Are MOOCs the Future?

, Spencer Irvine, 1 Comment

At the Modern Language Association’s annual meeting in Chicago, professors from Stanford, Brigham Young University and University of Colorado at Boulder claimed that massive open online courses, known as MOOCs, are not a threat to their profession, while simultaneously showing their colleagues how they could get in on the action.

Twenty-two people, mostly professors, attended the MLA session and were mostly curious about the implications of MOOCs on their own colleges and their jobs. Adam Rzepka of Stanford began the panel discussion by walking the audience through Stanford’s MOOC geared toward high school students. Much to the relief of those attending, Rzepka said that online classes cannot replicate the classroom experience, but add to it. He admitted that students often look up answers while listening in on a live discussion, but it does allow “for more improvisation…even within a set lesson plan.” One consistent problem he has, other than students looking up answers, is that “teachers and students are not in the same place.” It “is a pedagogical sixth sense” for MOOC instructors to learn how to respond to each student’s needs and questions. He added that professor’s “increasingly untenable” and uniform opposition to MOOCs could pose a problem sooner rather than later as MOOCs expand.

Kirk Thelnap, a professor of Arabic at BYU, helps run an online program known as “Arabic Without Walls.” The language program is run out of the BYU National Middle East Language Resource Center, but “half of our funding was cut, so grumble, grumble” he said. He claimed that the program gives students “far better” results and content than those collegians learning Arabic in a classroom receive. Thelnap allayed the fears of professors and said, “It’s not that we want to replace teachers, at all; that’s not the problem.” But, online courses allow “a few happy campers where it’s going right for them” to continue to learn and grow at their own pace and “gives terrified online students a chance to breathe, to participate and gives a chance for the fast students to really sail.”

To illustrate the bureaucratic mess of some state college systems, Thelnap took time to describe the failures of a University of California-run Arabic program similar to his own. It failed because Cal-Berkeley did not want its potential students to take this program and siphon off revenue from them. As a result, only those who either were rejected from Cal-Berkeley or those who were University of California, non-Arabic-speaking students (whose school did not have Arabic classes) could enroll in this California Arabic course.  But, BYU’s program had several success stories, and Thelnap only had time to describe one such experience.

Isaac was a high school student who took the Arabic Without Walls course and ended up testing better than BYU students who had spent two full years in Arabic studies. Because of several internship experiences that BYU helped arrange in Egypt and Jordan, along with having the good fortune of a private tutor by chance, he graduated from the course with an advanced-low speaking proficiency. To give perspective, only 47% of students graduate with advanced-low speaking abilities in any foreign language. In taking both basic and intermediate exams, he “pretty much blew the test out of the water,” admitted Thelnap. He said that although this may seem to be an anomaly, the BYU Arabic program has had major successes.

Erin Kingsley, a literature professor at Colorado, asked the audience how many were professors who taught in a classroom, taught online, or wanted to know how to teach online. Half of the classroom raised their hands when asked about teaching in a classroom, with a third of the classroom saying they teach online courses. At least a third of those who taught in the classroom wanted to learn more of how to teach online courses. She went over steps on how to engage and keep a good online course going, as well as keeping student retention rates up from week to week. One of the words she used was “intercorporeal,” in her description of the course.

Kingsley said that professors must personalize the course and avoid the problem of having a “disembodied online classroom.” She suggested asking students for lengthy personal introductions, their comments on favorite movies, pastimes or hobbies as well as introducing a class mascot based on a student’s pet. By creating this “shared interest” and “individualized people,” she creates a physical classroom bond in an online setting. Kingsley also said that she uses a “chit-chat form” in the form of a Twitter hashtag, where students are required to talk to others via Twitter based on certain questions, such as weekend happenings or favorite quotes from a book they had to read in the course. Fun is an essential part of maintaining a student’s interest in an online course.

Her second point was to communicate clearly, warmly and consistently. Professors should send personalized e-mails to their students, not one sent via the online interface and check up on them throughout the semester. She suggested coming up with a learning contract, asking what they expect from the course and having them interpret the syllabus. The easy part is that these e-mails can often be scheduled through the online interface, something that surprised several professors in attendance. Pairing up students with others or putting them in small groups helped students bond and collaborate on drafts, workshops and projects. But, most of all, the professor has to create a relationship with the student.

Kingsley’s third and last tip was to integrate applications and technology into their projects and work. Professors should use social media to enhance their student projects and work, such as creating a project online. Some examples of the latter were a ballet presentation or a Spark Notes-type project on a book the students read throughout the course.