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On-Campus or Online?: Two Generations Compare MOOC Experiences

Hello everyone. This is Robert McGuire with MOOC News and Reviews, and today we have a very interesting interview. We’re going to hear from two students who were learning the same online material from different perspectives and for different reasons and at very different points in their careers. However, they have something else in common that should make this an interesting discussion.

[Enjoy this interview with two generations of Duke University students who compare MOOC experiences. You can play the video or, if your prefer, read the rest of the transcript below.]

Before I introduce them, let me explain what class in common they had. We’re talking about a class called Introduction to Genetics and Evolution, which was taught by Professor Mohamed Noor at Duke University. He teaches that for his on-campus pre-med students, and he also created a MOOC version for Coursera, which he’s taught twice.

Most recently, Professor Noor taught that MOOC and at the same time adapted his on-campus class into a flipped version where the Duke University undergraduates followed along while the masses of people around the world were in the MOOC, and the Duke students were doing that as their homework, and then they would come to the lecture hall for small group work. We published a podcast with Professor Noor about that recently which our visitors may find interesting.

We have with us today two students who were in the two different versions of the class.

One of the undergraduates who took the flipped version of Genetics and Evolution was James Wu who just finished his freshman year at Duke. That makes him the class of 2016, I believe. Right?

Wu

Yep, that’s right.

McGuire

Welcome James. Thanks for being with us.

Wu

Thank you. Thanks for having me.

McGuire

And one of the tens of thousands of students meanwhile taking the MOOC version of Genetics and Evolution was Ben Somberg. He’s retired from a career as a human factors engineer, specializing in user interface design evaluation. He also teaches psychology at a community college. And, it so happens that Ben is a Duke University alum, class of 1972.

Welcome Ben.

Somberg

It’s nice to be here.

McGuire
It’s my pleasure to introduce you to one another. And as I understand it, you actually didn’t take the class at the same time. Ben was in the first iteration of the MOOC in the fall, and James was taking the class in the spring time when the second iteration of the MOOC was going on. So you guys are meeting for the first time, I guess. It’s interesting bringing two generations of Duke students together.

One of the things I was wondering, James, is when you were taking it, did the undergraduates and the students in the MOOC, were they mingling in the discussion forums also?

Wu

Me, personally, I actually didn’t use the discussion forums a lot, but I do have some friends who I knew used the discussion forums. I would say there are two types of students who would use the discussion forums. One, people who just liked to get involved and were very interested in a topic and wanted to discuss it, and, two, students who are struggling and want extra help.

I know that Professor Noor said that among the Duke students actually taking the course at Duke, there was a small number of people who actually participated in the online discussion forums. There might be an explanation for that. I know that I did have discussions about Biology 202, but those are with my peers, not on the forum, online based. Those are mostly in face, in person, so I don’t know if that lent to a factor of less students interacting on the site, because I definitely had a lot of outlets if I had questions to ask, not online, just in person.

McGuire

But it wasn’t like you were walled off from one another. You could intermingle?

Wu

Yeah, there definitely was many opportunities, and I did occasionally glance over the discussion forums to see what people were talking about, but never extensively like interacted on it, personally.

McGuire

And in your case James, why were you taking class? Are you a pre-med student?

Wu

Yeah, I’m a pre-med student and my prospective major is Biology, specifically Cell Molecular Biology, so this is one of the pre-med courses and also for my major.

McGuire

And how about you Ben? Why were you taking the class?

Somberg

Evolution was one of the things I became interested in. Last year or so after I retired, I started reading some stuff about it. I think it’s one of the first ones I happened to see on the Coursera site, so I jumped at it. It’s just something I was interested in. I had no pragmatic reason for doing it other than general interest in the area.

McGuire

Thinking back to when you were at Duke, obviously you had intro level classes, but did you take a class on a similar topic or in the sciences that might be comparable to this class?

Somberg

I didn’t have any Biology at all. I started off as a Chemistry major, but I switched into the social sciences during my freshman year. Chem 1 was the only science course I took, really.

McGuire

Thinking back into Chem 1 and your intro to psych classes – because I know that you studied psychology also – thinking back to those intro level classes, how did this intro level MOOC compare to those intro level classes you remember?

Somberg

In terms of the level of difficulty?

McGuire

Yeah.

