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Two MOOCs Make a Track Record – Q&A with University of Miami Global Academy

Before its first MOOCs, the University of Miami Global Academy was no stranger to online education. In fact, the private college prep school operates a high school and middle school that are completely online.

Marathon MOOC

photo by familymwr

In the normal course of events, UMGA runs online test prep classes for its own students studying for college admissions and Advance Placement exams. But last fall the academy decided to open their SAT biology test prep class to anyone in the world who might be interested, which made it one of the first MOOCs specifically targeting high school students.* They followed that up with an AP calculus MOOC that concludes this week.

At this point in MOOC time, two makes a track record, so I was eager to talk to UMGA about what they’ve learned so far and what advice they have for other institutions and for students. I talked with Dr. Craig Wilson, Head of School and Associate Dean.

 

McGuire

Can you say in a nutshell how yours is similar to and how it’s different from the MOOCs people might be more familiar with?

Wilson

We wanted to make sure ours was live. Most MOOCs, you’re going to find, regardless of which provider it is, tends not to have live instructional time. As an online college preparatory school, we’re a very high-touch institution, so if we’re going to do a MOOC, ours also has to be high-touch, because that’s reflective of who we are as a school.

Another foundational difference might be in our audience. The MOOCs we ran were geared toward high schoolers. With the MOOC conversation being as ubiquitous as it was, we didn’t see a lot of conversation for high school students. So the online high school from the University of Miami Global Academy decided to go ahead and make courses available to students that were really meaningful and impactful.

We looked at the STEM area – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – and within that universe we decided to make courses available to help prepare students for standardized exams. For instance our first MOOC in November of last year was for students preparing for the SAT subject test in biology, both ecological and molecular.

When we ran that MOOC we learned a lot about the process. We ran our own surveys to figure out what issues might crop up or what interests students might have if we were to do something like this again. Although MOOCs are free to students it’s not an endeavor that’s without cost to an institution.

McGuire

By live, you mean there are some hours each week where people meet online at the same time?

Wilson

That’s correct. We set it up so that two times a week the instructor was teaching the subject matter and also receiving questions from students who were online at that time. It was a synchronous event, and we also taped the session while it was occurring and while questions were being asked and answered. Students who could not log in at that specific time still at least received some of the course materials.

McGuire

Yours had a cap on the number of students, right?

Wilson

We did. What was interesting is that during the time we ran the science MOOC, one of the students turned out to be an actual science teacher in New York, and he asked us whether or not we could also open up spaces for his full class to take the instruction with us, so we did.

We understand MOOCs have this association with large groups of students, and that wasn’t the area we really wanted to pursue. We were more interested in keeping it small and manageable, particularly because it was our first time. We wanted to make sure we could wrap our arms around a quality learning experience.

We had it capped at 200, but what happened was more and more students were asking if they could join, so we had to figure out ways to have more resources available, and eventually we moved to 500 students. Then that teacher and his students and others from around the world started asking if they could get in, and by the time it was all said and done we hit almost 1,000 students.

McGuire

Were you giving feedback to 1,000 students?

Wilson

Yes, we were giving feedback. They would continue to work within the discussion forums asking questions, and the teachers would answer those questions. Of course students who were watching live received their answers right on the spot.

McGuire

So you did the biology SAT prep, and the AP calculus. Are any others planned?

Wilson

We’ve received input from students requesting us to look at other areas outside of STEM, whether it’s language arts or social sciences, so we’re considering that.

McGuire

What platform were you doing this on?

Wilson

We went with an open source solution using Moodle as our learning management system.

McGuire

Why did you decide to open these courses up to the wider world beyond your own students?

Wilson

We felt that as a private college preparatory school, there are probably students who might not be able to afford a private school experience, but we thought they might be able to benefit from having this instruction available. The University of Miami in general gives back to the greater body of knowledge, and this was just one more way of doing that.

McGuire

An early presumption about MOOCs has developed, which says, “This only works for highly motivated students who don’t need a lot of support, who probably are already very experienced in a college environment.” What you are noticing based on your experience? Do your students need a lot of support, and if so does this environment work well?

Wilson

I think with online learning in general there tends to be the notion that students who do well in the online space are self-directed and self-disciplined. That doesn’t change in the MOOC space. I think where there might be differentiators, at least for us and what we’ve experienced, is that we were able to provide it live and you get that first-person interaction. That might be something, if a student is hesitant or if a family is hesitant to have a student take a MOOC, that might help with the transition to learning in an online space.

McGuire

How many people were actually online during the live sessions?

Wilson

I think we initially thought we’d have a lot of people who would tune in, but we probably had a dozen or so, and that’s because of the time of day it was offered.

When we first entered the MOOC space we were trying to figure out when would be the appropriate time to offer this. After the first MOOC was done we ran surveys, and we adjusted it so that, with AP calculus MOOC, we’re running it later on in the evenings and we’re getting a much larger group. Fifty plus live students are in there. Some students will come in during the live time but actually still go back to review materials that were from the prior session.

McGuire

What kind of analytics or outcomes measures have you been able to collect so far?

