Thursday, December 20, 2012

Teaching a MASSIVE online class

"MOOCs" (Massive Open Online Courses) are certainly garnering a lot of attention, and I just finished my first iteration of one.  I taught Introduction to Genetics and Evolution in the Coursera platform from October 10 through December 17.  Prep for this online class was pretty close to 20 hours/ week from mid-August until October 1, and then took a little less time when the class actually started.  It's fun to reflect on the experience now.


Daphne Koller has a compelling video on the importance of free online courses.  There is a great thirst for knowledge by the broader community outside the Ivory Tower.  Those of us in academia take for granted what we see every day-- seminars by world experts, access to all the published literature in our areas, brilliant colleagues who've spent decades pondering particular problems and finding innovative solutions to them, etc.  But most of the world doesn't have this access, and they are busy making their own livelihoods such that they can't commit to the cost and time associated with hanging out at colleges and universities.

I came into the project because I was interested in the "flipped classroom" model, wherein the professor assigns recorded videos for "fact transmission" and then spends the class period interacting with the students in activities designed to reinforce and elaborate the material.  I thought, "Hey, this is an opportunity to record the videos, and I can use them both for the MOOC and for my class."  I had no idea at the time how much I'd love the MOOC experience.

The class

The class lasted 10 weeks, and it had weekly problem sets, a midterm exam, and a final exam.  My class enrollment started on the first day right at 30,000 students, increased to 33,000, and then ended around 28,000.  However, that overstates the true participation-- about half never watched the first video.  Signing up takes 2 seconds online, so presumably half signed up thinking this could be fun but then "life got busy."  There's no course credit per se (just a pdf statement of completion at the end), so there was no drive to complete or even formally drop the course if one is busy or lost interest.  Participation steadily declined over the time, as expected given that surely "life got busy" for many people, and/ or a subset decided the content wasn't what they expected.  A fraction of the class "audited" and thus would watch lecture videos but not complete the online assignments-- the numbers completing assignments also dropped each week.

Hardest part

Recording the videos wasn't too bad... I got better at it as time went along, such that it took only slightly longer than if I was giving regular lectures.  The worst part was finding free re-use images and/ or obtaining copyright permissions.  My slides were very image-rich, and replacement with such images and/ or obtaining permissions was an enormous undertaking (not just for me, but especially for my colleague in this project, Justin).

Surprises for me

1) I LOVED teaching this class.  I had no idea if I would enjoy it-- I feared it'd be distant and unrelatable, and I had no idea what the students would be like or how much I'd feel like I interacted with them.  In the end, I felt I had near-constant interaction through the online Discussion Forums (see below).

2) The diversity of students.  Any way you slice it, this was a broad group.  Ages of the ones I know of range from 9 to 86 (and those are ones who stuck it through to the end).  They're from all walks of life.  They're from over 120 different countries, with only ~1/3 from the USA (and very few from China, surprisingly).  They formed study groups in Portuguese, Russian, Dutch, Norwegian, Greek, and more.  (I'd occasionally paste their posts into Google Translate to get an idea of what was being said...)  Some are hard-core academics-- there were other evolutionary genetics professors watching to get ideas for their classes, there were people who were far stronger at math than me (and would write friendly yet constructive "gripes" about imprecisions in my presentations), and there were academics from other disciplines.  But some had no college degree, hadn't been anywhere near a school for decades, and were just truly eager to learn.

3) Depth with which the material was viewed.  Go figure-- when tens of thousands of people go over your lectures, they find (and report) a lot of errors, mis-statements, imprecisions, unclear pieces, etc.  I've got my work cut out for me over break fixing a lot of those, but I'm glad to have had the lectures so thoroughly "vetted" by this broad audience.  It's testament to how carefully people were watching!

4) Extreme enthusiasm by the students.  I often felt like I was the owner of an ice cream store giving away free ice cream.  The constant expressions of appreciation for the opportunity to learn this material and of excitement about the material itself in the discussion forums was so stimulating and personally rewarding to me.  My on-campus students are also generally enthusiastic, but this took enthusiasm to a whole new level... these people really, really wanted to learn, and grades/ assessment/ credentialing was very secondary.  I received many e-mails over the course of the class thanking me for presenting the material in an accessible way.  I'm not so delusional to think the whole class loved the experience-- surely some who dropped were less enthusiastic and/ or disliked the material's coverage.  However, I received very little negative feedback (unlike with on-campus classes), so the perception of enthusiasm is not merely a byproduct of larger numbers meaning larger numbers of enthusiastic students.

