School of Information Prof. Charles Severance has been interested in Massive Open Online Courses since the moment he was first introduced to them.

“When MOOCs came along in 2011 or 2012, I was like, ‘this is going to be the biggest use of the internet for teaching that the world’s ever seen, and I got to be part of it,’ ” Severance said. “So I sort of shoved my way in and got to be part of the first round of courses that the University of Michigan published on Coursera (a host website for MOOCs), which were really the first real MOOCs.”

Just as Severance expected, MOOCs have exploded in the past five years, and both he and the University have been on the cutting edge of MOOCs production ever since.

James DeVaney, the associate vice provost for academic innovation for the University, told the Daily in an email interview the University was one of the first four schools to partner with Coursera in 2012. Since then, the school has produced over 100 MOOCs and forged strong partnerships with both Coursera and edX, another host website for MOOCs.

Currently, the University’s MOOCs alone have reached over 5.6 million people from around the world, according to DeVaney, and the University shows no signs of slowing production any time soon.

“It’s really pretty when it’s done, but it takes a lot longer than it used to.”

The first major MOOC — an introduction to artificial intelligence — was launched by Stanford University in 2011, and out of this experiment came MOOC provider websites. In most cases, these providers act as intermediaries between universities and “learners,” which is the MOOC-jargon term for a student.

The University of Michigan was one of the first four universities to partner with MOOC provider Coursera, launching its first course through the platform in 2012.

In fall 2015, the University also aligned with edX. With over 100 courses currently running or in production, the school is now well on its way to accomplishing its goal of transforming over 200 courses into full-fledged MOOCs by the end of 2017, according to DeVaney.

In the early days of University MOOCs, professors were mostly self-motivated, creating entire courses by themselves in their spare time. Severance said his first MOOC, a course about the history of the internet, which he describes as a way to turn history buffs into technology nerds, arose out of pretty rudimentary materials.

“In 2012, we just found a way,” Severance said. “In the early days, I just bought a camera and stuck it on my computer and started talking … you used to be able to get these things done in a weekend!”

Two years later, in 2014, as MOOC production started to pick up, the University started looking for a way to incorporate them into the greater University experience. This spurred the creation of the Digital Education & Innovation Lab, now housed within the Office of Academic Innovation. Today, MOOCs are collaborative projects between the instructors of the courses and the DEIL, which is home to studios where instructors can film their classes.

In Severance’s opinion, this change is positive, but he noted it also comes with its own difficulties. MOOCs now require a major time commitment from instructors — gone are the days when an entire course could be completed in a weekend.

“Now, it’s very organized and there are professional studios and professional camera people with professional lights, professional microphones, professional everything,” Severance said. “It’s really pretty when they’re done, but it takes a lot longer than it used to.”

Currently, MOOCs generally take about three to six months to complete, and the process involves many more people than it did five years ago. DeVaney said MOOCs are now much more collaboratively created.

“Faculty submit a proposal first to their college or school and then to a University-level faculty committee for feedback and approval,” DeVaney said. “Once approved, the faculty team will work with the Office of Academic Innovation to design and develop the new MOOC.”

Always on the forefront of MOOC production, the University has several bigger projects in the works that are among the first of their kind.

Last month, the Office of Academic Innovation announced at its Innovation Forum the University would begin a Teach-Out Series to inform the public on a large scale about current issues. Dean of Libraries James Hilton, who is also the vice provost for academic innovation, said the courses would help inform citizens about relevant current events topics on a large scale.

“The University of Michigan Teach-Out Series can be a model for a new era of engagement between institutions of higher education and the global communities they serve,” Hilton said at the forum. “Part of our public mission is to create opportunities for citizens to be informed, because the more informed people are, the more informed debate can be.”

Additionally, students in a School of Natural Resources and Environment seminar are creating the first-ever student-led MOOC, which will be released in early May.

“They’re only going to help us.”

Though the University is a big proponent of MOOCs, there are some aspects of the process that seem daunting to potential instructors.

As mentioned above, the time commitment can be nerve-wracking for some. Rachel Niemer, the director of the University’s Gameful Learning Lab, recently made a MOOC about gameful learning pedagogy with Barry Fishman, a professor from the Information School and the School of Education. She said Fishman came to the project with concerns about how much time the project would take up.

