Amidst all the angst within academia generated by the new MOOCs (massive open online courses) and online education in general, actually working on a MOOC for the last six months has convinced me of one thing: MOOCs will make the classroom better. Let me describe how I reached that conclusion.
Within weeks of the end of the course on innovation I taught with Holden Thorp as a follow up to our book, Engines of Innovation, I had a conversation with a young economics professor who was helping us with the MOOC we agreed to offer on Coursera in February of 2014. This professor routinely teaches 800 students a semester and has developed a bag full of techniques and technologies he has adapted for the large classroom. He is also an ardent supporter of MOOCs. We didn't know each other very well so he began by asking if he could be perfectly honest. I said yes. He then said, "We can't use any of the video from your large classroom. We have to start over. What you do in the classroom won't work for a MOOC. The content is great but it has to be totally reformatted." I was stunned. Holden and I never would have agreed to undertake the MOOC if it wasn't a minor extension of our big class. We had enough to do to revise our large class based on all we experienced in its first incarnation. Now we were being told we needed to rethink the lectures and place them in a very tight and understandable structure. We were also told that our casual conversational tone would have to be replaced with a tightly written script that would be supplemented with a variety of visual techniques designed to promote retention of our most important points. We were too far into the process to back out so we agreed to proceed.
Now we're six months into production and the actual lectures for the MOOC are done after two traumatic days of takes and retakes. Separate introductions and conclusions are yet to be taped and we still have interviews to do with four amazing innovators. (Registration for the course will begin in September here.) However there is the matter of our 400-student class that begins in six weeks. It needs work in order to incorporate the lessons we learned in the first iteration. I am happy to report our efforts in creating the MOOC are directly applicable to the more traditional classroom experience and will undoubtedly make our big class on innovation better..
First, we have a course map, adopted from the business model canvas that tightly integrates every class session into a coherent whole. This should help students better understand how each class fits into the process of generating and implementing a new idea or innovation. Second, the core lectures for the class have been reduced to six discrete modules with very clear "take aways" and extraordinary visuals designed to reinforce the most important points. As we revise the course lectures, these modules will provide a roadmap that will make the lectures better. They can also serve as supplementary material, in some cases taking the place of reading assignments. Third, the modules offer the opportunity to "flip" the classroom with students viewing the modules outside of class and the classroom time being used for more interactive and experiential learning. Exactly what form this will take is to be determined but we do plan to experiment this fall with a flipped classroom.
Our work in the classroom will make our MOOC better as well. Innovation and entrepreneurship is a contact sport and can't be learned by listening to lectures alone. Our 400-student class is too big for the 20 person recitation sections that had become the hallmark of our teaching style. Executing a group project is also essential to learning how to innovate but this is also difficult in a large classroom. This fall we plan to experiment with online recitation sections and group projects. The lessons we learn we plan to apply to our MOOC in February. We also involve guest speakers in our large class and the videos we create of their sessions will create a supplementary library for the MOOC.
None of this resolves all the issues associated with MOOCs or online education in general. What it does suggest is there is an exciting dynamic between MOOCs and the traditional classroom and the interplay between the two should make both better.