5) Discussion forum participation.  I was very nervous about this-- go to the bottom of any CNN article, and the discussion forums are vicious.  If there's an article about how cute puppies are, there'll be 100 posts below it blasting that they're not so cute, that kittens are cuter, and that reading the article wasted a few precious seconds of their life.  I feared the same for the class, and anticipated the need for heavy, constant moderation.

However, by and large, the Discussion forums were extremely polite and constructive-- very little moderation was needed.  Even when an anti-evolution Discovery Institute affiliate posted criticisms of the class and its material, he remained mostly respectful (even if totally wrong, in my assessment) in his posts in the class's Discussion forum (though significantly less respectful in his personal blog entries).  Most Discussion forum posts fell into five broad categories: a) discussion of course material or assigned problems, framed so students work together to get to a full understanding, b) discussion of material from outside the class but related, such as news items or personal observations, c) technical issues needing resolution, d) expressions of appreciation for the class (it really surprised me how many of these appreciation posts there were), and e) general socializing.  I'll continue on the next one below.

6) Community.  There's no other word for it-- a sense of community was built in the Discussion forums.  People in the class became "friends" in the forums, and honestly, I feel like many of them are my friends, too.  From elegant class notes shared by "Soma" to kind thoughtfulness by "Sallie" working through the material to the ever-enthusiastic commentaries by "HP" to "Ozgur" who created a super-helpful 'calculate your grade' spreadsheet to "Andrea" who was gifted at elaborating the underlying aspects of the weekly problem set questions to "Richard" answering people's questions or providing amusement, etc.--  this was a community.  There are so many more people I could/ should mention, and although I've never met any (actually I was fortunate to meet delightful "Lynn" this week), I feel like I know many of them, at least a little.  I loved how they'd even sometimes tease me about some of my mannerisms or things I'd say repeatedly ("leverage" is a great word!).  I'm a bit sad the Discussion forum is closing, since it means I won't "see" many of these interesting people again, and I'm hoping the same sense of community is built in future forums.

(By the way, I've only used first names or initials above-- if any of those mentioned see this and want me to delete those and replace with a pseudonym, I'm more than happy to do so-- just shoot me an e-mail.)

Personal thoughts

I LOVED teaching this class.  The participants asked me great questions that enhanced my understanding of the material.  They provided great links and resources that I'll employ in the future.  And frankly, it was fun!  I especially enjoyed peering into the Discussion forums multiple times a day, and frankly, I can't fathom why everyone wouldn't want to do it.  There are hundreds of people talking about your presentations and their content all the time.  If "ears are burning" is an expression of what happens when someone is talked about, mine are doubtless beyond the ash stage.  The group's enthusiasm for this material that I love was so infectious-- how can one not be drawn in?

Next iteration starts soon-- January 4, 2013.  My on-campus class will be in the mix alongside the online students.  The students this round set the bar pretty high, so I'm hoping it's as successful!  Enrollment right now is a good deal lower (13,540 today), but I'm hoping it'll still be active and constructive.

I must close by heartily acknowledging my new friend and collaborator in this project, Justin Johnsen, who worked full time (40+ hours per week) on this project from mid-August until the end of November, and has pitched in periodically since then.  We also got extensive assistance from Chris Lorch, Andrea Novicki, Colin Rog, Julie Noor, and others (especially at CIT).  This project would never have been as successful without all their help.

Related links:
Google Hangout with student participants (48 min, starts at timepoint 2:30)
Article by Duke President Brodhead on the class
Guardian article by a class participant
A participant's blog post


  1. Mohamed (sir) I don't care how many times I have to say this but this course on genetics and evolution has been amazing and so enjoyable ,slightly difficult given my shifts at work to give it the attention it deserves but thats my problem and takes nothing from the lectures and quizzes, I'm taking the course again with a friend and I aim to really understand the mapping which i couldn't really grasp very well. Anyone reading this who hasn't thought of doing an online course , I think you should , and I'd heartily recommend this one .

  2. There is tremendous amount of thirst for knowledge. I remember a story I read many years ago. A person from from a South American country somehow ends up in USA and is taken to a library. He was amazed at seeing shelves and shelves of books. He asks, "can I read this?" The librarian replies, "you can read anything you want." The guy is perplexed and asks, "you mean I can read all of these books?" Librarian says, "yep, you can take them home too." Our friend pinches himself to make sure he is not dreaming.

    I remember back when I was a high-schooler in India, when we bought something from a street vendor, we were as much interested in reading every word in the piece of oil soaked old newspaper that the whatever we bought was wrapped in. Such was the dearth of material.

    When you have plenty, you don't realize the value.

