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Exploding MOOC Myths -- What We've Learned Half Way Through

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Holden Thorp and I are half way through our MOOC, What's Your Big Idea? By MOOC standards our enrollment is modest (34,000) but the level of engagement is relatively high-over 7,000 students have taken the end of module exams, and many others are working on projects to be presented at the end of the course. Moreover, students have formed over 600 forums that range from study groups to informal marketplaces. There are forums in Arabic, German, Spanish and Polish. Well over half the students are from outside the United States. I discussed at length in a previous blog what we hoped to learn from teaching a MOOC. What follows is what we've learned so far, much of which will surprise you.

Our MOOC Presentations Are Not Warmed Over Classroom Lectures. Our MOOC is divided into six modules, and the modules themselves are comprised of "chunks" of material that is supplemented with supporting visuals and interviews that illustrate central points. The actual production values we achieved exceed what we can do in the classroom. High expectations among MOOC learners compelled us to organize our classroom material meticulously and reduce our lectures to text that could be placed on a teleprompter and read. As a result, each lecture is clear and concise like the one we aspire to give every day but actually achieve only once or twice a semester.

MOOC Forums Provide a Viable Substitute for In-Class Discussion. We assumed that even the minimal dialogue we are able to achieve in an on-campus lecture would not be possible in a MOOC. After all, how do you answer the questions of 34,000 students? Well you don't, but we've learned that the community that has formed around our MOOC creates a supportive and interactive learning experience for those students who want to raise their hand and get involved. In fact, the level of participation among highly motivated students exceeds what we have been able to achieve in our large on-campus lecture class. It's too early to tell but we may actually be able to improve the level of engagement on campus from our experience with our MOOC.

New Technology Allows Professors to Know at Least Some Students. We assumed teaching a MOOC would be a one-way, relatively anonymous experience but we have had two video discussions with groups of students so far and more on the way. Students who cannot attend a session with us, can watch later on YouTube. We're just scratching the surface of interactive technology, but we know our students are way ahead of us -- using Google Hang Outs, Skype and other platforms to interact personally. Admittedly, we can only interact face to face with a handful of students but in realty this is not too different than a large on-campus lecture where we get to know only a very small percentage of the class. Interaction with small groups of students is something we want to learn more about in the second half of the class and beyond as we seek to make our MOOC better.

MOOCs Aren't Job Killers. As far as we know, no one has lost their job as a result of our MOOC, and if our experience is any indicator, MOOCs create jobs for people with all kinds of skills including videography, production, animation and pedagogy, (helping structure lectures and multiple choice questions) to name a few. We are in preliminary discussions about how to re-purpose our lectures for use on other campuses and in each instance, our material would supplement on campus learning led by experienced professors. Carefully structured lectures supplemented by highly interactive classroom experiences promise to make learning more effective and efficient. We hope to test this next fall by incorporating lectures from our MOOC into a large classroom experience in a "flipped classroom" experience where students watch lectures in their dorms and the classroom experience is more interactive and engaged.

MOOC's Won't Be Big Money Makers. This is a subject we know something about since both Holden and I are entrepreneurs in addition to academics and have a pretty good track record of monetizing investments. At this point if you ask us if it makes sense to charge for a MOOC and as a result reduce drastically the number of students who participate we would respond, "absolutely not." What is so remarkable about our MOOC is the sheer number of students and the geographic reach. It is clear we have a chance to make a positive change in the lives of people all over the world and that is why we teach. We suspect our colleagues share this view. Our goal is to develop a model that allows our MOOC to be self-sustaining by identifying revenue streams, other than student fees, to support our work. If we are successful we will plow revenue in excess of expenses back into the enterprise in order to have a greater impact. We have just begun to think about alternative business models for What's Your Big Idea? If we are successful that will be our big idea.

It should be obvious we still have more questions than answers. Will some viable projects or enterprises be spawned by the MOOC? If so, what if anything can we do to support these efforts? Will the community that has grown up around the MOOC endure and can future iterations of the class leverage the remarkable individuals who are participating in the first MOOC? Can we create a true hybrid version of our class that incorporates online and on campus learning? If so, can it be exported successfully to other campuses? We'll answer some of these questions in the next three weeks and beyond with the help of our students and hopefully we'll have the opportunity to produce the class again in the fall with the benefit of all we've learned so far.