Somberg

I thought this was a fairly rigorous course, particularly for MOOCs. I didn’t have a whole lot of trouble with it. I thought the explanations were clear and everything. So, I think it was fairly comparable in terms of level of difficulty to the courses I took when I was at Duke, at least some of them.

McGuire

How about in terms of learning outcomes? Do you feel like you learned just as much as you would in the intro level courses you remember from your college days?

Somberg

I learned a lot. It’s hard for me to believe that I learned as much as James did. You had a lab, I believe and we didn’t have that. I spent maybe four or five hours a week on this. Maybe a little bit more sometimes. I’m sure James spent a lot more.

McGuire

How much more did you spend James? Remember, your professors are listening.

Wu

Basically, we watched the lectures online like all of the MOOC students, and then we came to class for an interactive session and, on top of that, lab. And then, basically, anything else extra besides that is based on the students, how much you personally think you need to study. For me, it wasn’t that much, but more than I guess a MOOC student would have to, probably.

McGuire

One thing I’ve never been clear on is in the flipped model is how much reading is assigned outside of watching the lectures.

Wu

How much reading is assigned – we have the lectures that we have to watch that are the same as MOOC, but there aren’t any specific mandatory reading assignments. It’s mostly like they’re just enriched reading assignments, like if we’re interested in a topic and we want to broaden our knowledge in that specific field we can go, for instance, read the scientific paper, read this journal article or watch this YouTube video. But none of them are mandated, but Professor Noor will suggest some interesting things for us to read or watch.

McGuire

I asked you what your motivation was in taking it, but maybe this is implicit in that answer, but how are you, James, going to use the course?

Wu

Well, specifically, my research and what I’m interested in in the science field is more toward a Molecular Biology side, but there’s still a lot of aspects of genetics that will be applicable. So, for instance, in research I’m doing now we’re making mutations in genes and using that to express phenotypes and analyze disease outcomes and other things that we might do, like GWAS studies that we learn (genome-wide association studies). So there are always applications and intersections between the disciplines, even though I’m focusing more on Molecular Biology. But anything I learn in genetics, even like the basic concepts of how do genes work will be applicable, I feel to any field of research I want to apply for or study in.

McGuire

And how about you Ben? You explained your motivation but how will you use the course now that you’ve finished it?

Somberg

I’ve taken a couple of other genetics classes since I got into this and done a lot of reading. I don’t have any plans to use it in the practical sense. I started with the evolution idea is what really motivated me and genetics was thrown in there, I thought. But I’ve become a lot more interested in genetics as a result of that. I’ve taken some other Genetics classes. I’ve taken some Biology classes, so I’ll continue that theme.

McGuire

We talked about comparing it to your undergraduate experience. You have more recent experience with college, because you’re teaching college to undergraduates. Psychology classes, right?

Somberg

Yes, I am.

McGuire

So when you think about the classrooms that you’re in more recently as a teacher, how do you think the MOOC experience compares?

Somberg

Obviously, you don’t have the interaction with other students, which is, I think, one of the reasons for the popularity of the forum, because it’s our way of hanging out in the cafeteria or whatever. Some of them have assigned readings. I think Professor Noor had at least suggested some readings. I don’t tend to do that. I’m hoping my students that I have will. I don’t think all of them do, but at least they’re required to do it in terms of the exams. I spend less time, I think, on any one class than at least I hope my students do that I’m teaching.

McGuire

James, another way we can think about the comparison is to other classes you took in this last year. I assume this is the only one that was really flipped like this?

Wu

Yes, this is the only one that I took that was flipped, but I do know there are other instances where different students are taking different classes that are also being flipped.

McGuire

Yeah, Duke has a lot going on in that regard. And did you have any that were intro level and had 100 or more students in a lecture hall? Did you have other classes like that this year?

Wu

All freshmen at Duke are required to take one writing course and one small group learning experience, basically like a seminar course, and those two courses are both around 15 or less people. So, those are automatically small. But I took Organic Chemistry 1 and 2 and also Molecular Biology and those are all probably at least 150 people each. So very big.

McGuire

So when you compare those – I don’t want you to talk smack about any of your teachers or any of your classes – but when you compare those different experiences to the MOOC, what’s your takeaway?

Wu

Starting with Organic Chemistry, both of those classes are basically just a traditional teacher lecturing at you, drawing diagrams, mechanisms on the board and you taking notes and recording if you want to. Not much interaction, the occasional question.

