As part of a yearlong series, a research group within the School of Information hosted a panel discussion called Perspectives on Online Courses from the Trenches to inform students about their academic options in a modern setting on Tuesday. About 10 graduate students attended the discussion about Massive Open Online Courses.

Dr. Chuck Severance, a professor in the School of Information, introduced MOOCs to the University of Michigan in 2012 and currently conducts six MOOCs through the University. He said an average class begins with 40,000 students, though only around 8,000 complete the program. Severance said he hopes to soon teach his millionth student.

The presentation, hosted by the Michigan Interactive and Social Computing group, was held in the Ehrlicher Room of North Quad.

Severance said he sees MOOCs as a movement to potentially revolutionize modern education because there is an incentive to make the courses engaging to retain students who would otherwise lose interest.

“If you don’t make it at least moderately interesting, this is just like watch, watch, watch, chug, chug, chug.  Frankly, we can get away with that in residential education because we have your money,” Severance said. “If we tell you to do this much work, you’re just going to throw your weekend away, but if I tell you to throw away your weekend for my MOOC assignment, you’re not going to do it.  You’re going to become one of the 90 percent who drops the class.”

Severance described retention as one the biggest problems facing the MOOC movement, particularly in retaining teacher assistants for the courses, who are underpaid if paid at all, he said.  MOOC assistants — students who took the course at the University in a classroom setting — are interested in the material and want to further the MOOC movement.  They work online, aiding students through the material on discussion forums provided by the hosting site.

Though the teaching assistants play a significant role in student completion, Severance said the true heroes of the movement are the “volunteer mentors.” He described these volunteers as passionate educators who lack the public speaking skills required to lecture.

“There’s a ton of people who have so much to share — it is just bursting out of them,” Severance said, “but they do not want to stand up in front of people.”

Colleen Van Lent, a School of Information lecturer who described herself as Severance’s mentee, discussed the potential for MOOCs to act as a powerful supplement to the traditional classroom education during the event. She said they may be ineffective when used alone for two problematic reasons.  

Firstly, there is little interaction between the teacher and students. The only interaction that Van Lent has with her students is through her Twitter account. Second, the grading of assessments poses a challenge toward MOOC instructors. Van Lent said she tries to stay away from multiple-choice assessments because she feels that they do not teach anything and the technology is just not there to efficiently grade other forms of tests.

“Everyone wants to know how they’re doing and what they got wrong … sometimes our system just says no and people want to know why,” Van Lent said.

Despite these setbacks, speakers said MOOCs seem to be playing a pivotal role in an ever-evolving academic climate. Silvia Lindtner, assistant professor of the School of Information, was one of the organizers and attendees of the event. Lindtner said she thought MOOCs are altering how students see and participate in education.

“For me, I think it’s really questioning what we mean by teaching in an age that’s really shaped by quantification,” Lindtner said. “So I think that MOOCs confront the educational world.”

Lindtner said regardless of whether MOOCs become more popular than the traditional classroom setting, they’re is forcing institutions to question how they teach and has the potential to have a big influence.


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