For a Better Flip, Try MOOCs
Innovative faculty are running MOOCs and flipped-format on-campus courses on the same schedule and having the two groups interact online — with interesting results.
What happens when you combine a MOOC and a flipped course? More interactivity, more consistency and some interesting avenues of student interaction, according to Bonnie Ferri, professor and associate chair for undergraduate affairs in Georgia Tech's School of Electrical and Computer Engineering.
Ferri teaches a course called Circuits and Electronics, with 450 students per term split into several sections. A year and a half ago, she developed two MOOCs (delivered through Coursera) in conjunction with the class. "We offer the MOOC videos simultaneously to the public and on-campus students," she explained. The on-campus students watch all the videos, then they come to class and do a variety of activities — including labs — using handheld devices such as a National Instruments myDAQ, or a Digilent Discovery Board, which has a suite of electronic instruments for performing experiments. The MOOC students can buy the same devices at student prices and do experiments on their own wherever they live.
"We have them do the same homework and we synchronize them with an online discussion platform called Piazza," added Ferri. She and her teaching assistants go into the Piazza forum several times a day to review and endorse answers students are giving each other.
Ferri was pleasantly surprised to find that the MOOC students were helping the on-campus students. For instance, a Georgia Tech student posted a request for a brief summary of the use of oscilloscopes, and a few hours later a MOOC student posted a brilliant, precise description. "I started asking the MOOC students about themselves," she recalled. "They are mathematicians who wanted to learn something about circuits and electronics, or they are physicists or engineers who took this material years ago and want to remind themselves about it. Many are working professionals. They can introduce comments based on experiences that our students just don't have. One talked about how they use certain sensors in the automotive industry. I've had personal comments from students that this type of interaction is phenomenal."
With 450 students in nine sections, it had been difficult for Ferri to get the consistency in student outcomes she wanted. But by "MOOC-ifying" the large course, she was able to offer more in-class activities and standardize the student experience across sections. "Any time you have different instructors teaching at different paces, they emphasize different things and don't finish all the topics," she explained. Now, all the sections watch the same lectures online and take the same tests. "Twice a year we take over the building and 450 students take tests at the same time," she said. "We nailed it in terms of consistency. Performance has gone up and we got the consistency we wanted."
At Georgia Tech, on-campus students watch MOOC videos and come to class ready to perform experiments and other activities. MOOC students do the same work at home and join in online discussions.
When Todd Murphey, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Northwestern University (IL), developed a MOOC course on systems theory, he saw it as an opportunity to revise the systems theory class taken by all first-year engineering students on campus.
One significant change involved the way he delivered lecture content. "When I designed the Coursera class, one challenge was to keep the content as compact as online content needs to be," Murphey said, "so I ended up taking a 10-week class and made it an eight-week class with three lectures a week, each an average of seven minutes long." In other words, he took a full term of ideas and pushed it into 2.5 hours worth of videos.
He then decided to have on-campus students watch the videos and use the Coursera environment for homework in parallel with the MOOC students. And the Northwestern students got to see some of the things the Coursera students were doing.
Like Georgia Tech's Ferri, Murphey said some of the contributions from MOOC students were valuable for the Northwestern students to see. One assignment asked students to videotape their own experiments and get peer-assessed. Very few of the 30,000 people who signed up for the MOOC took on the challenge of creating their own demonstrations, Murphey said, but "nevertheless, we got pedagogical value we would never have been able to get otherwise. There is no way I would have thought of all those applications. Some were funny. One guy did a heat transfer idea using a skillet on a stove with bacon. He did a calculation to assess the rate heat was expanding through the skillet based on when the bacon heated up. It was a light and accessible way of thinking of a concrete application of the math the students are learning, yet it was very sophisticated."
The on-campus students benefited from interacting with online students, he noted. For instance, MOOC participants talked about what they did in their jobs, and the Northwestern students found that exciting. On the flip side, the online students benefited from exposure to cutting-edge thinking in the field. "For them, the cross-pollination is not with the individual students as much as it is with the student body," he said. "They get to take a course and get better aligned with what students coming out of university right now perceive as important problems, and how they communicate with employers."
Having the video lectures has changed what happens in Murphey's Northwestern classroom. "One of the big opportunities in flipping the classroom was that it allowed me to get rid of all technology in the classroom," he said. He had traditionally done what a lot of other instructors do: teaching with slides. "Now with online videos, I decided to reduce the classroom dependence on prefab stuff and really focus on being reactive to what the class needed," he said. "My classroom became as unstructured as it had ever been and that is part of what the students really like."