Then Molecular Biology was also basically the traditional class where we basically watched our professors lecture using a standard PowerPoint. Not much interaction. But they did occasionally throw in the think- pair-and-share where you would take two minutes to discuss with your neighbors a question they had just to get your mind working, so you don’t fall asleep in class or something.

McGuire

Did you form any opinions about the learning outcomes in each situation and if one is helping you learn better?

Wu

Personally or a scientific study?

McGuire

Personally.

Wu

Personally, I would say that I did enjoy the Genetics and Evolution flipped class format, because it gave me the freedom to study and view the videos whenever I want and basically learn at my own pace, which I would say is pretty quick. So I don’t want to have to sit through lecture if it’s not hard material. I can just look through it really quickly.

As far as the other learning styles, most people have learned that way their whole lives, so I can’t really compare unless I take a class that’s actually flipped in the same style. But I know there have been studies that say that MOOC courses are just as effective, but not more so than traditional learning courses. But flipped classrooms, hybrid classrooms, are more effective than both.

McGuire

Let me ask you another question, James. Hypothetically if there was a subject you were interested in studying and Duke didn’t offer a class on that – which is unlikely, because Duke is a very large university and has every subject covered probably – but hypothetically, if you were going to a smaller school and there was a subject you wanted to study and your school didn’t offer it, would a MOOC be sufficient for you or would you feel like that was not going to cut it?

Wu

As far as satisfying my intellectual curiosity, a MOOC would definitely be sufficient, but as of now there are only, I think, five MOOCs that are suggested or recommended for this credit. I forget the specific name. [pullquote position=”right”]So if I actually wanted to pursue something like this, I would need to find an institution to take the course in. But that doesn’t bar me from getting an introduction or learning more on my own by taking a MOOC.[/pullquote] Definitely.

McGuire

And the other thing I forget is in that freshman composition class you mentioned you needed a project and the project was actually writing about this class. So why did you choose to make this class the subject of your freshman composition project?

Wu

Basically, our Writing 101 – which is what this class was – subject was digital humanities, so basically the intersection of the humanities and the digital world. So what impacts and how that changes. A big field, a hot field, is how technology impacts education. So I thought it was really fitting or easy for me to talk about the flipped class format through the lens of the Biology 202 class, because I was registered or enrolled to take that class.

McGuire

Ben, do you ever talk to your community college students about taking MOOCs, either to fill in gaps or to explore other subjects?

Somberg

No. We have a lot of regular online classes where I teach. I haven’t actually taught some. My wife’s taught more of those with mixed success. We have some of those, but I haven’t really talked about MOOCs per se.

Advice for MOOC students

McGuire

You’ve taken several now at this point. What would you advise someone who’s signing up for a MOOC for the first time? What does it take to do well in one or to get the most out of the experience?

Somberg

It varies depending on what it is. What I do is I listen to lectures once and then try to listen to them – depending on the class – listen to them again and take notes. I try to stay up to date, because if you’re taking a couple of them, it’s easy to get behind.

I think participating in the forum is really helpful. It can be helpful at least in some cases. Sometimes you get false information by going through the forum, so there’s that problem, but I try to go into there. Try to get as much out of it as you can, I guess.

McGuire

Ben, you have several degrees. You have a BA, your Master’s and your Ph.D. You teach college, your wife teaches college, so you’ve been around universities, and I wonder if you developed any opinions about what you think the role MOOCs will have in higher education in the future.

Somberg

It seems like there’s a trend toward that. My wife’s colleagues are very scared of what’s going to happen, because they think that their jobs are on the line, and the administration talks a lot about this. I think they’re a great idea, though.

As I said before, [pullquote position=”right”]I have a hard time believing that what I got out of the course, although it was a lot, was the same thing as James did. So I think there’s got to be a little more rigor involved in it before it really is a one-to-one comparison.[/pullquote] I’ve been to a lot of MOOCs, and some are harder than others, and some are more rigorous than others, so that’s a general statement. But the ones I’ve taken, although they were good, I didn’t feel they were a real university class.

I’d be curious about the evaluation. Did you take the same exams that we too or do you know, James?

Wu

I believe we did take the same exams that you did, but we actually covered maybe a week or two of extra material that you guys didn’t cover, so we might’ve had like a third exam. I’m not sure about the specifics, though.

