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Two University of Texas at Austin psychology professors will Thursday night take the stage for the fall semester’s first session of Introduction to Psychology. Their audience will consist of a production crew and their equipment. In their years of working together, the professors’ research has shown their students benefit from computer-based learning to the point where they don’t even need to be physically present in the classroom.

Just don’t call it a MOOC. The university styles the class as the world’s first synchronous massive online course, or SMOC (pronounced “smock”), where the professors broadcast their lectures live to the about 1,500 students enrolled.

“I think we were influenced predominantly by this mix of Jon Stewart and 'The View' or Jay Leno,” said James W. Pennebaker, chair of the department of psychology at UT-Austin.

The course is the result of almost a decade of research into how students learn. After teaching separate 500-student sections of the introductory course, Pennebaker and fellow psychology professor Samuel Gosling decided to schedule the sections back-to-back. The professors then began experimenting with adaptive learning, requiring students bring a laptop to class so they could take multiple-choice tests and receive instant feedback. Gosling and Pennebaker then built group chats that randomly paired five or six students together for in-class discussions. Last year, they moved one of the two sections of the course online. And with this change, the class will be taught exclusively online.

"More and more, we have been integrating a sort of research element,” Gosling said. “Everything the students do, we learn about, and we learn about it so we can find out what works. They’re guinea pigs and we’re guinea pigs.”

As more and more of the coursework continued to shift toward digital, the data showed a clear trend: Not only were students in the online section performing the equivalent of half a letter grade better than those physically in attendance, but taking the class online also slashed the achievement gap between upper, middle and lower-middle class students in half, from about one letter grade to less than half of a letter grade.

“We are changing the way students are approaching the class and the way they study,” Pennebaker said.

Anyone can enroll in the course -- as long as they can foot the $550 registration fee and can make themselves available at 6 p.m. central standard time on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Registration is handled online at a separate site, and students who finish the course earn three transferable credit hours. In comparison, full-time resident students pay $2,059 (out-of-state students pay $7,137) for three credit hours in the College of Liberal Arts, but there is no out-of-state premium charged for the SMOC.

Goslin and Pennebaker said they have set an upper limit of 10,000 students, but managing a course of this size “shakes a big bureaucracy to its knees,” Pennebaker said. Between lecturers, audiovisual professionals, teacher’s assistants, online mentors and programmers, the number of people associated with teaching one class has ballooned to more than 125.

“No human can do more than one of these a year,” Pennebaker said. “It has been the hardest I’ve ever worked in my entire life.”

In that sense, running the course as a traditional MOOC would be more efficient, but Gosling said, “I think it wouldn’t be this class.” As the two professors prepared for what Gosling called “the largest leap we’ve taken,” they agreed to sacrifice some of that efficiency to maintain some elements of a classroom setting.

“The cons of a MOOC is that you take away a sense of intimacy, a sense of community, a sense of a simultaneous, synchronous experience,” Gosling said.

To ensure that students don’t treat the class as a static broadcast, the class will be split into smaller pods monitored by former students, who essentially work as online TAs. The pods will remain static throughout the semester, giving students a core group of classmates to chat with during the lectures. And should a student be confused about the content of a lecture, Pennebaker said, “a blue light comes on and we’ll say, ‘We have a question out there in T.V. land.’ ”

By moving the entire course online, the professors will be able to collect even more of the kind of data that led them to that decision in the first place. Gosling described the process as “reframing what teaching is -- reframing it and integrating the research.”

“That’s one thing that I’m actually most excited about,” Pennebaker said. “This project could never have been built here at the university without heavy research behind it.”

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