4. It’s an art form.

Clayton Christensen was asked by the University of Phoenix to record his 10 most popular lectures to be distributed by students. “It was interesting, because the University of Phoenix rented out this beautiful lecture space at a nearby art institute, which had a huge bay window that would be my backdrop. I was told the University would find people to populate the lecture as it was recorded, and when I gave the lecture, I noticed all the people were incredibly beautiful…I found out later that they were hired models.” As Christensen related the story, the models were used for moments when Christensen’s lecture became a bit dull—the camera would pan to the models who looked interested in what Christensen was saying, therefore motivating the attendee to keep watching. Other tactics used by the University included background music that rose to a crescendo during the lecture’s key points. “I realized that this wasn’t just providing a lecture online, it was a whole new model of presenting information,” he related.

According to The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL), there are reams of data telling educators how students learn best online, what to avoid in designing a web-based course, and what needs to be done before students are consistently engaged. Perhaps none of that data is more detailed than the information analyzed in edX’s release of how 100,000 online students viewed course videos in its massive open online courses (MOOCs). CSAIL’s study of the 6.9 million clicks from edX’s classes showed five ways in which colleges and universities can improve web-based courses of all kinds: 1) Static PowerPoint slides are an engagement killer; 2) Fast-talking professors proved much more engaging than educators who spoke at a decidedly slow pace. MOOC professors with the highest engagement rates said 254 words per minute; 3) Lengthy online videos had low engagement rates, while short videos kept students’ attention. Students typically stopped watching the online lecture after six minutes; 4) While fast-talking professors were key, long pauses for students to better digest complicated diagrams were vital in maintaining engagement; and 5) Videos designed specifically for web-based audiences fared much better than existing videos that were simply chopped up and shown in snippets. For more information on CSAIL’s study, click here.


5. There’s no “I” in MOOC.

A MOOC on its own probably won’t be an institutional game-changer. In numerous research and best practice reports, those institutions successfully implementing MOOCs say using these courses as part of a comprehensive online learning strategy, or as a way to improve on-campus courses, is critical to MOOCs’ survival at the institution.

In a recent report from the Cornell Distance Learning Committee, institutions are urged to “pursue a diverse portfolio of distance learning avenues, continually rebalancing it as evidence emerges.” Even EDUCAUSE recommends that, in order to gain the most value from MOOCs, the courses should fit in the overall portfolio of course offerings, as well as knowing whether they complement, or substitute for, current course models.

HarvardX’s two-year assessment points toward in-classroom applications of MOOCs, with the aim to “help communicate the breadth of the impact that the HarvardX and MITx initiatives have had on the development, visibility, and usage of pedagogical resources and innovations on campus.” At this point, it observes, more than 83 percent of MIT undergraduates have used a residential MITx system in one or more classes. “At Harvard,” it says, “many residential courses that have HarvardX counterparts are using HarvardX resources to support residential instruction.” At one level, a professor noted, is the “reusability or recirculation of HarvardX content.” It is not the case, he said, that professors need to “flip” an entire course. Rather, they can adopt online units or modules to illustrate and enliven certain parts of their instruction.

For smaller institutions, the goal of providing a MOOC may be part of a larger mission toward online credentialing. According to Elke Leeds, assistant vice president for Technology Enhanced Learning and executive director of the Distance Learning Center at Kennesaw State University, the one question all institutions must first ask themselves is: “Why would we want to do this?”

“We’re not Harvard or MIT, we’re a teaching-focused state university that produces teachers, nurses and business school grads; we don’t have classes like ‘Advanced computer analytics programming,’” explained Elke Leeds, assistant vice president for Technology Enhanced Learning and executive director of the Distance Learning Center at Kennesaw State University. “So the questions that became most important to us were: ‘What is the value proposition, and what kind of MOOC is right for us? We’re credentialing-based and degree-based. We believe in offering at least the option of credentials, or peer review, so we had to devise a way to do just that with our first MOOC, ‘K-12 Blended and Online Learning.’”

Luis Llorens, professor at the University of Baja California, Mexico, explained that the first question every institution needs to ask when contemplating online readiness is: What is the core mission of the university? “This is the elephant in the room that universities don’t want to address,” he said. “The online program or course has to fit with the institution’s mission and those developing the program or course need to have a plan or list of everything they need to complete the program to present to the university before anything begins.” For more information on how to incorporate a MOOC into an institutional strategy, click here.

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