To MOOC or Not to MOOC?

Venkat Viswanathan was intrigued by the prospect of creating and teaching a massive open online course. As it begins, he offers other instructors his lessons learned -- with encouragement and caution.

April 17, 2015

That is the question. Except it wasn’t really a question for me. I decided to teach a MOOC even before I taught my first college course. My friend Frank Wang (then an undergraduate at Stanford) had helped Dan Boneh teach his cryptography course through Coursera. His stories made the intellectual challenge of teaching a MOOC sound exciting.

I was also inspired by a Clayton Christensen video about disruption in higher education. Christensen argued that when an innovation makes a complicated and expensive product simpler, it can quickly destabilize even large, well-established institutions. Higher education, he argued, is one such institution. Costs have spiraled to such an extent that the advent of any new, lower-cost delivery mode is likely to spark rapid, dramatic change. Some of my colleagues view these changes in a negative light, but I believe they will make universities more powerful and relevant.

Finally, I’m an engineer, so I’m fascinated by scale. How do you take a scarce resource, like high-quality education, and provide it to more people across a larger geographical area without diluting the quality? This seemed like an interesting and worthwhile problem to solve.

So I decided to make a MOOC. I’ve spent the past four months working to develop Statistical Thermodynamics: Molecules to Machines, which will launch on Coursera later this month. It’s been a wild ride: work-intensive, humbling, enlightening and -- despite the exhaustion -- fun. I wanted to share what I’ve learned with colleagues contemplating a similar undertaking. Consider it encouragement with a large dose of caution.

Choose the right course to offer. If you build it, will they come? With more and more courses available in the MOOC-osphere, the “massive” part is by no means a foregone conclusion. With that in mind, I thought hard about what course to develop. I decided that since many introductory-level MOOCs already exist, I should focus on an advanced course. I chose advanced thermodynamics, figuring it would be useful to all engineers and a logical course to follow the thermodynamics course Chris Cramer was running on Coursera.

I also wanted to offer a unique perspective, one that isn’t available in every thermodynamics course. So I designed my course to bring microscopic thinking to macroscale phenomena. I think it was a good decision, but the proof will be in enrollments.

Reimagine course content. Working with Acatar, a Carnegie Mellon-based online education start-up, I quickly realized that it wouldn’t work to simply transfer what I did in the face-to-face classroom to a MOOC; I had to rethink my goals and my materials. Acatar helped me develop motivating “hooks” for every video, grounding theoretical concepts in relevant, real-world examples.

I learned that in the no-tuition/no-obligation world of MOOCs, I’d need to work hard to motivate and sustain student interest and curiosity. Acatar also made me aware of two common teaching problems: expert blind spot (the tendency experts have to skip steps, move too fast and leave out information relative novices need) and the misalignment of course components (when your instruction doesn’t prepare students for your assessments and/or your assessments are misaligned with your objectives). These were issues I wasn’t previously aware of but will be on the lookout for in my residential teaching as well.

Don’t underestimate the resources required. I realized quickly that my project would take both monetary resources and people with skills in areas that I didn’t have. Luckily for me, I had a departmental fellowship and support from Carnegie Mellon’s Simon Initiative to defray costs.

But the project also required a team. Along with Frank, who lent his MOOC expertise, I had two TAs. They created handouts, in-video quizzes and assessments, and reviewed and gave feedback on my videos. In addition, I had the help of my next-door office neighbor, a senior colleague and star teacher, Paul Steif, who coached me on how to pitch the material for a broad student audience.

And, fortunately, I had the help of Acatar, which provided course design advice and intensive video production support, from recording through postproduction. I can’t really imagine making it through the process -- and producing the course I did -- without them. MOOCs don’t necessarily require all these resources, but they definitely require more than a standard course.

Don’t underestimate the time it will take. I had no idea there were so many moving parts involved in producing a MOOC! As it turned out, I put in about 25 minutes of work for every minute of recorded course content. I had to prepare the material: pare it down, organize it and make it as clear as possible. I had to write scripts for my videos, taking care to make them lively and engaging. (Not everyone uses scripts, but I found they helped me keep the videos short and concise; it also expedited video production by reducing the number of mistakes I made when recording.) Then I had to record the video, for which we used a combination of on-site videography and studio recording.

You’d think that might be all, but I also had to provide detailed instructions to the video editors about where to insert equations, charts and graphs (not easy to figure out when the material is highly technical). And, finally, I had to review the edited videos and give notes for final tweaks. Mind you, none of this includes the time required to write in-video questions, prepare assessments or write the course overview.

I’d negotiated a semester with no teaching as part of my contract -- a rare luxury, I know -- and this was a godsend. Honestly, I wouldn’t recommend taking on this kind of project unless you’ve got time in the summer, a sabbatical or a course release.

Use good collaboration tools. There’s enough time required to create MOOC content without spending unnecessary extra time managing the project. I can’t say enough about the importance of good tools for sharing documents, tracking progress and working collaboratively. Our team shared and edited course documents via Dropbox and used a fabulous program called Wipster to collect and share feedback on videos.

We shared a Google spreadsheet assigning tasks to different members of the team, and this helped ensure everything was done on time. It took a little while to develop a process that worked, but now we function like a well-oiled machine. OK, a slightly rusty machine, but still…

Those are my pearls of wisdom, such as they are. My MOOC goes live this month and I’m not even finished with all the video recording! (Pause for hyperventilation.)

Was it worth it? Would I do it again if I knew then what I know now? You’ll have to ask me after I’ve caught up on my sleep. But for now, let me just say that no matter how the course goes, I’ve learned a tremendous amount from the experience: about the elements of effective course design, about methods for engaging students and about using multimedia to highlight and explain key course ideas, among other things.

And more than anything, it’s been enormous fun to see the pieces come together and the final product emerge.

If you’d like to check out the final product, see it here.


Venkat Viswanathan is an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University.


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