UniversitySpot sat down with J. Alex Halderman, assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, to talk about MOOCs (massive open online courses).
In Fall 2012, Professor Halderman taught the MOOC "Securing Digital Democracy" on Coursera. The five-week course was timed along with the U.S. presidential election in November, and it examined critical security issues facing modern elections, including the potential for hacking electronic voting and Internet voting technologies. The course kicked off in September with more than 14,000 people enrolled.
UniversitySpot: You took a semester off last fall from teaching your usual courses at the University of Michigan to teach a MOOC. How was the experience, and how did it differ from the traditional courses you teach?
Professor Halderman: It was a learning curve for me. I'm used to lecturing in person in front of a class, and doing the Coursera format in particular where you have prerecorded video lectures is very different from the instructor's point of view. Instead of lecturing to a room full of faces, I'm lecturing to a camera in a dark studio. So I can't use the Socratic method, I can't do a lot of things that I could before. But it also creates a lot of really interesting new opportunities. In particular, Coursera's format breaks down the lecture material into very short segments – five, ten minute segments – and in the middle of these segments you can place review questions or pop-up quizzes to try and help people gauge whether they've gotten the point, whether they've learned what you were trying to communicate to them. I think utilizing that format well is something new and experimental that we're trying to figure out, but it has really, really great potential. I think just that notion of organizing information into these digestible chunks is a great one. This is something we should have been doing all along in lectures in traditional courses. So I think in that respect, it's given me really valuable basic ideas about teaching to bring back into the classroom here.
UniversitySpot: What else can you tell us about teaching a MOOC?
Professor Halderman: Another thing that I've taken from Coursera is how much teaching is about community building. That your course is not just you speaking to an audience and giving individuals assignments, but rather, done well, it should be about building this community in which learning can happen among the students themselves. And Coursera's completely about that because most of the interaction that students have is with other students, in the forums and physical space discussion groups that people form. And providing that structure - structuring the discussion groups in the course so that people will have interesting things to talk about and ways to meet each other - that was a big part of making this an effective experience, and I think bringing that idea back into the traditional classroom is going to be really valuable.
UniversitySpot: What are the biggest challenges of the MOOC format, from your experience?
Professor Halderman: I think the hardest thing is the lack of a one-on-one connection between the professor and the students. In a course I'd teach here [at the University of Michigan], I'd ideally get to spend multiple hours in one-on-one conversation with each student, through office hours, through question-and-answer in lectures. That ability for a student to raise their hand and stop the lecture and say, "Wait a minute, there's something I didn't understand," that's something that's very hard to replicate in the scale of the Coursera experience. You can ask a question in a forum and get an answer from other students, but it's not quite the same because, as the instructor, I don't get to learn that right here, in this point of understanding, a lot of people didn't get it, and I have to clarify something or people will not effectively understand the rest of this lecture or the rest of this segment. And I miss out on a human level too. It's fun to meet students and it's fun to get to build those relationships. But I think there are ways to reproduce some of that in the online environment.
UniversitySpot: OpenCourseWare has been around for more than a decade. How are MOOCs different from what's been done before in online learning, and why do they seem to have caught on more?
Professor Halderman: I think when you're targeting the online audience you do some things differently than when you're teaching in a classroom and just having it filmed or that kind of thing. So I think there are some real positive aspects to the Coursera format there. Another thing about Coursera that I think is a really good idea is the way they structure the classes into cohorts. So, a lot of people will join the class on week one and be expected to continue through the subsequent weeks, and that's part of the community structuring about it. So rather than just having something where people can access any of the material at any time or join at the very end and get credit for it, encouraging people to take this in small steps together helps make sure that people can have other people in the same state of knowledge that they are to draw on and partner with and learn together.
UniversitySpot: Do you have any advice for people who are considering taking a MOOC?
Professor Halderman: I think that the biggest advice would be to realize that to get the most out of the course, you're going to have to put time into it. Just cherry-picking a few of the lectures and figuring that you will be able to learn the material without doing the quizzes or the exercises, that's just going to give you a much lesser experience than if you put the time into it that would be comparable to what you would put into an in-person course.
The other advice I'd give would be to try to meet other people who are also involved in the class. That will help you to learn from them, to have a human face on the material and just make it a lot more fun and engaging. So either do it with a buddy who's someone you know or try to, through the course, meet other people interested in it who live where you are, or at least just participate actively in the online forums. All of these will help make it so it feels a lot less like it's just you taking the course.
UniversitySpot: Yeah, that could maybe even help with completion rates. A lot of people say that a key weakness of the MOOC format is that the courses tend to have high dropout rates.
Professor Halderman: That's not such a surprise. Because we try to make it as easy as possible to sign up for things and try them out, and if people don't have any obligation to continue and complete it, you'll expect that they'll be some attrition rate there. I think the thing that I was even more impressed with was how many people did finish and how well, how much effort the core group of people in the class put in, and then actually succeeded and did well on the examinations.
UniversitySpot: There's been a lot of speculation about where this format will go. What do you see for the future of MOOCs and how do you see them shaping education?
Professor Halderman: I think they're here to stay in some form. I don't think we've figured out quite what they're going to look like yet. At the same time, I don't think they're going to replace or displace the traditional educational higher education system because we provide a different kind of product here. Going to college, doing higher education is about so much more than just being there in the lecture room, in the courses. You're joining this community of knowledge, you're being instilled and immersed in this learning environment for literally 24/7. We can try to take some of that and make it available to many more people, and that's undoubtedly a good thing, from my perspective, but I don't think that we'll ever be at the point where just taking the right number of credit hours of MOOCs is going to provide you with something that's at all a comparable experience to actually being at a university and there in person. But still, for a lot of people who are interested in continuing education, for people who want to try out new subjects, for people who do not have access to traditional universities, this can still provide a tremendous amount of value. And I think it's completely within the traditional conception of the mission of universities to educate the public broadly, to convey knowledge, with whatever the most effective means at our disposal. I think it's incumbent on traditional universities as educators to experiment with this format, to figure out how to use it best and to utilize it to fulfill that broader mission.
UniversitySpot: Is there anything else that you can tell us about MOOCs?
Professor Halderman: Frankly, I think one of the big things we haven't figured out is the economics of it. One of the attractive things is that it can be so low-cost or free for students, but it does involve a relatively large commitment from the university for each course – involving both the production time and the instructor's time. So as much as I think it would be fantastic if we could take every course we do in the university and make a MOOC version of it and run it regularly, the economics don't seem to work out yet for that. One thing some people have proposed is selling the credential at the end. So, if you want to have some kind of credit for taking this or something more than just a certificate of completion, that could be something that might involve going to a testing center so we could know that it was actually the person whose name is on the certificate who finished the course. That could be a place where there might be money changing hands. But I don't know, that seems to take a lot of the spirit out of it, the sort of open and inclusive spirit away from the idea, so I don't know that I'm a fan of that even though it's one thing that some people propose. If we can find ways to integrate broader education with the in-classroom education we do here, I think that's the greatest chance for a sustainable economic model.
UniversitySpot: Would you ever teach another MOOC?
Professor Halderman: I'd love to do another one. I think there's a lot to learn by doing this, and I think just having done one, the next one would be even better.
Professor Halderman has been assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Michigan since 2009.