online learning

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Forty thousand students have pre-enrolled for our Massively-Open Online Course (MOOC) called “Science and Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to Soft Matter Science.” A group of people six times larger than the entire Harvard undergraduate population will tick little multiple-choice bubbles that I – as a lowly question writer – have developed. Our course will expand educational opportunities to a new global audience, and making it won’t be cheap.

MOOC production costs can top a quarter million dollars and hundreds of professor-hours. Yet when The Chronicle asked instructors about their motivations for creating MOOCs, few mentioned any benefit to their own university’s students; most are driven by the desire to make knowledge freely accessible worldwide, to keep up with the Joneses, or to improve their public reputations. If MOOCs are to retain their potential in higher education, how can instructors justify these expenses to their university provosts?

The solution, both academic and commercial, has been monetizing enrollment. The American Council on Education recommended that its 1,800 member institutions accept five Coursera MOOCs for credit when taken through a “verification” service costing $30-100 per course. Yet most MOOC instructors feel that their course shouldn’t qualify for credit at their own universities, due to non-existent student-faculty interactions, limited assessment capabilities, and the high potential for cheating.

Other universities are replacing physical classrooms with MOOCs to cut costs. This spring San Jose State University in California attempted to replace the philosophy department faculty’s own curriculum with a MOOC on social justice, a move professors felt reduced them “to glorified teaching assistants.” Michael Sandel, the course’s unwitting creator, responded, “The last thing I want is for my online lectures to be used to undermine faculty colleagues at other institutions.”

If not by increasing tuition revenue or decreasing teaching costs, then how can MOOC instructors justify the enormous financial outlay to their universities? I believe the answer lies in the benefits on-campus students reap from the content generated for online courses. The “flipped classroom,” where students watch recordings of lectures  on their own, then spend class time on interactive exercises, has proven very effective pedagogically .

To develop a typical MOOC lecture, professors thoughtfully segment their lecture material into 5-10 minute scripted chunks, practicing their lines and refining their presentation style before the shoot. Professional video production adds clarity: under ideal lighting and sound conditions, videographers captures multiple takes and makes appropriate cuts. Graphic designers replace chalkboard scribble and Powerpoint symbols with legible text and illustrations. To correct student misconceptions as they form, somebody – that’s me! – embeds comprehension problems in the finished videos. This production process not only causes instructors to put more thought into their presentations, but also removes the flaws in delivery that make lectures less clear. Many professors can see the value in employing a professional service to record, perfect, and re-stream their lectures each year (a fantasy entertained by no lesser visionary than Vladimir Nabokov).

The timescale for the utility of MOOC materials may be comparable to David Goodstein’s Mechanical Universe, a physics telecourse whose tapes still grace high school televisions nearly three decades after their production. (The series aged so well that I was shocked to find Goodstein gray-haired and wrinkly at my first college physics lecture.) Any teacher who uses Goodstein’s videos recognizes that they’re a supplemental aid or “talking textbook,” not a course replacement. The educational content of MOOCs should be viewed in the same light.

It’s high time to divorce the educational content from the course itself to create what we ought to call – forgive me – a textBOOC. During this semester’s “Science and Cooking,” whose interdisciplinary subject matter makes it ill-fit for existing textbooks, we assign the MOOC lecture videos as “reading” and use class time for discussions, problem solving, guest lectures, and demos; three for-credit Harvard Extension School courses do the same.

Universities that have established MOOC content development services should make those resources available to traditional instructors, since the resulting teaching aids can be monetized and the institution’s own students benefit from their production. Retrofitting MOOC platforms for this purpose is an actionable proposition, especially considering that some providers (most notably edX) are owned by the universities they serve. Expect to see textBOOCs developed for use in brick-and-mortar classrooms within the next two years. Hopefully David Goodstein will approve of this next iteration of the “talking textbook.”


Mary Wahl is the head teaching fellow for “Science and Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to Soft Matter Science,” and a Ph.D. candidate in Molecular and Cellular Biology at Harvard University.