effectively to build prerequisite background, or give
extra practice for students? Will such a blend increase
or decrease participation in the brick-and-mortar
class? Will such a blend improve overall performance
of the brick-and-mortar class?
Michael Littman: Yeah, that happens naturally ….
Charles Isbell: … if for no other reason than the students use the material available to help themselves
whether we intended them to do so or not.
What are the most significant challenges of teaching a
MOOC/HCOC, assuming it is already set up?
Charles Isbell: I have two answers for this question.
The first is that it hasn’t been a problem because the
material we teach is more stable than we like to pretend. In contrast, the second is that even if the material is mostly stable, we still have to be concerned
with maintenance. That maintenance can come from
the desire to reference more recent events, de-emphasize topics that are losing favor in the community, or
simply improve the presentation. It does take some
effort to do such updates. In some ways, the MOOC
format makes it harder. Editing a slide or lecture
notes is a lot easier than rerecording and reediting a
video file. We need to find ways to keep the content
fresh without a significant continual investment in
video production. It’s a potentially difficult and
Michael Littman: I hadn’t noticed.
Charles Isbell: Mmm hmm. A more interesting case
is what happens when the person who created a
MOOC leaves and another person has to come in to
oversee the course.
Michael Littman: I hadn’t noticed.
Charles Isbell: Mmm hmm. Well, so far for us, it’s
been pretty smooth. The students seem to take it in
What are the top three technology capabilities that
would significantly improve the MOOC/HCOC pro-fessor/student experience and outcome?
Michael Littman: Dynamic content. As a reinforce-ment-learning researcher, I was drawn to MOOCs as
an opportunity to turn teaching into a sequential
decision-making problem where the student is the
environment and the MOOC is the decision maker.
The MOOC needs to figure out what path through
the material will lead to the best learning outcomes.
As a MOOC instructor, my job would be to give the
system the raw material to construct optimized lessons. I don’t think it’s a coincidence at all that
machine learning and AI people like Daphne Koller,
Andrew Ng, Peter Norvig, and Sebastian Thrun were
the pioneers of this technology. Nevertheless, this
vision has been harder to achieve than people
thought and new technological ideas are needed to
make it work.
Charles Isbell: Production effort. Creating an exciting and polished class is a lot of work. OMSCS invests
a tremendous amount in professional video production people to capture and edit the material to make
it as accessible as possible; nevertheless, there’s a lot
more that can be done to really make these videos
exceptionally powerful. We need to find ways of getting the best end product possible within the practical bounds of how much we can invest in it.
Michael Littman: I wish I had more time to do more
classes like this. Maybe there’s a way of making more
Charles Isbell: Well, you can always have kids.
Michael Littman: I did that, but mine are not interested in teaching AI MOOCs.
Charles Isbell: Students, then?
Michael Littman: Yes, good idea. Maybe we need a
way of teaching more MOOC teachers to help raise
Charles Isbell: That works. Maybe this interview is
a step along the path toward getting AI experts to
know more about how MOOCs are made.
Michael Littman: And that will help increase the
pool of teachers. Nice!
Charles Isbell: That seems perfect. Go!
Douglas Fisher’s Responses
We now present Douglas Fisher’s responses.
Douglas Fisher: MOOCs are often not massive any
more, but often self-paced. It is regrettable that the
acronym SPOC has been used to represent a small
private online course, because it better suits self-paced
online course. I use SPOC as representing a self-paced
What are some activities that work well in the context
of MOOCs and high cost online courses (HCOCs) and
that may not work well in the context of a brick-and-mortar class?
Douglas Fisher: What MOOCs and SPOCs enable
are cross-cultural discussions; cross-institution discussions; cross-institution teaching; and cross-institution group assignments or projects. See the Report
on the CCC-CRA Workshop on Multidisciplinary
Research for Online Education (Fisher and Fox 2013),
with references to cross-institutional initiatives, and
witness the collaboration between Michael and
Charles as an example of across-institution teaching,
which I believe would be harder in a strictly brick-and-mortar, nondigital setting.
How do you engage students in MOOCs and HCOCs
with the course and the materials?
Douglas Fisher: I’ve never taught a MOOC, but I
have engaged in helping students on the discussion