Archive for November, 2012

Guest Post from MOOC Instructor Dr. Jonathan Tomkin

Below is a post I solicited from Professor Jonathan Tomkin, who taught the MOOC I just completed, Introduction to Sustainability, offered through Coursera and the University of Illinois:

I’d like to thank John for the chance to talk to his readers about what it’s like to teach a Massive Open Online Course. Over the course of 8 weeks 37,000 people enrolled in the class “Introduction to Sustainability” – many of these joining in the last few weeks, so hopefully they’ll be able take the full class when it’s offered next (January 14th, 2013). The numbers involved in the course are staggering: over 600 thousand videos were streamed, more than one hundred thousand contributions to the forums, and over a million page views. The free online textbook associated with the course recorded over 150 thousand downloads and visits. We crashed the NASA climate change site when we required it for an assignment.

As an educator, how do I feel about this? Excited! For so long, improvements in higher learning have been slow and halting. Here is a dramatic new approach to sharing knowledge to literally millions of people who haven’t had access before. Over half of the students were from countries outside of the United States – with significant numbers of students from India, Africa and South America. It’s a new experience for me as a university professor in the US to get an email from a single mother in the Philippines thanking me for making her feel like a schoolgirl again. This technology – and this open access – means that there will be opportunities for so many that didn’t have it before. I’ve never got so much personal fulfillment from a class before, despite the great physical distances between us.

But this is a different way to teach. I had a cast of twenty-three people help me put this together. I needed people to make my slides look good, clear my material for copyright, proofread the test questions, even design the technology that let students in the class peer review final projects. Sending out a class email is hair raising when there will be tens of thousands of recipients! I couldn’t afford too many typos. But this new format also means that there are more possibilities. One of the links to the textbook broke in the first few minutes of the course starting – but participants in the course figured out, and communicated, a work-around within 8 hours – before I had even got in to work. We were able to offer the option that the final project submission to be in Portuguese and Spanish, as well as English, despite the fact that I don’t speak the first two languages and only barely the last.

These sorts of courses will transform the landscape. It strikes me that the (near!) future of education will become very different very quickly. Education is going to be much more efficient – and more sustainable – no need for giant lecture halls and huge piles of paper. Lifelong learning has become the new normal, and open courses are an incredibly democratic way for all of us to stay current.

As a final word, I’d like to thank John and all of his fellow students for being such a great source of knowledge – these courses bring together expertise from all over the world. I’d invite you to take an open course and see what you think – and see if you have something to contribute.

Jonathan Tomkin

November 11, 2012 at 7:12 pm Leave a comment

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