“Independent MOOC” reaches global audience with connected course

How GW customized its own in-cloud hosting services on the Open edX platform to reach a better audience

MOOC-GW-courseIndependent collaboration may sound like an oxymoron, but for George Washington University (GW) this method of MOOC hosting has reached a significant global audience and strengthened relationships with peers in the process.

In May of this year, Associate Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at GW, Lorena Barba, wanted to expand her “Practical Numerical Methods with Python” course on a global scale.

I am an advocate of open education, and I believe that it is important to share content openly,” Barba said. “But I also believe that the content should be controlled by the creators. In my case, the content that I am authoring is shared openly under a Creative Commons Attribution license: this means that anyone all over the world can use it, modify or remix it, as long as they credit the source and original authors.”

Call it a “connected course,” or an “independent MOOC,” but Barba’s course is one and the same, thanks to Open edX and its in-cloud hosting services.

Barba’s course makes the University the second in the U.S. (Stanford University being the first) to customize and deploy in-cloud hosting services on the Open edX platform; meaning that GW is not a member of the edX consortium, but instead offers their MOOCs independently.

The University has partnered with Southampton University in the U.K. and Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile to develop their connected courses across institutions, allowing instructors at these locations to teach their own versions of Barba’s computational science and engineering course to their local students.

Already, over 3,000 students from around the world are currently enrolled in Barba’s MOOC.

(Next page: Implementing a connected course on an independent platform)

Key steps

This June (2014), Barba  submitted a proposal for the connected course for approval to the Office for Online Education and Academic Innovation at GW. She then contacted IBL Studios, an official hosting provider appointed by Open edX, to code and customize the website for her course.

The MOOC started just two months later, in August. Speedy approval was due in large part to the University’s belief that every student can be reached.

“GW is committed to supporting those faculty members who are interested in exploring the use of MOOCs to reach a broader global audience,” explained Paul Berman, vice provost for Online Education and Academic Innovation at GW. “In addition, it is part of our service mission to provide educational opportunities to people throughout the world in subject areas that are either distinctive strengths of GW or where we can create a distinctive approach.”

“Finally,teaching innovations learned in the context of preparing and delivering online education can help drive new thinking in face-to-face classroom education as well,”he continued.

Next came the issue of funding, specifically in hiring IBL Studios—the software company Barba hired to code the website–and in hiring teaching assistants to help with the course.

Barba received internal funding from the GW Office for Online Learning and Academic Innovation and from the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). She also received some support from sponsors: Nvidia Corp. Academic Programs and Amazon Web Services that donated hosting credits.

Finally, implementation was considered, which Barba explained took a bit of redesign in terms of teaching and practice.

The course is organized in modules, each motivated by a problem modeled with a differential equation. Barba collaborates with partnering instructors to create content for the course and participate in the MOOC’s online forum. “We collaborate by reviewing and commenting on content, discussing ideas for practice problems for course participants, et cetera,” she said. By this form of peer-review of educational content, we improve overall quality. The only con is that it takes more time and effort that a typical teaching assignment, where one instructor works alone. But that would be true of anything that improves quality.”

Though all students under participating instructors are participating in the MOOC, anyone who is not enrolled in the course at one of the institutions can register for the MOOC free of charge.

Going forward

In the past few months, the university has created an eDesign Shop within the office of Online Education and Academic Innovation, which  provides instructional design, video, animation, and graphics ‎support that enables schools and departments throughout the university to produce high-quality online courses and programs.

“These include not only MOOCs but also many small-scale, tuition-based, degree-granting online programs.  Individual schools and departments within the University are free to use outside partners to create online programs if they choose to do so, but the resources we can now provide internally offer a high-quality, customizable, and flexible alternative to such outsourcing,” Berman said.

Barba hopes to add new features as more MOOCs are introduced at GW, such as enhanced student profiles, which may allow participants to be more social on the platform.

In the future, noted Barba, GW will likely partner with more institutions as the University offers more MOOC courses.

“We would love to share our experiences with other institutions that may want to try the ‘independent MOOC’ idea, and in fact we’re discussing with some others the possibility of coalescing a loose cluster of institutions that do so,” she said. “We could find strength in numbers; perhaps create a joint index of courses, to help disseminate them, but with each institution remaining in control of their domain, their content and their terms of use. If, in addition, we were to agree to share technical solutions and share data from learning analytics, it could be very impactful.”

Hayley Goodman is an editorial intern at eCampus News.

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