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Marrying Into MOOCs

In a Q&A, the CIO of the University of Maryland discusses his school's involvement with Coursera, its institutional goals, and what it takes to create a MOOC.

This story appeared in the March 2013 digital edition of Campus Technology.

In September, the University of Maryland jumped on the MOOC bandwagon, inking an agreement with Coursera to provide the fledgling startup with five online courses. When the first UMD course went live in January, the university joined more than 30 other leading universities that are offering courses for free as part of the venture.

To understand the impact of these MOOCs on the IT department--and determine how CIOs might prepare for a partnership with Coursera--CT spoke with Brian Voss, VP of IT and CIO at UMD. A longtime leader in technology initiatives, Voss joined UMD in 2012 after seven-plus years as CIO for Louisiana State University.

Campus Technology: With just four months between signing the agreement and launching the first course, UMD must have moved very rapidly to get ready. What were some of the technical challenges that IT faced?

Brian Voss: There really weren't a lot of what I would call technical IT challenges. This really isn't about IT. IT is the disruptive force and, of course, this involves IT enablement, but it's really about the effect that Coursera and the whole flipped classroom concept is having on the way faculty teach.

CT: What is that effect?

VOSS: It's taking some of what we've been doing and changing how we do it. For example, when we think of online content, we often think of a synchronous model: For a class, a student watches a 45-minute lecture along with slides, and then does some homework--all in a synchronous fashion.

With Coursera, on the other hand, you break things up into smaller increments. You're asking your faculty to think not in terms of 14-week classes but maybe six-week modules. And you're asking them to think in terms of 12-minute topics, rather than 45- to 50-minute lectures. On top of that, we have to consider how to structure exercises and assessments.

The challenge is working hand-in-hand with the faculty, discovering the Coursera platform together, then recreating each course as envisioned by the faculty member.

CT: Did preparing content for Coursera dovetail with your work on lecture capture?

VOSS: Not really, other than making sure faculty members are enunciating clearly and so forth. Maybe you could call that preliminary skill training, except now you're applying it differently. With Coursera, we don't go to a classroom and capture a lecture--we take faculty members to a studio and work with them.

CT: Did you shoot all the course segments in a studio setting?

VOSS: Yes. First, we had faculty lay out the course objectives, then film the course trailers, which had to be done when we went live in September. Coursera has a landing page for each course, where faculty describe their courses in almost a movie trailer format. The video trailer, along with the written syllabus, is meant to attract students. Once those were done, we had several months to work with the faculty, and have the faculty think, "How am I going to deliver this content in this new model?"

CT: Did faculty members reuse any content from their existing courses?

VOSS: Not really, unless a faculty member already had some short videos for demonstrating a particular topic. Some faculty said, "Well, I already record all my classes and put all my material into a learning managementsystem, so this should be easy." But then they start to understand that they have to take all that apart and reassemble it.

CT: Why did faculty members agree to participate?

VOSS: We had some faculty who weren't up for [the project] this semester…and we had others who said, "OK, I don't really know what I'm getting into, but let's do it."

The interesting part is that the faculty are all over the place about [the MOOC phenomenon]: Some are concerned, some don't understand it all, but plenty view it as an excellent opportunity to change their pedagogy.

A lot of people have suggested that Coursera courses are all taught by new faculty--the hot new youngsters--but take a look at our participating UMD faculty and at some of the faculty from other institutions.

CT: It's an impressive list.

VOSS: It is. I think this is giving some well-established faculty an opportunity to get reinvigorated about teaching.

CT: Are you tracking content use or attendance?

VOSS: At this juncture, we aren't. We don't need to. Coursera is not using UMD instructional infrastructure at all, other than faculty members and the work we do to help them prepare their courses. So, are we tracking University of Maryland student usage? No.

Coursera has not yet refined the level of data they give us. Our faculty know how many people sign up for their courses and where they come from. Because there's no credit, though, there's basically no data collected when you enroll in a Coursera course.

When I signed up for a Coursera class, I gave them a personal e-mail address and a bit of demographic data--largely where I am and that I'm from the US. I can't remember if they asked me how old I was, what level of education I possessed, or any of that.

CT: It's interesting that Coursera is collecting such minimal data.

VOSS: That's the start. What they are going to be getting is dynamic data about learning. They'll be able to tell when I sign in, how often, and whether I'm doing the assignment, making progress, participating…. But, right now, they don't gather a lot of demographic data on the individual.

CT: Is all technical support provided by Coursera?

VOSS: Yes. Even though it's says it's not going to be a university, Coursera is in essence the infrastructure. It provides the platform, and the 33 universities provide the content.

CT: Why is UMD participating?

VOSS: Our president feels that this is what leading institutions do--they try new things. From an executive level, he thinks our role as a flagship university means we needed to boldly sail into these waters. From my perspective, I think we'll understand more about MOOCs by participating. By participating, our faculty, my staff, and I are going to have a better handle on what change is coming to pedagogy than if we had read just this interview, for example.

CT: In terms of cost recovery, is it too soon to have that discussion?

VOSS: It really is. Coursera is not charging us for this, and they are funded by venture capital. From our perspective, [our participation] is like a venture capital investment: I'm investing this semester because of what it's going to teach my people.

CT: Do you have any advice for colleagues at other institutions who are considering a similar move?

VOSS: The point I've emphasized several times is this: It isn't about IT. I would tell my CIO colleagues not to let the discussion devolve into bits and bytes--what platform, what technology, and so forth. Don't get into that.

But they must also realize that technology is the disruptive force here, so they can't just sit back and watch it. My advice is not to grab the wheel completely, because this is really about changing pedagogy--changing the way the academy delivers education. But right now, we're the ones who can probably best help that process along.

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