Running a MOOC

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/TheOnlySilentBob

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/TheOnlySilentBob

Most professors lecture a few thousand students in an entire academic career. Imagine reaching out to 10 times as many in a single semester! The idea has long been a dream of futurists, but with the recent founding of the not-for-profit start-up edX and other “MOOC” programs like it, that dream is now a reality.

MOOCs (massive open online courses) aim to achieve large-scale participation in college content by students of all ages, geographical locations, and means, free of charge and over the Internet. edX was founded by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and UC Berkeley was the first university to join their team. The Berkeley edX team, BerkeleyX, is playing a leadership role in developing the organization and expanding it to other universities. “BerkeleyX believes in the philosophy that education should be a right, not a privilege,” explains Professor Armando Fox, the academic director of the newly established Berkeley Resource Center for Online Education.

Unlike open courseware, which only offers course materials and lecture videos online, a MOOC is interactive, with the goal of emulating a physical classroom. Students watch short 7–12 minute lectures that are interspersed with self-assessment quizzes to ensure comprehension. The first BerkeleyX courses went online in the fall of 2012, and the program has expanded in the spring of 2013 with offerings from the computer science and statistics departments, and with more than 100,000 registered students. But edX isn’t just for computation-oriented subjects; other edX affiliates have rolled out MOOCs on topics ranging from public health, to justice, to the ancient Greek hero.

In addition to offering a number of MOOCs, BerkeleyX is actively involved in technology development. During the summer of 2012, Professor Pieter Abbeel of the computer science department and his PhD student, Arjun Singh, led a team incorporating online interactive features into edX that had previously been built for the on-campus offering of CS188. Singh, who is also the head teaching assistant for a BerkeleyX course, explains that the team worked on “improving both the student learning management system that involves online assignments and discussion forums, as well as the content management system, which enables instructors to create interactive videos and modules.”

Advances in technology development hold promise not only for the MOOC framework, but also for the Berkeley on-campus experience. “A key goal of the BerkeleyX partnership is the desire and passion to explore opportunities for enhancing on-campus courses through a ‘flipped classroom’ model, while simultaneously catering to the greater public good,” says Professor David Patterson, who co-taught a BerkeleyX course with Fox. If Berkeley students are taking a course on campus that is also being offered at BerkeleyX, they can blend the online and classroom experience by watching the BerkeleyX lectures at home at their own pace, and coming prepared to the classroom to carry out more interactive activities like group problem solving and research. Moreover, for almost a decade, Abbeel and fellow computer science professor Dan Klein have been experimenting with automatic grading and other virtual tools to enhance the classroom experience for their popular course on artificial intelligence. edX is learning a lot from their experiences.

In the long term, edX would like to try and understand how students learn. Free and open online courses face a host of challenges that these researchers plan to address. For instance, traditional face-to-face intimate interactions and hands-on lab experience are absent from MOOCs, but can be approximated. Since everything that a student does on the edX website is logged, researchers can mine massive amounts of data about the “classroom” experience and subsequent student performance. Thus edX can act like a live laboratory for studying how students navigate coursework, solve problems, and obtain help from other enrolled students. It could also offer a window into how people forget, and into what strategies prevent forgetting. Student comprehension may ultimately be improved by adjusting lectures, course material, and examinations with innovative technological tools and social networking.

In the bigger picture, members of the BerkeleyX team are quick to point out that the edX framework is not a replacement for a traditional college education. “As a UC Berkeley professor, my Cal students are always my first priority,” says Klein. Still, MOOCs have drawn a tremendous amount of media attention lately, and it is tempting to see the beginning of a chaotic revolution for education in the not-so-distant future. At the very least, edX has opened up a fascinating new avenue of communication. Klein muses, “If I can educate the world while ensuring the best for my students here, then why not?”

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