In the two years since these massive online courses arrived on the scene of higher education, MOOC educators have learned a few tricks to teach science, technology, engineering, and math—or STEM— subjects in particular. STEM subjects can be harder to teach in online courses because of their hands-on nature, but some universities have invested in technology to teach STEM that may make it even more engaging for students. These tactics shed some light on where MOOCs are going in the future, both with their content as well as how universities utilize them.
“It’s the ‘open massive’ part that makes these courses interesting, and a lot people are still trying to figure out how to do them well,” said Derek Bruff, the director of the Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee.
Pre-recording the lessons—in addition to administering them online—changes the class dynamic, Nainani said. “For the teachers, there’s no instant gratification or feedback. People who are used to teaching with a live class, they crave that energy from a live response…they find [the transition] hard.”
Most of Nainani’s interactions with his students occurred in the online forum and periodic Google hangouts.University professors who’ve spent decades in traditional classrooms have quickly learned that a MOOC is a different animal. The timeframe for planning lessons is one conspicuous difference. “The lecture is recorded a few months ahead, and it needs to be produced and transcribed—before it goes live there’s a time delay of at least a few months,” said Aneesh Nainani, a consulting professor of electrical engineering at Stanford University in California. This past summer he taught his first MOOC on nanotechnology through Stanford Online.*
Typically, thousands of students sign up for a MOOC, but only a dozen or so complete it. Bruff, however, believes this is a reflection of the students, not the course. The students who do complete it are devoted, studying for the right reasons. “Since there’s no credit in a MOOC, most of the students who take them are actually interested in learning the material—they have this intrinsic motivation that you don’t always get in a traditional classroom setting,” he said. The students have a huge range of backgrounds and experiences, which means they engage with the subject matter in many different ways, Bruff added.
This diversity of backgrounds can serve to enrich the course if it’s structured well. “MOOC teachers have to go into it with a clear sense of what their learning objectives are,” Bruff said. In Nainani’s experience, MOOC students fare better if courses don’t draw too much on students’ prior knowledge—even information taught earlier in the course. “If every week if what you’re teaching is self-contained, that helps in keeping your audience because that way, even if someone misses a week, they can come back the next week,” Nainani said. Bruff, who has helped educators design a number of MOOCs, agreed, adding that some of the most interesting lessons rely upon the fact that students live all over the world. He cited a nutrition course in which the professor asked students to post pictures of and comment on food labels from their home countries. “You couldn’t do that in a traditional class,” Bruff said.