Ithaka S+R recently produced a report titled MOOCs in the Classroom? Which is well worth a read, and I recommend it.

I’ve dedicated the past several posts to analyzing data from my Metadata MOOC. But what I haven’t mentioned is that this semester I’m also teaching the Metadata course (INLS 720) for my School, the School of Information and Library Science, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In fact it’s still ongoing; the last day of our semester is December 4. And in fact I’m teaching 720 online, not in a physical classroom. So I think that looking at a MOOC and a “traditional” online course, on the same subject, taught at the same time, by the same instructor, would make for an interesting comparison.

As an aside… Honestly, I swear to you that it’s just rank coincidence that I’m teaching both INLS 720 and the Metadata MOOC in the same semester. How that came about is a story, though probably quite an uninteresting one. But happen it did. And because I’m not one to pass on an opportunity like that, I used the Metadata MOOC in my section of INLS 720. The Ithaka report is concerned with how “MOOC content could be blended into hybrid courses.” And since that’s exactly what I did, I wanted to dedicate a post to discussing it.

So how did I blend my MOOC content into my course? First, I made sure that we launched the MOOC as close to the start of UNC’s Fall semester as feasible. Which meant that we launched on September 2, about 2 weeks into the semester. (Our academic year starts early at Carolina.) Why did I want to launch the MOOC at the start of the semester? So that I could use the MOOC video content in 720. I deliberately designed the MOOC so that rank beginners, with no experience with either metadata or Information Science, could participate. I figured week 1 of the MOOC, the really broad brushstroke overview unit, would be at least partly redundant for the students in 720. So I wanted them to get that done early. But I also wanted the students in 720 to have some time up-front, to lead into the course. Those 2 weeks gave us some time to set the stage, introduce the course & the topic, discuss the assignments, etc.

Also please note that Sept 2 was the Labor Day holiday, so everyone at Carolina was off that day. In retrospect, launching the University’s first ever MOOC on a day that no one was working, was perhaps not the best decision. It all worked out fine, because both I and Kim Eke were manning battlestations, despite the holiday. But still. Note to all those planning to launch MOOCs, or any new new technology initiative: make sure it’s a workday when you launch.

Second, I ran what I call “virtual office hours” for the students in 720. In fact, I’m still running them once per week, using Google Hangouts. Not that many students actually attend them. But that’s fine; not many students come to my office hours when I have them in a physical office, either. The point, I’ve always thought, was just to have them, in case any student does want to talk about something. Which does happen, though mostly at the beginning and end of the semester.

Third, the MOOC was just one assignment out of several for INLS 720. The MOOC assignment required that students:

  1. Complete all readings provided as supplementary to each MOOC video. In other words, the supplementary readings for the MOOC were required for students in 720.
  2. Complete all graded assignments, and receive a Statement of Accomplishment for the MOOC.
  3. Participate in MOOC discussion forums. (In addition to participating in the Sakai discussion forums for 720).

The MOOC assignment is a significant percentage of the final grade for 720, but it’s only one assignment. The other assignments either build on the MOOC content (creating microdata for the student’s personal webpages), or address issues that we didn’t pursue in the MOOC (investigating DCMI Communities to see what active metadata development work looks like).

All in all, I’m reasonably satisfied with how the MOOC integrated into 720. I designed the two to fit together… or rather, I designed 720 to wrap around the MOOC. The Ithaka report asks: “Why not just take the MOOC as is and offer ‘wrap-around’ instruction? … [If] a MOOC is embedded in an existing course, there needs to be a reasonably close match in terms of the approach to teaching the subject, the level of difficulty, the assumptions about students’ prior knowledge, and the learning objectives.” This is exactly what I did, or at least tried to do. And there was a close match in terms of the approach, because, well, it was all me.

The more difficult question posed by the Ithaka report is: “whether MOOCs can be used by professors other than those who created them.” Could another instructor teaching a course on metadata use my MOOC materials? I hope so. I designed the course to be pretty modular: each week is a more or less standalone unit. Of course later units build on previous units. But could an instructor take my, for example, Dublin Core unit, or unit, and integrate it into another course? Obviously I don’t know, no one has yet tried, that I’m aware of. But I hope so.

The Ithaka report discusses the “narrative structure” of a course: some courses aren’t easy to pull apart, because they have an arc. I hesitate to say a storyline, but that’s kind of what I mean. To be sure, my Metadata MOOC had an arc: units built in complexity, later units assumed knowledge from previous units. I think the Metadata MOOC had a narrative structure; at least, I tried to give it one. But I also think it’s possible to have a narrative structure, and still be modular. As long as it’s clear what the prerequisites are for a module, a module can be taken out of its original narrative context and reused. Of course, I suppose that’s precisely the premise behind Reusable Learning Objects.

I’m teaching the Digital Libraries course for SILS next semester (again, online), and I plan to use at least some of the Dublin Core materials for the MOOC for that course. That’s not a fair test because, again, it’s all me. But it is a different course, so at least that’s half the test. Can the Dublin Core unit from the MOOC be used successfully as a RLO? We’ll soon find out.

One thing I’m not satisfied with, in terms of the integration of 720 and the MOOC is this: The MOOC took a lot of time away from 720. Creating a MOOC is a huge amount of effort… I’d say it was at least twice as much effort to prep the MOOC as I’ve ever spent prepping a classroom-based course. (Maybe that discussion deserves its own post.) And that’s just my effort; I’m not even including the efforts of the rest of the team, which was considerable. But one lesson learned here is: It would have been easier to integrate 720 and the MOOC if the MOOC had already been “in the can,” so to speak… if I wasn’t developing the MOOC at the same time I was teaching 720. I would have been able to spend more time on 720, and contextualizing the MOOC material for that course, which — I’ll be the first to admit — would have made 720 a better course.

The last thing I want to discuss here is the student side of the experience. The post-course survey for the MOOC is still open; we’ll have that data soon & I’ll report on it here when we do. And I’ll get the data from the end-of-semester student course evaluations for 720 in January (read: after I submit the students’ grades). So I can’t yet answer the question that the Ithaka report asks: “How do students feel about being enrolled in hybrid courses in which they are required to watch lectures online?”

That said, though, I’ve recorded videos for my classroom-based courses for years. I’ve both recorded my own videos and found relevant videos created by others for my Digital Library course, and used both as “readings” for the students to watch prior to class. And that goes over pretty well. When I do that, I’ve found that we can start a class session with questions, rather than with me presenting content or reviewing the readings, and the in-class discussion can go farther into implications & connections with other topics. Obviously, I’m basically talking about flipping the classroom. And in my experience, it works pretty well, at least with a classroom full of motivated students, as we tend to have in my School.

The Ithaka report asks: “What kinds of guidance are needed to help students succeed in hybrid courses”? One thing that I heard from a few students, was that it was confusing, having 2 course sites. The MOOC was of course in Coursera, while 720 was in Sakai (Carolina adopted Sakai as its LMS in February 2011). Students in 720 had to go to both places, for different pieces of the course. I can understand why that could be annoying, and confusing at the start of the semester. Also, it’s 2 very different usability experiences. I could have pulled the MOOC videos into Sakai… but Coursera’s video viewing interface is way better than Sakai’s. But that would have lost the in-video quizzes, and anyway the homeworks were in Coursera.

I probably should have waited to write this post until our semester is over at Carolina, because the one thing I don’t yet have is student performance data for INLS 720… in other words, grades. We have that data for the MOOC, of course… and in a few weeks I’ll be able to compare the two. So stay tuned.