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The Modest MOOC: How the Knight Center For Journalism Put On 5 Classes In 10 Months

Hello everyone. This is Robert McGuire at MOOC News and Reviews, and today we’re talking with the Knight Center for Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin to learn more about their MOOCs.

Modest MOOC, Knight Center

Dennis Skley via Flickr

The Knight Center is a professional training and outreach program for journalists in Latin America and the Caribbean. They run a digital media center and operate a number of workshops, conferences and educational programs to elevate journalism standards and defend press freedom in the Americas.

The Knight Center was founded and is directed by Rosental Alves who is also a professor in the University of Texas at Austin School of Journalism. He created the first class on online journalism at UT-Austin in 1997. Before that, he had a 27-year career as a working journalist in Brazil.

The Knight Center’s newest work includes several MOOCs, and they are an interesting case, because I can’t think of another organization that has multiple MOOCs in one discipline, and very few schools have had a chance to offer classes a second time around, as the Knight Center has done.

So I’m very eager to hear their perspective. Welcome Professor Alves. Thank you for talking with us.

[Note: You can use the player to listen to the audio from our phone interview or, if you prefer, read the transcript below.]

 

Audio of interview with Rosental Alves, Knight Center for Journalism [Download]

Alves

Thank you for having me.

McGuire

Before we get started and dig into it, let me make sure I have some specifics right. I count four different MOOCs from the Knight Center starting from last October. That’s Introduction to Infographics and Data Visualization — that’s been offered twice in English — How to Improve Electoral Coverage, which was in Spanish, Introduction to Data Journalism, which was offered in Spanish and now, starting on August 5 [correction: August 12], Data-Driven Journalism: The Basics, which will be in English. Is that right?

Alves

Yeah, it starts on August 12, and it’s Data-Driven Journalism: The Basics, which is our first that is not taught by one instructor but  by five instructors, so it’s a team teaching experiment that I think has a very good potential to . . . .

The team-teaching format that we are experimenting with in this next MOOC has a lot of potential, because it’s the first time we are having a team-teaching MOOC. One is an academic professor, and the other four people are professionals from The New York Times, ProPublica, NPR and Houston Chronicle.

So we are experimenting with this format in the kinds of MOOCs that we offer, which are professional development MOOCs, not for-credit MOOCs like most of the MOOCs out there. I believe the team-teaching may be an interesting format, too.

McGuire

I watched the introductions for all of them. A little bit more for our listeners or our readers: it’s five weeks long, so basically each of the five weeks is covered by one of these individuals, the academic who’s organizing it all and then the four different professionals in the following four weeks.

Alves

Yes, that’s correct.

McGuire

And I misstated. I said the wrong date. It’s August 12 that it’s starting. Did I miss any? Do you have any other MOOCs that I forgot to mention?

Alves

No, those that you mentioned are the MOOCs.The pioneer instructor was Alberto Cairo, who is currently teaching at the University of Miami in the School of Communication. He is a veteran infographicists and an expert in data visualization.

The first MOOC, [pullquote position=”right”]I went against the current, because everybody in my team and the engineers and everybody here was saying that it would be a disaster, because the servers and the structure and the Moodle platform would not be enough for a massive course. [/pullquote]So it was with some hesitance but very determined — even to fail, if it were the case — that we started our first MOOC in October of 2012.

We were bracing for disaster, but what happened was a great success. I kept the MOOC to 2,000 participants because of this scary situation about the server, etc. but we were surprised that when the MOOC was about to start we realized we’re leaving out 1,200 people who had registered in the system but could not enroll because we limited the number. So immediately, we announced the second edition of the same MOOC with the same professor a month later, in January, a month after the end of the first MOOC, and that second had 5,250 participants, so we are becoming more and more comfortable with the system.

McGuire

Were the fears about the technology misguided?

Alves

I think so. I think so. But it was useful to have that initial panic, because it forced us to be creative on several fronts of the organization of the MOOC, like having less materials directly on the Moodle platform and having . . . . For instance, the videos were not residing there but rather in YouTube. Our operation is sort of a MOOC arena. [pullquote position=”right”]We are a ragtag army. We do MOOCs here that are quite different from the rich MOOCs that I see other people doing, especially from universities and from the big companies. [/pullquote]Our MOOCs are very inexpensive in their budget. They are very very low budget, but, so far, I think very effective, and we are taking advantage of the technology to do things that are very simple and not very expensive.

