Charles Isbell: Did I mention that they are all taking it for a grade?
Michael Littman: One of the things we try to do in
our classes is provide concrete examples and working
code whenever possible. It’s important for the concepts to be made tangible. A nice thing about the
MOOC format is that students can dive into a demo
and the lecturers will wait patiently for them to be
ready to move on. Also, an advantage of the teacher-student format we use is that the “teacher” is forced
to slow down and react when the “student” feels
there’s been too big of a jump in the presentation.
Charles Isbell: Sometimes we don’t get it right and
end up speaking to each other as experts. Still, the
students tell us that they love when we try to (re-)
discover concepts as experts. They feel really drawn
into the discussion. In any case, we’re a lot closer to
getting the pacing and level right than we would if
we were teaching solo. More to the point, we couldn’t re-create this experience in person, certainly not
over a semester. Michael’s snowed in half the time.
A criticism of MOOCs/HCOCs is that they do not offer
qualified feedback on challenging assignments. Do
you see a way to resolve this issue?
Michael Littman: We’ve addressed this issue by providing qualified feedback.
Charles Isbell: … and challenging assignments.
Have you had issues with academic integrity when
offering your course as a MOOC/HCOC? How have
you mitigated concerns of academic integrity?
Charles Isbell: Again, it’s important to have a comparison frame. Academic integrity violations in
OMSCS have been lower than for our on-campus
course. That’s possibly due to the population of students we’ve tapped into for OMSCS, but it does show
that it is not a necessary feature of online classes that
academic integrity concerns dominate. Actually, we
use proctoring services for exams that take over one’s
computer and camera, and require identification (ID)
verification. It’s even harder to cheat than it is to vote
in some states.
How is learning different with MOOCs or HCOCs versus traditional classrooms?
Charles Isbell: I don’t understand the question. Do
Michael Littman: Not really. Maybe I’d say the
learning can be the same, but online you have lots of
opportunity for more control as a learner — though,
you do have to work harder to manage your social
network within the class.
What are lessons you’ve gained from MOOC/HCOC
teaching that you believe are important for all teachers to understand?
Michael Littman: I don’t understand the question.
Charles Isbell: Not really. Maybe I’d say that the lessons are the same as on campus: be as engaging as
you can be, and provide a learning environment that
helps the student. Put as much energy into the
online process as you do on campus, and take advantage of the tools.
Where do you see the future of MOOCs and HCOCs?
Are they here to stay? What will be their likely target
Michael Littman: Yes, I think MOOCs are becoming
established as an important tool in the higher-edu-cation kit. To me, MOOCs fill a similar niche to textbooks: they gather an expert’s perspective on a subject and make it available to a much wider audience.
In the context of my on-campus reinforcement-learning course, I now have the students watch our
online lectures and then use class time to dive deeper into topics that the students are struggling with.
It’s a potent combination.
Charles Isbell: Early on, a lot of people made dramatic statements about how on-campus teaching
would be eliminated by this technology, but we’re not
seeing that at all. Indeed, if you look at the population of students we have in OMSCS, you get a sense of
what the potential really is. Our OMSCS students are
older and more established than their on-campus
counterparts. Broadly speaking, OMSCS appeals to
people who are looking for a way of enriching their
educational background but have strong constraints,
say family, work, or geography. A recent study by Harvard and Georgia Tech1 demonstrates that our students would not have pursued degrees elsewhere by
and large if this program wasn’t available. But those
who are pursuing this degree are doing as well as their
on-campus counterparts. That’s a pretty big deal.
Michael Littman: If anything, I see MOOC-based
delivery growing in the years to come.
Charles Isbell: I agree. Like Michael, my on-campus
students use the freely available version of our material along with my in-person lectures. They often
quote things I’ve said back to me … mainly because
I use the same jokes.
When I’m waxing philosophical, I like to say that
we’re not interested in living up to the hype that surrounded MOOCs, but we are interested in living up
to the promise.
How can MOOC or HCOC be blended with a brick-and-mortar class? For example, could a MOOC be used