Class of 2013: U.Va. Faculty, Students Give Online Education a Mostly Positive Grade

Emanuel Grant’s introduction to the world of massive open online courses – a/k/a “MOOCs” – came this spring in his final undergraduate semester at the University of Virginia.

The Italian studies major from Fairfax served as a volunteer “Community TA” for the online version of philosophy professor Mitchell Green’s “Know Thyself” class that Grant was taking in person on Grounds. Launched in March, the MOOC drew thousands of online students from around the world, and Grant was impressed by the enthusiasm with which they discussed the course topics on the online forums he helped to monitor.

The weekly multiple-choice tests that the MOOC students must pass to complete their no-credit version of the course don’t warrant the study demands imposed on Grant and the other U.Va. students who took Green’s course for University credit this spring, Grant said. However, the enthusiasm for the material was much more evident among online students, he said.

The quality of the learning experience convinced him to sign up for several math-related MOOCs this summer as a refresher before he takes the MCAT exam for medical school.

“Whereas a U.Va. student has the advantage of being able to meet with professors one-on-one during office hours, it is a privilege that is not always pursued,” Grant, 21, said. “The very nature of the MOOC recruits students who are willing to do any- and everything to get their questions answered online.”

U.Va.’s decision last summer to enter into a partnership with Coursera, which also offers an online platform for courses offered by Stanford University, Princeton University and other leading institutions, marked an effort to expand the reach of its academic offerings to a global audience eager to sample free, noncredit versions of the course offered on Grounds.

Attrition in online participation in MOOCs is common. Of the 72,781 students who initially enrolled for Green’s online course, for example, only 9,140 remained active after 10 weeks.

The thousands who remained, however, spanned the globe.

“One of the most satisfying aspects of the course was that it enabled me to provoke thoughtful debate among people around the world,” Green said. “I asked whether Socrates was correct to claim that the unexamined life is not worth living, and soon I could see the discussion forum abuzz with, for example, one person from Lima, Peru debating with someone else from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, about whether his claim is correct.

“With more than 100 countries represented, my Coursera students benefited from exposure to an astonishing variety of perspectives on many of the enduring questions that the course explored.”

Other faculty across a variety of academic departments launched MOOC version of popular on-Grounds courses, while others experimented with “flipped” course structures that relied on online lectures and online quizzes to open up more time in the classroom for a deeper give-and-take between faculty and students.

Ten faculty members, including biology professor Claire Cronmiller, drama professor Colleen Kelly and law professor J.H. “Rip” Verkerke were awarded challenge grants to flip their courses and redesign them with online tools.

It amounted to a crash course for faculty members who took on the imposing challenge of recording, editing and troubleshooting series of online lectures on top of the other demands of teaching their courses.

Physics professor Louis Bloomfield, who launched a MOOC version of his popular “How Things Work” course, said it was “wildly unrealistic” for him to consider juggling production of the MOOC while teaching his usual courses on Grounds this spring. Bloomfield ended up taking a leave this spring to concentrate on the MOOC, which had more than 4,000 active participants in its final week.

“I think it’s worth the investment, but I ended up putting in about 100 hours per hour of video, and I did it myself,” Bloomfield said. “I was filming, writing or editing from 8 in the morning to 7 at night, day after day after day. It would take me about two weeks to produce each episode.”

Verkerke had a similar experience.

“Preparing screencast lectures was unbelievably time-consuming,” Verkerke said. “It took me about an hour to prepare each minute of screencast video. You have to decide what topics to cover, write a script that’s both thorough and concise, create effective slides and finally wrestle with the technical aspects of recording and posting the files.”

At the same time, the feedback from online students has been positive.

“This is a very valuable experience for a lot of people,” said Bloomfield, who has in his office a sack stuffed with thank-you letters and postcards from online students.

U.Va. Executive Vice President and Provost John Simon said the Coursera courses will be a topic to be discussed during the Board of Visitors’ Education Policy Committee meeting next week.

“We are clearly at the ‘early adopter’ stage where the faculty who are participating are driven by passion,” Simon said. “Preparing courses like MOOCs takes a significant investment of time and resources. If this does expand, we will need to figure out how best to support the efforts at the institutional level. The courses run this year are teaching us about what it takes to make it sustainable. We are learning a lot.”

