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How to Convert a Classroom Course Into a MOOC

The sheer size and diversity of the student body in a MOOC force faculty to use strategies for planning, teaching, and assessment that differ radically from those used in traditional classes.

How to Convert a Class Into a MOOC
Illustration: Richard Mia

Anyone who's gone through the effort of converting a traditional course into a MOOC can attest that the "M" in the acronym doesn't just refer to the size of the class--it's also an apt description of how much labor is involved in preparing the course. It took 300-400 hours of work, for example, to convert three courses for SJSU Plus, a MOOC pilot project between San Jose State University (CA) and Udacity (the project was recently put on hold). EdX, another of the leading MOOC providers, charges schools $250,000 to produce a single course for its platform.

This story appears in the August 2013 digital edition of Campus Technology. Click here for a free subscription to the magazine.

As professors have discovered, the task of converting a course for MOOC use is not as simple as taking recordings of class lectures and cutting them up into digestible segments. And while there are similarities in developing traditional online courses and MOOCs, the sheer scale of the latter changes key dynamics, forcing faculty to come up with new approaches and ideas.

A Different Student Body
Perhaps the biggest factor affecting course design is the makeup of the student body. Forget the idea of the traditional student, who enters college at 18 and graduates with a degree four to five years later. A traditional MOOC student doesn't exist. Students are of all ages, have different levels of education--many have advanced degrees--live all over the world, and have a wide range of cultural backgrounds. Some are taking the course for fun, others for professional advancement. Because of this diversity, instructors find that they often have to generalize more than they would in a classroom setting.

When Matt McGarrity, a senior lecturer at the University of Washington, translated his Introduction to Public Speaking course into a MOOC offered by Coursera, the huge number of students--more than 77,000 eventually signed up--and the global nature of the MOOC format became major factors in the kind of assignments he created. In his traditional public speaking course, for example, he divides students into groups of 15, with an assignment to develop a speech around "a hyperlocal controversy that requires a deep understanding of the audience for the speaker." Such an approach is simply not possible when students are spread around the world, says McGarrity.

Plus, he hit a technical barrier. "I almost divided up the [students] so they could be grouped and working together by topic, but the platform couldn't do it," he explains. "I couldn't program it in a way that I felt comfortable with and that I thought would be clear and reliable." Instead, McGarrity had to design assignments "that work for myriad people to address their myriad types of potential speech needs." Whether he hit the mark or not is still unknown: His course completes its first run this summer.

Having a diverse global audience doesn't mean your course has to become vanilla, though. Indeed, diversity can become a cornerstone of the course, allowing students to examine issues from a range of worldviews. That's the goal of Smitha Radhakrishnan, an assistant professor of sociology at Wellesley College (MA), who is preparing her first MOOC, titled Introduction to Global Sociology, for edX. In an effort to "hook students" on the class, she plans to redesign the assignments around the topic of the global garment industry. "Everyone buys clothes, has a stake in clothes, and some kind of opinion about them," she says. "You can look at the production side, the supply side, you can draw in sociological theory about factories and the way in which garment work has moved around the world in the last 1 1/2 centuries."

How MOOCs Assess Students

Redesigning course materials and assignments is just part of adapting a traditional course for a MOOC. The other major component is assessment. MOOC faculty can take a varied approach to assessing student performance, from using an autograder for simple test items to peer-grading of projects and papers, and proctored final exams. The latest offering: autograded essays. Read more in "Testing Times."

Plan Meticulously
No matter which platform or company hosts the class, it's vital that you plan the course meticulously beforehand. Unlike faculty in traditional courses who develop their courses largely on their own, MOOC professors often work with a sizable support team--technologists who help develop the course materials, record lectures, and program the components you need. The team might also include a MOOC consultant who acts as a specialist in effective MOOC pedagogy. If you don't have your act together, it increases the likelihood that the team will have to rerecord lectures or redo course materials, an expensive and time-consuming process--if an option at all.

In the view of McGarrity, his MOOC is far less flexible and forgiving than his traditional in-class course. Considering he's teaching a course on public speaking, he felt he had to model good public speaking when creating the lecture pieces for his MOOC. He also needed to ensure that the lecture segments--approximately three short ones per class--were polished and could stand alone as separate short lessons. If he forgot to cover something in one segment--the way he might in a classroom setting--he couldn't easily come back to it in another recorded segment while remaining coherent.

Being forced to take a methodical approach does have its upside, though. Planning the whole course in advance enables you to identify potential problems and resolve them. McGarrity, for instance, credits the advanced planning process with allowing him to discover that he wouldn't be able to support the kind of groups he organizes in a bricks-and-mortar class.

Julie Sliva Spitzer, a professor of mathematics education at SJSU, went so far as to create scripts for each lesson for her pilot MOOC, a version of her College Algebra course. The process of writing out the scripts ensured that the lessons would be delivered as concisely and as efficiently as possible. Plus, revisions can be handled more easily, since Sliva Spitzer won't have to replicate the entire course environment in order to record new segments.

React to the Data
Once your MOOC is created and launched, don't make the mistake of thinking that the course is done and dusted. One of the huge advantages of MOOCs over traditional instruction is the huge volume of data generated showing how students interact with the course, each other, and the materials. In her traditional class, Sliva Spitzer has to study students' expressions and their questions to gauge their comprehension of the material. Now, as she looks to revise her MOOC for the next session, she can monitor usage data, peruse the course forums to find out where students have the most questions or complaints, and analyze the testing outcomes.

Interestingly, the value of this analysis is not necessarily restricted to the MOOC; professors can often identify improvements that will be equally valid in their face-to-face classes. The same is true of the planning that goes into the MOOC. Radhakrishnan spent three months designing her global sociology MOOC, time professors rarely get to rework their existing face-to-face classes. "I think there's going to be a boomerang effect," she says. "The Sociology 108 class I teach [at Wellesley] can leverage some of the work I'm doing for the MOOC version."

Case Study: MOOC Course Development
By Linda Briggs

James Green is an associate director of the Maryland Technology Enterprise Institute and a senior lecturer at the University of Maryland. He completed his initial MOOC last March through Coursera, and is halfway through his second, both titled Developing Innovative Ideas for New Companies.

The courses run for six weeks, with weekly assessments. Four of those use Coursera's automated assessment tool for grading true/false, multiple-choice, and short-answer questions. The other two assessments require essays--one asks each student to act as a potential investor and analyze a business plan--and are peer-graded.

Green estimates he spent about 100 hours in total to design and deliver the first course. Preparing and delivering the MOOC included taping 10 hours of video content, monitoring the course, planning each week's exercise or assessment, and some participation in discussion boards, all with one staff member in the department helping. Although he based the course and assessments on other courses he has delivered face-to-face, the grading rubrics needed special consideration, since they had to be adapted to either automated grading or peer grading--in which students, not experts, do the assessment. "For me, [the grading rubrics] took more time than developing and recording all the video lectures," Green says. But time spent grading the four tests and two papers once the rubrics were complete? Very little. The Coursera platform took care of it all, including the peer-graded written essays.

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