I recently received an invitation to relive the experiences of taking one of my favorite MOOC classes, HarvardX’s Ancient Greek Hero, for a second time.
During this interview, the team behind the course talked about their hope that people who had completed Greek Hero might want to participate for a second time, highlighting the fact that for both students and teachers the course is never the same twice. And if I didn’t have a dozen or so other courses to complete before the end of the year, I would have given the request serious consideration.
But this invite got me thinking about some of the issues related to MOOCs that are complete and established enough to go into repeats.
Even with the newness of the MOOC movement, some courses are now reaching the ripe old age of two. And several of the computer science classes that anchor the major MOOC providers are already heading into third and fourth rotations.
But even some of the courses I took earlier this year are coming around for a second time. I just mentioned Greek Hero and Think Again: How to Reason and Argue (the first MOOC I ever took) just started again this month. And the second run of Coursera’s The Modern and the Postmodern (taught by Wesleyan President Michael Roth) began almost immediately after the first round of the course finished last spring.
During this interview, President Roth said that the Modernism course which reran in July would include little new material (the syllabus, video lectures and reading list would stay the same – although there might be some tweaking here and there with questions asked for essay assignments). Apparently the folks at Coursera indicated that a course should be left alone for 2-3 runs before rushing to make major changes (a welcome suggestion to someone who has to run a university on top of teaching and keeping track of his MOOC).
I didn’t see any changes in the syllabus or course description for Think Again, so the professors behind this class may also hope to leverage existing materials (even the videographically challenged movies that added both charm and distraction to the lecture portion of the class). And while I’m sure the Greek Hero team would like nothing better than to create the course anew again and again, it looks as though material they created for the first instance of the course will be reused.
And why not? After all, the real variation in classes derives from who enrolls in them. And beyond the few fans who can’t get enough of a particular professor, it’s safe to assume that an almost entirely new cohort of students will be participating whenever a class gets repeated. So discussions that break out over this argument or that philosopher or those sections of Homer, even if they repeat arguments from past iterations of a course, will all be new to the current participants.
Even if courses don’t undergo major renovation between their first run and their second (or even third), repeating allows professors to entrench and enrich components that might have just been experimental the first time around. The best example I can think of is that argument contest I mentioned at the end of this week’s newsletter which ended Duke’s Think Again class, an experiment in crowdsourced teaching which I hope becomes a permanent component to this popular MOOC.
In theory, every MOOC should be in a position to go into rotation immediately after all of the material making up the course is complete. So perhaps the question we should be asking is why the number of courses being given a second time is actually rather small?
No doubt some professors and teaching teams can’t commit to the same workload associated with managing a massive course (even if they don’t have to create the course at the same time they’re running it). And I know of at least one political defection of a professor who might have otherwise been expected to keep his popular course going again and again.
In addition to the number of courses that go into repeats, those monitoring the health of the MOOC movement should also be keeping close tabs on the numbers of students signing up for a course when it’s given a second, third or fourth time. For steady enrollments or even growth might mean a high-quality course has no natural limit to continuation and expansion (regardless of whether the course changes over time), while decline could indicate that pent up demand was met the first time around (meaning the market for a course might be finite).
The last point I’d like to bring up is that once a course is “in the can,” there is no practical reason why it can’t be configured as an asynchronous vs. a synchronous course (keeping to my definition of those terms whereby synchronous courses are given on a fixed schedule while asynchronous ones allow students to stop and start any time). After all, asynchronousity has worked well for one of the major MOOC providers (Udacity), even if it has come at the cost of things like discussion group participation (which assumes students are studying the same things at the same time).
I’ve not gotten the sense that professors involved with Coursera or edX (or the organizations themselves) are interested in making such a move. But as more and more course material is considered complete, it wouldn’t surprise me if some future MOOC experiment involves playing around with such a conversion.