    The MOOCs have a way to go. It will be decades for the homogenizing force of internet and broadband to be available everywhere. Once that becomes ubiquitous, a million would be a small number in these courses. I hope Sir Noor would be teaching his iteration 27 course to at least a million.

  3. Many thanks for making this learning experience so special. Although I found the course extremely challenging, I did enjoy every bit of it. Your passion to share knowledge, dedication and constant support in the past ten weeks is much appreciated. My sincere hope is that you're successful in all future endeavours.
    Have a great festive season and a fabulous New Year.
    All my best.

  4. This course has been a remarkable experience. I already had some very basic knowledge on the subject of genetics when I enrolled, but as the course progressed I realized just how much I was learning, and I got more and more enthusiastic as the weeks went by. I know the same is true for many other people who were doing this course: the forum was constantly buzzing, with people asking questions (sometimes about questions of genetics that were not even covered in class), helping eachother out, and Prof. Noor and his assistants participating actively, which was great fun. Prof. Noor even reacted to one of my post in the Dutch Students subforum in 'Babeldutch', which I greatly appreciated. The course turned out to be a fantastic combination of what is probably one of the most interesting topics in science anyway (genetics) and a very talented, enthusiastic and knoledgeable teacher: Prof. Noor. His enthusiasm for genetics has infected me: I am now reading 'Evolutionary Analysis' by Freeman and Herron (a book suggested in the course for further reading) just for fun! I very much hope that there will be a followup to the course.

  5. Thanks so much for sharing your refections on the course. This kind of inside information from someone who actually has developed and taught in this format is invaluable to other faculty. The description of the time demands and technological challenges can really help someone make the decision about experimenting with these new modes of education. Congrats to you (and to Justin) on the success of the course. (Gene Roche, Director of Academic Computing, College of William and Mary.)

  6. Sir Noor, put simply, you and your class and staff are (to quote Richard) the zonkeys socks! Miss all of you already. It truly was a community in every way. Soma, that is a beautiful story. Thank you for sharing. My many thanks again to all who made this class experience both possible and extraordinary. Sai, your pleasant presence was a delight. Thank you again and again, Sir Noor. Happy Holidays and best wishes to you and yours always. :)

  7. Mohamed, I'D LoveToHearAnyComments YouHaveOn Getting DUke ToAgree To This Endeavor. EspeciallyFor Those Interested In MOocs At Other Institutions.

  8. Hi Mohamed, I am inspired. Thinking of doing smth similar. Any advice on the right topics? I am thinking of doing smth at a higher level -> you think moocs are a good model for a class with significant prerequisites? Best. D.

  9. Hi, Dmitri! I think it's possible to do this at a higher level... there's already a genomics course in Coursera that does this, for example. The downside is that, as you go higher in level, the number and breadth of interest will drop exponentially. Hence, while there would be uptake by specialists, there wouldn't be (m)any interested retirees, homeschoolers, etc. So, if you do it, I'd aim at a level "just past introductory genetics" or similar, so as to maximize the number of potential students who could benefit.

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  11. The lectures were wonderful. They weren't too long or complicated, and loved the pictures with each slide. Almost each video left me thinking with something new and made me want to learn more. Plus your upbeat, energetic attitude and welcoming smile made the class so much more enjoyable. I also loved that there was a download option on the videos. I can still refer to the lectures when I need them. LOVED that class! I hope you teach more classes on Coursera, and maybe you should consider having a scientific TV show of your own like Bill Nye the Science Guy. :)
    Viva Dr. Noor

  12. Well put Kimia. Sir Noor, you have spoiled me absolutely rotten and set a standard that no other professor could compare to. My other profs are great, don't get me wrong. But a monotone encouragement to "make yourselves comfortable" just can't compare with the radiating enthusiasm and beaming excitement of "HELLO! And Welcome back to ...! Today we'll focus on x that I'm really excited about so let's get started!" Or "Well I hope that wasn't *too* difficult for you!"
    (Btw: it's Gretel. Not sure why my profile is now "the beagle" but you know how I have a bit of a habit of changing names so I guess I chose "the beagle" at some point)
    At any rate: You are truly incomparable and one of a kind, Sir Noor. A very hard act to follow.
    Oh! And I keep using "No worries! :-)" with my non-coursera friends... But they don't get it!

    Best wishes,

  13. Darn technical challenged Gretel can't figure out how to change her name back to Gretel.

    Hey Sir Noor! You're a rock star! :D Enjoyed your un intended pun in here:

    Best wishes! No worries! :-)

    PS- will you be doing another hangout for your groupies to watch on YouTube? ;)

  14. Thanks Gretel! Hoping to do a Hangout... not sure when yet. Hope all is well!