Use Your Computer For Actual Educational Purposes With MOOCs

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Remember when you learned about this stuff in APUSH?

While we continue to hunch over crappy used textbooks and scribbled notes for most classes at Columbia, the world of education (even for Columbia) has been expanding with the help of the Internet. Education Enthusiast Courtney Couillard met up with Ted Limpert, the Communications and Outreach Manager at the Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning (CCNMTL), to talk about Professor Eric Foner’s new MOOC.

Bwog: What exactly is a MOOC? What sets it apart from the rest of the online classrooms available?

TL: A MOOC is a Massive Open Online Course or, basically, a (mostly) free way to learn on the Internet. The main difference between MOOCs and traditional online courses is that MOOCs are open to anyone anywhere (with the Internet) and can have tens of thousands of students taking a course at any given time. Columbia has “officially” worked with two different MOOC platforms, with about 14 courses on Coursera and 3 courses on edX. What’s cool about edX is that it’s a nonprofit. What’s even cooler about Eric Foner’s MOOCs (a series of 3 different courses) on edX is that all of the content has a Creative Commons license, meaning that anyone can take any piece of the course (video, images, activities, etc.) and reuse/remix it.

Bwog: How did the process go about in terms of getting Professor Eric Foner to sign on to do a MOOC? What aspects of the course did he want to keep or change from his original lecture course to better adapt to the format of a MOOC?

TL: The Chronicle of Higher Ed knocked it out of the park when they called Eric Foner a rockstar. I’m not sure who was the first to approach who, but Professor Foner has always been an advocate of improving access to/understanding of history. He’s been excited at the prospect of reaching more history “students” than he ever has been able to at Columbia.

In terms of the actual MOOCs, we didn’t have to change much. His incredible accolades in the historian-world rival his power and presence in the classroom. Because he’s such a compelling lecturer, we really didn’t have to tweak too much of his material. We did add images, and cut back and forth from various angles, throughout his filmed lectures. Probably the biggest change was that we split his one-semester course into three MOOCs (27 weeks). Professor Foner worked closely with Michael Cennamo, an Educational Technologist at CCNMTL, and Tim Shenk, his lead TA, to develop the courses’ content, which includes discussion questions, short quizzes, longer tests, and other interactive activities. Our video team also filmed Professor Foner at the New York Historical Society and in TA (all Columbia graduate students) discussions. We were also able to connect with Thai Jones, a Columbia Librarian in the Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, to add images from their rare digital collections of Abraham Lincoln, Slavery, and the Civil War.

Bwog: How has the MOOC been doing so far? Are there many Columbia students signed up, or has it been attracting more off-campus students?

TL: The first MOOC (of three) is doing great! It is in its 5th week, and we have 6,511 people registered. The number grows larger each day. The interesting thing about MOOCs though is that generally less than 10% of people registered actually finish them. We’re not sure entirely why, but we are staying strong with nearly 2,500 people staying active in the course so far. I don’t believe we know if we have any Columbia students currently enrolled/active, but we do know some other things: We have about 50 alumni (and hope to increase that number). We also have students from 136 different countries. Of course, we would love to have more Columbia students.

Honestly, I think Columbia students could really benefit from taking the course, even just parts of it. If anything else, it’s a great way to supplement other material from a class, almost like an interactive virtual textbook. And, in my opinion, Professor Foner is great at incorporating humor into his lectures, making them even more fun and engaging. He has also been on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report (unfortunately, not included in the course).

Bwog: Professor Foner is a well-known and respected History professor at Columbia, but many students won’t have the opportunity to take a course with him considering his perspective retirement next fall. Do MOOCs have an “expiration date,” or could future students and individuals outside of the community continue to take the same course by Foner in the coming years?

TL: Like I said before, everyone who has the chance should take these MOOCs (I think it’s also my job to say that, but I believe it). Luckily, for everyone, there is no expiration date. The only special thing that is happening right now is that Professor Foner is actually in the course as well. He is responding to discussions all over the place. Other than that, the entire course will live on edX for as long as the Internet exists. Students can login at anytime, and take the course at their leisure. Also, because of the Creative Commons license, anyone can go to our YouTube page and just watch the lecture videos.

Something we (CCNMTL) find interesting about this whole thing is that we are, in effect, “publishing” Professor Foner’s lectures—his teaching. Academics have always had the chance to publish their research, but this is an exciting new concept where we can preserve the teachings of great lecturers for years to come. Think of your greatest teachers, and your favorite classes, now you can revisit (and relearn from) them anytime you want!

Bwog: How do you and the rest of the staff make MOOCs relevant and accessible to students at Columbia considering most students already have a full course load with their regular classes?

TL: Promoting MOOCs is not the easiest thing in the world. They are not, in any way, meant to replace classroom learning/instruction, but they are still quite rigorous if you stay active. I would suggest this specific MOOC to anyone, but especially Columbia students, because of the following reasons:

  • Eric Foner IS a rockstar; he’s top in his field and an extraordinary teacher. He is also a treasure of Columbia, having been a student himself, and working here for over 30 years.
  • He is an activist, coming from a long-line of activists, and does not avoid controversial topics.
  • American history is extremely important, especially now. Many of the racial issues happening in America today can be traced back to the Civil War era, and they certainly are focused on during this course.
  • The Civil War was CRAZY! I believe there is a statistic that more American citizens died during that war, than all of our other wars since, combined.

The bottom line is that Columbia is making MOOCs, and we are not alone. I believe Columbia students should know what they are and how they work. I’m not sure MOOCs will dominate the future of online learning, but who’s to say what will? And how will Columbia participate/look/compete in the future? Columbia students should be a part of that discussion, and they can be!

Bwog: What is the future of MOOCs at Columbia? Does CCNTML want to do more in the near future?

TL: Columbia will definitely make more MOOCs. Nothing has been officially announced, but there is talk of making more high quality Humanities MOOCs about History and Art and Culture, but also Journalism, International Affairs, and Science.

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  1. Linda

    As an alumna taking the course I can say IT IS FANTASTIC!

  2. quick change  

    Tim Schenk should be spelled Shenk. He's also the best TA I've had at Columbia, so I'm sure the MOOC is fantastic.

  3. Anonymous  

    We're doing NLP with Michael Collins using Coursera with the inverted classroom model and it's the best! You get to actually talk with your professor and have all the lectures and resources online. Also, Collins sounds more fun at 2x speed.

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