

As a continuation of the story, I was invited to an Admin meeting by our Provost (it was a group of us doing "new" things in the classroom).  One of Admins said that no one on campus was doing anything with MOOCS.  When my turn came, I stood up, turned on the social network I built for my class that was entitled "BIOLOGY MOOC."  I looked at the admin and said, "some of us are working with MOOCs." 

To Sum Up:  the concept of a MOOC can be taken and reworked for your audience.  You don't have to keep everything; instead use the tools that best fit your audience.  Be courage enough to fail (because something could easily go wrong), but be ready to be surprised by a success.  Effective MOOCs can't be built from the top down.  It has to come from a faculty member that is ready to open their class.  Mandating a MOOC is sure to kill it, because it will not be based on a legitimate learning goal.  BTW  a legitimate learning goal comes from an instructor that knows their audience.