McGuire

Let’s dig into the budget a little bit. I won’t pry too much, but I take it that your major expenses are the salaries for the instructors and for the tech people. And I should mention that these classes are typically about five weeks long, not the traditional semester long. So am I right about that? Are those your major expenses?

Alves

Yes, I think we use . . . . The other question was Moodle as our platform, right? We use a Moodle outsource company that provides a Moodle server for us. What we did is we had to move to a dedicated server instead of using a shared server. The interesting thing about our operation is that we disrupting our own operation of ten years of offering small classes of online courses on journalism topics, right? So we have, since 2003, we have been offering courses . . . . I think we offered more than 100 courses that taught about 7,000 journalists in the Americas on a variety of topics. So what we started last year. In just a few months, we have already reached 13,000 people in a few months compared with the 7,000 that we reached with the smaller courses. But the whole structure . . . . I mean, the costs that we have, we have the overhead of our center. We have the server, the payment for the instructor, the tech people and some video production that we tried to keep a very low cost.

McGuire

And I know that a lot of it is supported through foundation grants from The Knight Foundation.

Alves

It has been until now. We are not receiving from The Knight Foundation anymore starting on September the first, so we are in the moment of trying to become self-sustainable in the course. We are now thinking about business models that can help us to be self-sustainable.

McGuire

Can you give your colleagues a ballpark figure? If they wanted to run, let’s say, one class that resembled one of your classes, how much should they get in their pocket in order to start doing it?

Alves

It’s hard to give a figure, because it depends on the overhead and the structure that we have already in place here, right? But [pullquote position=”right”]I can imagine that one of our MOOCs would cost something like $10,000 to $15,000 with the entire production and paying the fee of the instructor, etc. But remember that this is not for-credit. It’s not a college class. This is just a workshop that is becoming a MOOC.[/pullquote]

McGuire

Right. I think that’s one of the interesting differences. You’re a professor in an academic department in the School of Journalism at University of Texas, and then the Knight Center is this non-academic institute attached to the university.

Alves

I would say it’s not exactly non-academic, but it’s kind of a hybrid, because it’s an outreach program. What we do is to work with journalists in other countries, specifically in the Caribbean and Latin American countries, although the MOOC projected us all over the world. I mean the first MOOC we had 109 countries represented, and the second MOOC we had 138 countries represented. And even when we do a MOOC in Spanish, for instance — we had two — we have probably double the number of countries where Spanish is the official language. We have people who speak Spanish and live in other countries also taking the course.

McGuire

Does the fact that it’s in the Knight Center make it easier? Can you imagine teaching a MOOC as a professor in the School of Journalism?

Alves

Yes, I’ve been working on that direction trying to do something like a hybrid course. This summer I taught a course . . . . My university has an agreement with the government of Portugal, and some of us teach classes there in the summer, and I experimented this summer with a hybrid course. I went to Lisbon and taught my course for one week, and then I two extra weeks that were on our Knight Center platform, and it works very well. So now I’m trying to experiment with my classes here that I will try to start slowly mixing some online components.

My university, the University of Texas at Austin, has an agreement with edX. So they have already started asking professors to have proposals for edX MOOCs. But I’m not in that game yet, because [pullquote position=”right”]I have my little thing that is below the radar and that is more modest and not that expensive as what my colleagues are doing. So we don’t have the level of video quality, for instance, that some other MOOCs have. But, you know, it works.[/pullquote] It’s very effective in the sense of democratizing access to knowledge and skills that are very important for journalists all over the world in a moment that journalism is changing in a very radical and quick way.

McGuire

I was going to ask why you decided to do this to begin with. Is it just because it coincides with your outreach mission so well?

Alves

Yes. We have been for ten years offering online courses that were highly subsidized because we were lucky to have the grants from The Knight Foundation, so for many years the courses were for free. Then we started charging very subsidized prices. That model was very good, but when we saw the movement of MOOCs all over, we thought . . . . and we were lucky enough to have Alberto Cairo, the first instructor who is a visionary and who was also enthusiastic about experimenting with the format. The MOOC format matches the mission of the Knight Center as a center that helps journalists in many countries elevate the standards of journalism they practice. Because it’s a very effective way for . . . .