But I would say that Professor Noor always talks about how it’s a challenge for him to make his class worth coming to, because, traditionally, he taught his class where he just gives a traditional lecture, and the class is recorded. So the students, they say, “Well, I can just watch the lecture at home.” So now his challenge is, the lecture is still recorded like it used to be, but how can he make his class worthwhile for students to come now that it’s a flipped class format? So [pullquote position=”right”]I think that a lot of universities are faced with that challenge and how to make coming to the institution, physically being there, as valuable or more valuable than taking an online course?[/pullquote]

McGuire

That’s interesting, because one of the criticisms – I don’t know if it’s a criticism –but one of the questions being raised is if universities start giving it away for free, then people who are paying for it are going to start asking, “Why am I paying for it if you’re giving it away for free?” And I wonder if you ever feel that way, James. If someone like Ben is getting it for free, do you wonder why you’re paying as much money as you are?

Wu

Right. That’s like what Professor Noor was talking about. how he can never actually go back to the traditional format of teaching Bio 202 or Genetics and Evolution now, because that would just be like taking a MOOC in addition to a lab portion. But now he has a flipped class format – after the research that has been done that the hybrid model flipped class is more efficient or more effective in learning – I feel like that it will give incentives for students to still go to a university. Because education is innovative, so they are going to be like new things coming up, teachers trying to improve their courses.

McGuire

The question I was asking Ben a minute ago about any predictions – it’s impossible for us to predict the future, but I’m asking you, anyway – a year ago, when you were opening your acceptance letter from Duke or packing your bags or finishing high school, MOOCs hardly existed, in the public mind anyway. And now you must be wondering what school is going to be like in your senior year or when you go to graduate school. Things are changing so quickly. I wonder if you have any sense of the role MOOCs will have in your future education.

Wu

I feel like because of or the up and coming prevalence of MOOCs in education that we’re going to see more of a flipped classroom setting. Don’t quote me on this, but I believe that Duke Medical School has adopted a totally flipped classroom, but I need to check all my research before I make that claim. But I believe that higher education and Duke has started trending or shifting towards a flipped classroom.

As far as MOOCs actually being certified for credit at institutions like Duke, I don’t know how soon or how fast that will happen. Maybe like a MOOC taught by a Duke or a Duke caliber school will be accredited at a university like Duke, but I’m not sure about the logistics of that or the timeline for that.

McGuire

It sounds like you can imagine it.

Wu

Yeah.

Somberg

Honestly, I think we would miss the interaction with the professor. Professor Noor is very accessible, and he was in the forum all the time. [pullquote position=”right”]I would write something and within an hour – even on Thanksgiving Day, I remember – he was replying back. They’re not all like that, though, so if you have a particular question that you need help on, you just can’t get it. You can throw it out to the forum, and maybe someone will answer it.[/pullquote] But you don’t even know if that answers going to be right.

Wu

Yeah, I know that for the first MOOC that they had for 202, they didn’t have—I forget what it’s called . . . .

Somberg

TAs?

Wu

It’s like TAs like watching the forums. But for the second one they did. So I think for MOOCs, as they move forward, they’ll have more things set in place like that where there are other people besides the professor who can give good answers to questions that are posted.

Somberg

You have a lot of that going on, and that does help. It’s not quite like having the professor there. It is great though.

Wu

I would say that the success of like a course of like a MOOC, and especially the flipped class format does lie a lot in who the professor is. So with someone like Professor Noor, I was advised to take Biology 202, Genetic Evolution in the spring specifically to be able to take it with Professor Noor. We all know that Professor Noor is amazing.

McGuire

Yeah. He has a lot of fans.

It’s been a real pleasure to hear from both you and to hear your interactions and your two different perspectives. Thank you very much for taking time to talk with us.

Somberg

My pleasure. Thank you.

Wu

Thanks for having us.

McGuire

Goodnight. Have a good day.

 

 

 

 

Robert McGuire (52 Posts)

My content marketing services firm provides all-in-one external staff solutions for companies looking to grow their business through thought leadership. I started MOOC News & Reviews in 2013 out of a fascination with the economic, demographic and technological forces impacting edtech, online education and higher education, and I wanted to provide a forum for serious discussion of this new phenomenon. I love building communities of writers engaging in lively critical dialogue about emerging issues.


One Comment

  1. Yes
    MOOCs will replace the tyraditionaL EDUCATİON SOON .

    Coursera sold their courses to 10 state universities at $ 36 perm course.
    State universitiers will award credits toward degrees MOOCs courses at their universities.