“In the beginning, Barry … was nervous about how much time it was going to take,” she said. “In the end, he ended up being a much bigger fan of the process than he expected to be. Most people find that it’s challenging to figure out how to fit it all together, but I think faculty are pretty used to situations where they had to (do that).”

DeVaney echoed Niemer’s sentiments, saying most faculty find the MOOC creation process to be rewarding and informative.

“The most common feedback from faculty is that the effort required to create a MOOC was more than they expected, (but) that the experience was transformative, that they’ll never teach on campus the same way, and that they want to create another,” DeVaney said.

This idea of changing campus climate is one that comes up frequently in talks about MOOCs, and people are generally undecided about whether this change will be for better or for worse. Here at the University, though, most people think the rise of MOOCs will only improve the college experience. Severance thinks there’s no possibility of harm from MOOCs — only improvement.

“They’re only going to help us,” he said. “There might be others that are harmed by this, but not us. I think ultimately what is going to happen is we are going to find ways to smooth everybody’s transition into higher education and have people arrive on campus better prepared to make the most of their time on campus with us. We will teach less remedial stuff and more fun stuff.”

“We’re going to continue to break this mold of what a MOOC is.”

Of course, MOOCs are not perfect, and the University constantly working to improve them. One area Niemer is trying to change is the relatively rigid pedagogical structure of MOOCs. Her course, which was released last month on edX, is about gameful learning, and it was important to Niemer that the class use the method she was trying to teach. This proved to be difficult.

“MOOC platforms tend to assume one kind of delivery, and they’re really designed with an implicit pedagogy,” she said. “And even though MOOCs themselves are really innovative, I see that as a space for further innovation. Over the next few years, we’re going to continue to break this mold of what a MOOC is and really bring new and exciting … learning experiences.”

Natural Resources and Environment student Dahlia Rockowitz is currently enrolled in the MOOC creation seminar and has had the unique ability to experience MOOCs as both a learner and a creator. She and her classmates in the seminar are creating a course, tentatively titled ActOn Climate, which aims to introduce learners to climate action by presenting different ways people experience the environment.

Though Rockowitz enjoys the creation process and finds it to be a great experience, she said being both a full-time student and an instructor has some challenges, especially within the MOOC format.

“We’re trying to do something brand new, in that we’re designing a brand-new course and it’s people most of whom don’t have a background in online education,” she said. “Everyone’s really committed to making sure the MOOC is really interesting and engaging and motivating, but also recognizing that we have other obligations of students and the timeline of the world doesn’t always match up with the timeline of the University of Michigan.”

Rockowitz sees some room for improvement from the learner’s side of MOOCs, too. She thinks more engagement and communication between students is necessary for future MOOCs.  

“I remember thinking it was really cool to be sitting in my living room and watching a lecture,” Rockowitz said. “I remember it being hard to wrap my head around that there were so many other people like me around the world taking the course … I also remember wanting to dedicate more time to (a) course than I actually could. There are quizzes and assignments and stuff, but not that same accountability … also, I’m a people person, and it would’ve been nice to interact with others.”

On the other hand, LSA freshman Boyang Yu felt the fluidity and independence of the MOOCs he’s taken were major assets to the courses. While he has not taken any MOOCs since coming to the University, he completed two in high school and greatly enjoyed them.

“I’m not one of those people who needs to study in groups and I really like the freedom a MOOC has of starting whenever you want and repeating whatever you want,” Yu said. “In certain ways, it works better than physical classes.”

MOOCs are a new concept, and they will undoubtedly grow and change. The focus going forward, though, will likely be on what the learners want — whether it’s more structure, like Rockowitz prefers, or less, as Yu would like. Regardless of what changes will be made, the most important thing, as Severance said, will be improving access to a University of Michigan education to anyone around the globe.

“(The learners are) the reason I got into it,” Severance said. “I got into it to impact lots of lives in a positive way. I love programming and I love technology and I think everyone should love it, but I can’t get to meet everyone. With the MOOC, I can affect all these people’s lives in a positive way, and there are tons and tons of stories about people who take one class and it changes their life … that is so gratifying … I’m the luckiest person in the world!”

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