Wilson

What we’re finding is that you have a large audience for about the first one to two thirds of the MOOC, and then as you get toward the end they start to taper off. However, what we found interesting was that after the sessions ended students still request to come back to enter the space to go through the materials again.

For instance, the SAT subject test in biology was offered in January and again in March. So we kept the MOOC materials open till March.

McGuire

How did people find out about you?

Wilson

We sent out a press release just to let people know this was going to be available. And there was word-of-mouth. Global Academy students knew about it, and the word just sort of spread like wildfire.

McGuire

Where are your own students from?

We thought most of the folks who would sign up for it would be based in the United States because when we sent out the press release it wasn’t really international. But, well, we all know how the internet is. It didn’t take long before folks from the around the world were requesting entry.

Wilson

All over the world. We’re the Global Academy, so we’ve got students in Australia, Japan, China, Poland, Latin America. You name it, we’ve got it.

McGuire

I suppose for the MOOC it was that times ten.

Wilson

We thought most of the folks who would sign up for it would be based in the United States because when we sent out the press release it wasn’t really international. But, well, we all know how the internet is. It didn’t take long before folks from the around the world were requesting entry.

 

Advice for students taking MOOCs

 

McGuire

Imagine a student is going to sign up for a MOOC this summer to tune up for college. What would you tell them about how to choose one and how to make the best use of their time?

Wilson

I think it probably starts with the institution itself. Each institution has its own culture, its own way of doing things. So find a school or an institution you’re comfortable with to start, and when that institution puts on that online course, it should be a direct reflection of their philosophy of education.

McGuire

When people are taking MOOCs, what are some of the strategies to keep in mind to make it effective?

Wilson

I think one of the key strategies would be to know your motivation for taking the MOOC in the first place. If you’re taking it to acquire knowledge or maybe as a hobby, you might not have the same interest as preparing for an exam. Some subject matter is highly engaging. Some subject matter may not be as engaging but is important.

I urge students to really put their best foot forward in terms of learning and acquiring knowledge, because we’re at a very interesting place in our educational history with the availability of great learning materials all over the internet and with the ability to have choice.

McGuire

What would you tell students about why they should consider looking at MOOCs?

Wilson

Whether or not it’s classified as a MOOC, the information is constructed in a way that allows a student to move from a beginning, to a middle to an end acquiring content in a way that’s logical. How it’s dressed up, whether it be a MOOC or otherwise, isn’t as important as its ability to educate the student. So I don’t think I’d be as enamored with the terminology of a MOOC as I would be with what lies within it.

I think what we’re going to see is that MOOCs are going to continue to evolve. They’ve certainly done a lot in terms of raising the conversation with respect to distance learning. My sense is that the MOOCs we’re looking at today in 2013 will look a lot different by 2014 and 2015. I don’t think anyone’s totally figured out the ins and outs of all MOOCs. It’s still an area ripe for exploration, but we’re barely scratching the surface of the potential.

McGuire

What do you think the potential is?

Wilson

What we’re going to wind up doing is examining the whole education process itself. We talk about disruptive technologies, disruptive learning and ways to re-imagine what a learning experience can be like. What MOOCs have done over the last three years or so is really elevate the discussion beyond the MOOC being an online course but more towards, “How can we make this part of what we’re doing on a daily basis?” The flipped classroom model, for example. I think that’s where the discussion is going to continue to evolve.

McGuire

You were offering it to help people prepare for an exam. Is that necessarily the motivation every student had when they enrolled in it?

Wilson

No. Some students were just looking at it for the content because it was very detailed in its ability to present biology in a rigorous format but that was digestible. For students who are motivated to do well in a subject area and are looking for new ways to learn a specific topic, MOOCs provide a great menu of varying topics and delivery formats. I think it should continue to be explored.

Advice for teaching MOOCs

McGuire

What advice do you have for institutions or teachers who are considering developing a MOOC?

Wilson

If you’re going to do a live session, it seems the later in the evening you make it available the better. We’re running our AP calculus MOOC late in the evening. Second, just be open to the feedback you’re going to receive from students because that’s probably your best gauge of how you can tweak and make the course even better. If I had to generalize the types of organizations that would be entering the MOOC space, I think they would probably be some of the open-minded educators out there in terms of the ability to adapt the materials so that you can have a greater audience participation.

McGuire

Thank you very much for your time. Any final thoughts for students?

Wilson

I would say continue to explore the richness of this subject matter that’s available and keep asking for more.

 

*Some other media who are only aware of MOOCs run by Ivy League schools have incorrectly said the engineering MOOC at Brown University this summer will be the first specifically for high school students. Dr. Wilson was too polite to say so, but those reports have overlooked other earlier MOOCs. The University of Wisconsin – La Crosse just finished one. Wake County Community College just started one. And the University of Miami Global Academy’s first MOOC was last November. For the record, the University of Prince Edward Island is right now running the second iteration of XPU, a “soft intro to college” project that they first ran two years ago and that Dave Cormier calls a (maybe M)OOC.

 

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.