Sunday, August 25, 2013

MOOCs, SMOCs, Super Professors and Online Course Design

This weekend, two of my colleagues at the University of Texas, Austin wrote about their Introduction to Psychology SMOC (Synchronous Massive Online Course) in the Houston Chronicle.  For $550, anyone, anywhere can register for their course and earn credit from UT Austin.  The selling point of the SMOC over the MOOC is personalization, both via an "unparalleled teaching platform" designed in-house (known as Tower); and through peer discussion led by a peer mentor (a student who has already taken the course): "While the thousands of students watch our live lectures, they will each be in small "pods" with other students to discuss the class as it unfolds. Each pod will have a mentor who took the class last year."  As in most MOOCs, the instructors will lecture, but live rather than pre-recorded.  Unlike most MOOCs (though more are experimenting on this front), the class session will involve discussion amongst the "pods" of students and, presumably, some sort of computer-mediated "conversation" with the instructors.  What this all looks like in practice, and how well the technology holds up at scale, remains to be seen.  This much is clear: the course design of this SMOC aims to be more interactive than at least the stereotypical MOOC; but it retains essentially the same role for the instructors--and, more importantly, keeps them fairly removed from the individual students.  The may be "world famous instructors" but nearly every student in the course will experience them in the same way they experience a TV performer--at a substantial distance.

In reality, there's not much difference between this SMOC and a MOOC like Al Filreis's ModPo from Coursera, which films live discussions, takes questions, etc. Indeed, the main difference is that this SMOC is not "open".  Access is limited to those who pay the $550 registration fee.  The SMOC offers credit based on student performance on "benchmark quizzes" before each class whereas the MOOC offers non-credit "certificates of achievement" based on student performance on quizzes and peer-graded assignments.  A point that the instructors emphasize in their advertising for the course is the absence of large stakes assessments and the associated stress.  [Sidenote: I am a big fan of low-stakes assessments, but I'd like to see the midterms retained in the initial stages of developing this delivery model, as much so that it is clear to possible critics of the method that the students are learning as much and as well as students in other versions of the course.  This seems especially important at this point since, despite best efforts, it's still very difficult to control for cheating on these quizzes.  Students tend to be very good at finding ways around our best obstacles.]