Leaders from the new Office of Digital Education and Innovation are calling on faculty to submit proposals to develop massive open online courses, known as MOOCs.
Saying these courses enable “engaged, personalized and lifelong learning for the Michigan community and beyond,” leaders say the office is prepared to support interested faculty with expertise and funding to create innovative courses.
“At this time, we are eager to expand our experimentation both in volume and diversity,” James Hilton, vice provost for digital educational initiatives, and James DeVaney, assistant vice provost for digital education and innovation, wrote in a memo earlier this month.
“In particular, we are interested in involving more academic units across U-M, showcasing multidisciplinary expertise, engaging alumni, and experimenting with modularity, learning analytics, and other novel approaches to digital instruction.
“Importantly, all new proposals must describe how the MOOC will lead to enhanced residential learning at U-M.”
Since the university began offering MOOCs two years ago, U-M faculty members have designed 19 of them that have been offered more than 50 times to reach 1.5 million students of all ages around the world. They have involved 22 faculty members from seven academic units.
One of these faculty members is Gautam Kaul, the Fred M. Taylor Professor of Business Administration and professor of finance. His Introduction to Finance course is one of the most popular MOOCs delivered by any institution.
“The digital format for sharing knowledge has forced me to think much more about the purpose of my teaching,” Kaul said.
“MOOCs are a platform that allow you to start experimentation and, if done with some care and deliberation, are a great way to think about your teaching the same way as you do about your research,” he said, explaining it is like focusing on the long-term nature of the research process, not just looking at individual papers as they are published.
“Inquiry-based teaching is what will eventually differentiate us from all other educational institutions and, I am quite convinced, empower our students. Also, technology is only going to get better and will challenge us to make F2F (face-to-face) time all the more dynamic and rich,” Kaul said.
Kaul, who also serves as special counsel for the Office of Digital Education and Innovation, has taken what he discovered teaching the MOOC to enhance other courses.
“The MOOC experience forced me to think about all the richness of finance and its applicability across just about anything. I have, therefore, begun to use both the digital and F2F formats, if you may, to enrich the learner experience regardless of which class I teach — from MBAs in a Fast Track Finance class to executives in our ExecMBA class. The main objective is to help individuals think critically in an otherwise very noisy world.”
U-M’s original MOOCs were featured on Coursera, an online learning platform that started in 2012 with four universities, including U-M. More recently the university has partnered with NovoEd, another similar online platform.
“U-M will continue to experiment across platforms as it designs and builds upon a loosely coupled digital ecosystem that favors content reuse, data analysis, collaboration and faculty control,” Hilton and DeVaney wrote.
Current MOOCs have taken a variety of forms and functions.
Dr. Caren Stalburg, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology and clinical assistant professor of medical education, wanted to create a course that answered her own concerns about working at a teaching hospital.
“One of the things that we as health care providers struggle with, especially in teaching situations, is that we’re required to teach but we actually don’t have any specific training,” Stalburg said in an introductory video on her MOOC site.
She went back to school to earn a master’s degree in higher education at U-M and now shares what she discovered about learning theory, instructional design, using technology, and other teaching strategies. One of her goals in the Instructional Methods in Health Professions course is to create materials that others can remix and reuse.
Another faculty member who encourages others to take and use what he presents is Charles Severance, clinical associate professor of information, who teaches a MOOC called Programing for Everybody.
In his opening video, Severance says anyone who can add, subtract, multiply and divide can learn the basics of computer programing. His goals for those who take the course are to prepare them to enroll in additional programing courses, to help them learn to teach others how to do it, and to provide them with a toolkit for sharing what they learned.
Severance often uses the MOOC platform to test new tools and pedagogical assessments. His research is in building learning-technology software, creating tools that help teachers do their jobs better. Through MOOCs he has been able to test auto-grading tools that he now employs in his on-campus classes as well.
“If you teach a MOOC with 70,000 students, you can’t hand-grade their assignments,” Severance said.
“You can take risks to try something different in a MOOC that you might not try in an on-campus class. I can experiment and learn better ways of doing things and then bring that refined tool or strategy back into my class of 125 students.”
Severance not only has used auto-grading in his campus classes, freeing his graduate student instructors to teach, but he also has employed the MOOC concept of self-pacing, students learning at their own speed.
“This allows me to use class time working on homework, answering questions and solving problems, and having guest speakers come in.”
A team from the Institute for Social Research has developed a MOOC that reaches a broad constituency. Frederick Conrad and Frauke Kreuter, professors in the Joint Program in Survey Methodology, teach a course called Questionnaire Design for Social Surveys.
They have found the course popular with students in journalism, public health, criminology, marketing, communications, sociology, psychology and political science because, they note, “questionnaires are everywhere” and designing good questions is “harder than it looks.”