The other thing is these are all synchronous. Journalists are normally very hectic in their daily lives, etc. Our style is extremely simple and easy to understand. We have a course that is human-based. It’s different from self-directed courses that work almost like a library that you go there, you take the book and learn those skills at any time from anywhere but with no restriction and no instructor available. Our MOOC has an instructor, has T.A.s’, teaching assistants that are always around to interact with the students, and it is done in a certain period of time. But it’s divided into weekly modules, though each week has its own task with its own deadlines, etc. So it’s instructor-based like any other online course or face-to-face course, and it works just in that specific period.

McGuire

Now that you’ve run several of them, what are some of the lessons you’ve learned?

Alves

Well, we are trying to figure out and invite researchers from the School of Education here at the University of Texas at the beginning to follow our experience and record as much as possible, collect as much as possible, data. They have already written one academic paper based on our experience.

[pullquote position=”right”]I think from our point of view there are a few things that we are concerned about. Obviously, the first one is how we are going to pay for it, right? One thing is to have the mission of democratizing the access to knowledge. The other is how to pay for it. Since it is very cheap, what we are doing, we have a better chance.[/pullquote]

One good idea that I think I had before the first MOOC was to charge for certificates. In the first MOOC we charged $20. In the second MOOC we charged $30. It’s clearly a non-degree, non-credit. It’s just a workshop, right? But there are many people who really wanted to have a documentation that they concluded the course. This has been working well for us.

Now we are thinking about other models that could work, even a model that we would have a small entry fee that whoever wants to take the MOOC and may qualify for the certificate could pay a very small entry fee that would be enough to give more motivation to the people who enter but enough for us to collect money that would make each MOOC self-sustainable.

The other concern that we have is to categorize the types of participants of the MOOCs. I have been observing that there are four types. The first one is the curious people who just come because it’s free, because they are curious about how it works, and they really do nothing. They just come, look around and get out and never come back.

The second one are people who come and learn something but learn just a little. We have records of all this movement so we can measure that. They just come and see a couple of videos. They get out of the MOOC with very little learning elements or very little things that they learn, but they leave with something.

Then the third are people who come and learn a lot but are not concerned with finishing the MOOC because they are not concerned about the exercises, the tasks, the projects, the peer evaluation or any of those more labor intensive activities that we offer. But they leave the MOOC with a lot of knowledge. So I think they are very important. And the final fourth category is the people who pass. We just give the certificate to people who really have met the minimum requirements. They are kind of high in our MOOCs.

The advice I have for people who are going to try similar things is not underestimate the two middle categories that the MOOC has, because I see lots of people say, “Oh, just 10% pass.” When you’re talking about such a massive enterprise, you pay much attention to the percentages at your own risk, because the absolute numbers are really amazing. Also the residual knowledge that people acquire can’t be underestimated.

McGuire

Do you think there’s a benefit to the University of Texas at Austin that you do this at the Knight Center?

Alves

Well, I don’t know what other people think about that, but I think there is. We are experimenting. We are taking risks. We are learning. We are having the researchers from the School of Education, the learning instructional technology people here, learning along with us. I think it’s a good experience for us here to acquire knowledge and be on the cutting edge somehow.

Last semester, I was invited to talk about the MOOC, because we were the first program at this huge university here who offered a MOOC and suddenly everybody in all the departments are talking about MOOCs, usually in a negative way, or in many cases. And I was surprised, because [pullquote position=”right”]I was expecting that if I were lucky a dozen people would show up to my talk, and the room was packed. There were people sitting on the floor. I think having this experience within the campus is great and for a fraction, a small miniscule fraction, of the cost of the big MOOCs that they are working on in other departments.[/pullquote]

McGuire

You mentioned one piece of advice you would give to people at other institutions. What other advice do you have for someone who directs an institute or a center, regardless of the discipline or the profession. What would you tell them to think about if they’re considering MOOCs?