The reaction to Verkerke’s flipped course on Contract Law among first-year law students was somewhat mixed. Most embraced the active learning exercises and enthusiastically endorsed the distinctive teaching methods, he said, while a few expressed a preference for the more traditional, “Paper Chase” model of Socratic dialogue they had anticipated. Verkerke thought that weekly online quizzes and student responses to in-class exercises gave him a much better sense of how well his students understood the subject. “There was a sense, for me as an instructor, of having a finger on the pulse of their understanding,” he said.

Verkerke used a pared-down version of the flipped approach in the “Employment Law: Health and Safety” course he taught in the spring. Graduating law student Genevieve Aguilar and other students in the class regularly broke off into three-student groups for peer discussion of questions that Verkerke posed online using the Learning Catalytics student response system. These discussions gave students frequent opportunities to make and evaluate legal arguments. At the end of each small group discussion, Verkerke would bring the whole class back together to debrief and discuss the best answers.

“It took a little adjustment, because with the Socratic method, you just listen to your professor lecture, but you don’t have debates or discussions with your fellow classmates,” Aguilar said.  “We had instant feedback with the online quiz. Rip would pose a question about what we thought about a case, and we would anonymously send in a response. We would speak with our classmates about our responses, and then submit answers to the online quiz again. Rip could see our level of understanding both before and after our peer discussions. It’s a lot more active than just listening to a lecture. The method was very effective.”

The flipped approach employed on Grounds in history professor Philip Zelikow’s “The Modern World” course, which also was offered as a 15-week MOOC, drew praise from graduating University students.

“I thought it was definitely a more effective way to learn,” graduating English major Paul Harris said. “I found the video presentations outside of class to be extremely useful. The ability to pause and rewind while taking notes was a definite plus. Further, the discussions Zelikow led during class time I felt supplemented my understanding of the material. I'm not a history major, but I can certainly see this technique being implemented across the curriculum. …

“The only hiccup in my opinion was that the readings were a bit much on top of everything else. I definitely found most of them to be good reads – and obviously pertinent to the course material – but it was often a challenge to complete all of the readings each week.”

As a fourth-year history major, Drew Brophy said he was impressed by the quality of reading assigned to Zelikow’s survey course. The video lectures freed up more time for more interesting conversations in the classroom with Zelikow, he said.

“I think there’s a lot of potential for lower-level classes, because there’s very little interaction with the professor right now outside of office hours. With the MOOC technology, there’s also an incredible opportunity to hold students accountable to do the reading and be ready to engage with the professor in class.”

One debate among faculty members revolves around the University’s ultimate commitment to recognizing the effort involved in launching MOOCs and adding online components to teaching.

“Frankly, if you’re an academic faculty member, your status, your salary, all the perquisites of faculty life, turn on research only, and not at all on your efforts in innovating in teaching,” Verkerke said. “Given that’s the case, every minute you spend, never mind every hour that you spend, working on a screencast lecture is an hour you didn’t work on a new paper to publish to improve your standing.

If the University has any interest in exploring these methods, there’s an extreme conflict between the time demands of doing it well, and the incentive structure that’s in place for academic faculty members.”

Provost Simon said most MOOCs right now are contributions to both teaching and service, and they would be counted as such in promotion reviews.

“It is hard to say what role these will play in education going forward, but our promotion and tenure processes would need to take such roles into account,” he said.

Those who have expanded their reach to students across the globe with new MOOCs said there’s value in the enterprise.

Ed Hess was the first Darden faculty member to launch and manage a MOOC course on Coursera. His entrepreneurial “Grow to Greatness” MOOC far exceeded his expectations, he said. More than 10,000 people completed the free, online version of the course.

“The quality of the conversations on the discussion forums was outstanding,” he said. “We had thousands of people actually participating, learning from each other, sharing, asking good questions. And the workshops posted on the forums, the work product was of high quality and in many cases as good as my MBA students.’

“The outpouring of thankfulness to the University and to Darden and the production team that did all the work was very meaningful. It was very clear there’s a need out there for knowledge all around the world for people who may not have the opportunity to come to the University of Virginia or Darden.”

Media Contact