When a professor at the world’s number one university (according to Times Higher Education’s World University Rankings) set out to produce a massive open online course, he was keen to create “an honest replica of the campus version”.
Yaser S. Abu-Mostafa, professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the California Institute of Technology, runs his Mooc on data analysis as what he terms a “Caltech Parallel Session” – that is, online students take the course simultaneously with Caltech students who are taking it as a formal course on campus.
In a post on Class Central, a site that provides links to free online educational resources, Professor Abu-Mostafa explains that everyone on the course – both non-fee-paying online students and fee-paying Caltech students – get the same lectures and the same homework, and everyone interacts together on the same online discussion forum. It is not a model exclusive to Caltech, but given the prestige of the institution, it makes for an interesting case study.
“My philosophy was to share the Caltech experience with the whole world,” Professor Abu-Mostafa writes. “No dumbing down of the course for popular consumption, and no feel-good illusion that you are doing a Caltech-level course when you are not. Whether you get 100% of it or less, you know that what you are seeing is the real thing.”
He concedes that the approach raises a number of questions, both on and off campus. “On campus, what do you do in class time if the lectures are available as videos?” he asks. “Does this approach work for Caltech students who are used to regular classes? Are Caltech students OK with sharing the class with online students?”
For the online students: “How will they react to a rigorous, traditional course designed for Caltech students?” He sets about answering these questions using data collected during the course.
According to an anonymous survey, conducted after the course was over, the Caltech students preferred the “flipped classroom” approach (watching lectures on video and then taking part in a discussion about them) to a statistically significant degree.
Professor Abu-Mostafa was also worried about how Caltech students would react to sharing the class with online students outside the university, he writes. Again, the survey indicated that they actually liked the wider reach of the course because it meant there was a “lively online discussion forum where every conceivable question gets addressed”.
For the online students, the course was “not an easy sell”, he concedes. “A Caltech course does not cater to short attention spans, and it may not provide instant gratification…[like] many MOOCs out there that are quite simple and have a ‘video game’ feel to them.” Unsurprisingly, many of the online students dropped out, but some of those students who “complained early on but decided to stick with the course had very flattering words to say at the end”.
“I do not view a Caltech MOOC as an attempt at mass education,” Professor Abu-Mostafa concludes – slightly overlooking the definition of the acronym. “I view it as an attempt at mass targeting of talent.”
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