Alves

I think it’s having an open mind to new ways of incorporating digital technology to education. I think there is a lot of hype about MOOCs now, and there is a lot of negative energy and approach about the impact of the MOOCs, etc. And I think people should calm down and just be open minded to adopt technology in ways that break what we have been doing for centuries in one specific way and be open to check what is effective. It should be brought from the bottom up, not from us who teach and our own interests, but what is the interest of people who are the beneficiaries of the educational process.

In our very humble and small case what we are doing is to . . . . There are people out there who play an important role for democratic society, who are in trouble because the world is changing so rapidly in their area, and they need instruction. They need guidance. It’s based on what is the interests of them that we are doing this.

[pullquote position=”right”]I think it’s obvious at this point that our campuses will be very different in the next decade, and we have to dare now to start changing the ways we teach. [/pullquote]I hope that my small experience here on the professional side can help me as a professor in the academic environment also, because I’m taking some lessons from there that I can use on campus.

McGuire

It occurs to me that maybe one of the reasons that it works so well for the Knight Center is that it’s a new way of serving your existing constituents. These are folks who would naturally be your students, whereas with most MOOCs, it’s a college class resembling a for-credit class and let’s say the students at the University of Texas at Austin — the MOOCs wouldn’t necessarily be serving those students. It’s reaching out to a new population. And people might say, “Why would we do this? What’s the benefit to our students of offering this class to the whole world?” But in the case of the Knight Center, it’s not really a change in that case.

Alves

Well, it is in one aspect. During this decade of online courses, we have always discriminated against non-journalists. In other words, people would apply for our courses. [pullquote position=”right”]We would have a selection process, and in the selection process, we would weed out people who were not working journalists. The MOOC eliminated that. So take our first two MOOCs in English. I think 70% of the people who participated in the MOOC were not journalists. This responds to several interesting aspects of the MOOCs. One is that we are really eliminating barriers of access to knowledge that the universities naturally create with the selection process. [/pullquote]

So we are creating a new . . . . The college MOOCs are doing this, as well. They are eliminating the barrier that that kind of knowledge would be accessible in a class environment just for people who entered the university. And now we’re saying anybody can come and watch this. You may not get a certificate, but you learn these skills if you apply yourself to it, right?

In our case, journalism is less and less a monopoly of professional journalists — any person commits acts of journalism. So we see a great opportunity with the MOOCs to create a program that we have been calling “journalism for all” that not only passes techniques and skills to journalists but also creates a widespread news literacy that helps people when they are in a situation that they can commit acts of journalism but also help them to understand journalism in the cacophony that exists out there with everybody becoming a medium, creating an audience, etc. And in that cacophony it’s very important to distinguish what is journalism from what looks like journalism but is not.

McGuire

Right. My website is maybe an illustration of that. I’m a journalist in the traditional sense, but I’ve never been a publisher until I started this website. All of a sudden, technology makes  . . . .

Alves

Now you are a reporter, an editor and a publisher.

McGuire

Right. I was never an editor or a publisher before. And all of our contributors, they were amateurs before, and I think you’d regard them as journalists now, the people who are contributing to the site.

Alves

Yep.

McGuire

My last question. A year from now, what role do you think MOOCs will play at the Knight Center?

Alves

Well, we are in a transition, because our funding from the Knight Foundation has ended, so I think the MOOCs in this academic year that starts in September will play a central role, because we have to concentrate on the MOOCs and also on the other smaller programs, as well. I don’t think the MOOCs are killing completely these smaller more boutique courses that we have. I have to be creative now in terms of how self-sustainable the MOOCs can be — how I can market them, etc. without renouncing  our basic mission.

McGuire

Thank you very much for your time. This is very illuminating for your colleagues and our readers. I really appreciate you taking the time for this.

Alves

You’re quite welcome. It was a pleasure.

Robert McGuire (51 Posts)

I’ve been a graduate student in English literature, a newspaper and magazine reporter, an ESL teacher at home and abroad, a marketing consultant and a grants and outcomes measurement specialist in nonprofits. Currently, I provide higher education MOOC consulting services and teach writing at a local university, and my “other job” is volunteering for several local nonprofit organizations. I started this project because I believe MOOCs are going to be an important – not to mention fascinating – social development, and I want to ensure that students and teachers could participate in lively critical dialogue about it. You can find me on G+.