The Opposite of a MOOC

MOOC’s are Massive Open Online Courses and they are what everyone in higher education is talking about. These classes are usually free, have huge enrollments, and per student are pretty cheap to run relative to a typical college class. The quality can be decent and MOOC’s open up access to higher education to literally billions of people around the world. MOOC’s also have the potential to decrease the cost of education for the millions of people that would normally attend a traditional in person college.

Yale currently allows anyone on the Internet to watch record lectures from many of its best classes through Yale Open Courses, but with zero interactivity, the user experience is quite different from taking a “real” course. Yale has also recently entered a relationship with Coursera, the leading MOOC provider, and plans to dip its foot in the MOOC pool this year with a few classes.

At the same time, Yale has been breaking new ground through its Summer Session online classes which aim to let students experience as close to an in-person class as you can get without being on campus. These classes mix recorded video lectures with the usual outside-class reading and problem sets and a live interactive video session with the professor and rest of the class.

It’s these live sessions that are really innovative for online learning. When a student logs in, they see everyone else in the class including the professor in a virtual classroom. Imagine a Google Hangout with up to 25 participants. It requires everyone to have a decent internet connection, but when it works, it’s kind of amazing.

It would be impossible to scale up this type of course to “massive” numbers of students, but the idea is to maximize quality, not minimize price. I call it a Small Closed Online Course, and while Yale started offering these online classes two summers ago, I’m in the middle of teaching my first one now. It’s “Econometrics and Data Analysis” and it’s been a real learning experience for everyone so far.

Students can take the class from almost anywhere. I have students logging in three times a week from China, Singapore, Madrid, Kentucky, Alberta, California, and even a couple from downtown New Haven, CT. They can watch the video lectures when it is convenient for them and they have the power to pause and replay parts that are not clear the first time through.

The live experience is a work in progress. I use it to do three substantive things. First, I answer questions about the recorded material and the reading. It seems clear that my students are not taking notes and writing down questions they cannot ask in the moment (as they would in an in-person class) because most days they don’t have any questions. It’s hard to know how if they are really engaging with the recorded lectures or if they have them on while they’re doing something else. For the past couple classes I’ve been asking them basic questions about the material to get a sense for how much is sinking in. I am thinking about requiring them to email questions before the live session begins.

The main thing I do in the live sessions is have my students work through problems together. The software we are using (Watchitoo) allows me to divide the class into groups and send them to sub-classrooms. I visit each of the groups in turn and push them along when they get stuck. It’s classic flipped classroom stuff and it works well.

The third thing we do is discuss the material. I haven’t done much of this so far, but I have some future classes planned where we go over new applications of methods and talk in depth about specific points. Most of Yale’s online classes thus far have been discussion-oriented (e.g., psychology or philosophy), but econometrics is much closer to a math class and thus not as good a match for discussions.

The technology has mostly worked well but has some real rough edges. Some students just don’t have strong enough internet connections and drop in and out during the live sessions. Moving between the sub-classrooms and the full classroom takes several more mouse clicks and time than I’d like. The whiteboard built into the live session software is too buggy to use, but we’ve had great success with a free HTML-based shared whiteboard ( I have the live session in one window on my laptop and my whiteboard in another window on my Wacom external monitor. This lets me write with a real stylus and still see all my students.

One of the most successful parts of the class is my office hours. I hold them in the same virtual classroom and use the same virtual whiteboard. It’s almost identical to my in-person office hours. Realtime access to an expert is the biggest difference between this class and a MOOC.

I’m getting a fair bit of feedback on how much they’re learning from their problem sets and the live sessions, but I miss being able to look into their eyes while I’m lecturing. We have our first exam this week, and I honestly don’t know how they are going to do. My fingers are crossed.