• Learning beyond the classroom

    MOOCs inspire blended learning on campus

    by Remi Lu

    Six million. That was the conservative estimate given by an Oct. 2013 article in the Wall Street Journal addressing the combined enrolment numbers of edX and Coursera—two of the most popular Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) platforms—since the two websites were launched in 2012. Today that number has almost doubled, with 11.7 million users enrolled in courses across the two online learning platforms—2.5 million at edX and 9.2 million at Coursera—according to the two websites' most recent data. With many leading North American institutions hosting MOOCs, McGill has not been idle, having released two original courses on edX thus far. In the process, McGill has begun to establish a culture of online learning, with growing momentum amongst faculty members to integrate elements of MOOCs on campus.

    At 6'2", David N. Harpp, a professor at McGill's Department of Chemistry, casts a statement of authority in any room or screen that he occupies. Alongside his patient demeanour and lifelong passion for teaching, Harpp has won 12 academic and teaching awards—including McGill's inaugural Principal's Prize for Excellence in Teaching (2001) and the Lifetime Achievement Award for Leadership in Learning (2010).

    Harpp began to push the boundaries of McGill's academics once more last year when he heard about MOOCs' growing popularity around the world. In particular, he wanted to ensure that McGill did not fall behind other top North American institutions, since many academically renowned universities have begun to move towards offering online courses. As a professor, Harpp was excited by the challenge.

    "There was so much hype about it, it would have been odd to be left on the sidelines," Harpp said. "If [the University of Toronto] for instance gave out or put together half a dozen [MOOCs] and McGill wasn't doing anything, I just don't think it looks right. But particularly Harvard and MIT, two of the top schools in the world, are working [hard at this]."

    A university committee, led by Provost Anthony Masi, settled on edX as the preferred medium for McGill—the same one used by other top North American universities. Harpp and his colleagues decided to draw upon the help of McGill's Teaching and Learning Services, where he could draft a team of full-time staff to completely redesign an existing course. CHEM181 (World of Chemistry: Food) was chosen as McGill's pilot MOOC, a popular course Harpp had taught for 31 years with professors Ariel Fenster and Joe A. Schwarcz. Renamed Food for Thought, the course required extensive work to integrate it on McGillX—edX's assigned name for McGill's MOOC branch.

    "There was a tremendous amount of preparation [done]," said Frank Roop, Video Producer for McGillX. "All the slides were [...] updated [with] new pictures, [and] copyright [was] cleared."

    The team created homework and quizzes to accompany each week's lectures, a format of engagement encouraged and supported by edX's platform. The professors also decided to create weekly videos to address any questions arising from the discussion boards in order to establish a more personal interaction with students.

    The course exploded. By the time the 10-week instruction period had wrapped up, roughly 32,000 students had been enrolled in Food for Thought. The course posted a final rating of 4.96 out of five—an astonishingly high number given the number of participants.

    Hover for Figures

    "The feedback was off the charts, frankly," Harpp said. "I was a little surprised that it came up as [well] as it did. I thought that maybe they would say, 'Harpp mumbles a lot, Schwarcz talks too fast,' or something like that. There was in fact none of that, which was also a surprise."

    The tremendous success of Food for Thought resulted in a flurry of reactions. McGill professors John Gyakum and John Stix launched ATOC185X (Natural Disasters) on edX later that same year. Furthermore, the success of the first course encouraged Harpp, Schwarcz, and Fenster to relaunch Food for Thought, with the course released for the second time this past Oct. 1.

    The international audience that MOOCs provide has become a draw for professors looking to further their knowledge and understanding in their field of research. According to Gyakum, the conversations on the ATOC185X discussion boards provided the professors with input from individuals residing in different parts of the world—particularly those with the potential to contribute but may not have had the opportunity to attend university.

    "A lot of the hazards that we discuss occur in various areas of the world that may not resonate that well with North Americans," Gyakum said. "For example, we talked about cyclones in India, typhoons in Japan […] volcanoes in Indonesia, and so forth [....] The primary reason that I was most interested in working on the MOOC was [that] I feel very strongly [that] in order to tackle some of the world's great scientific problems, we need a lot more input intellectually."

    Enrollment by country, CHEM181x Fall 2014

    Outside of field-specific research, online courses have also offered the opportunity for schools to experiment with different teaching styles, including peer grading and the encouragement of participation on course discussion boards. According to Laura Winer, the director of McGill's Teaching and Learning Services, hosting MOOCs at McGill has allowed staff to better understand students' learning habits.

    "The ultimate goal is to improve learning for our students, [and to] improve and enhance interaction between the professors and students in large classes," Winer said. "So we're learning a lot about what we can do, how to do it better, and how to create engaging environments and interactions. We're investing that in our McGill students. We're learning how people learn."

    Despite the novelty of the MOOC movement, professors and other staff members have begun to recognize the potential for integrating online learning on campus. With 50 lecture halls at McGill outfitted with recording equipment, students enrolled in over-crowded courses can skip class in lieu of watching lectures at home.

    "Many big courses don't have perfect attendance, particularly at a school like McGill where a third of the students live remote from campus," Harpp said. "[Students simply] watch many of the classes online [.... CHEM181] can be as big as 800 people, and you can't put 800 people in Leacock [132]."

    Working with edX allowed Harpp, Schwarcz, and Fenster to recognize the opportunity to use their newly prepared MOOC to offer an updated learning format. For the next on-campus iteration of CHEM181 in Winter 2015, the three professors plan to release recorded lectures to students ahead of time, and use select class hours as additional information sessions.

    "We've booked the room for the entire [semester,]" Harpp said. "We will not have a lecture every week, but probably half a dozen […] extra lectures or special lectures [....] We probably won't ask questions about these topics, unless we record them."

    25 per cent of the grade for CHEM181 will come from online homework and discussion board interaction—a similar format to the grading system that McGillX uses. Yet the class will retain elements of a traditional university course, with a significant portion of the grades coming from two written midterms and a final.

    This new format of teaching, titled 'blended learning,' straddles the line between traditional brick-and-mortar institutions and online education. A number of universities have begun to tentatively roll out blended learning programs, with the University of Waterloo and York University among the few North American campuses involved.

    One of the greatest advantages offered by blended learning is the potential to create more engaging activities—particularly for courses with larger class sizes. Furthermore, there are increased opportunities for students to connect with each other and their professors.

    Enrollment by gender, CHEM181x Fall 2014

    "This is going to be the way of the future, where [students] are guided on where to get information, in addition to having personal contact with the professor," Schwarcz said. "There's just no point in redoing lectures exactly the same way you've done it in other years. It's time that could be better oriented to educate in a different way."

    This semester, Gyakum and Stix will integrate three weeks of blended learning into ATOC185 (Natural Disasters), shifting two of their course topics from ATOC185X—the edX version—to their on-campus course. The class will watch lectures online and finish activities at home, in order to use class hours to conduct poster presentations.

    "Both [Stix] and I view this as an experiment that we need to be involved with," Gyakum said. "Obviously, the outcome may not be perfect from the get-go, but I think it's very important that we work towards engaging more students [....] There's no question in my mind that [students] are having the opportunity to go much deeper into a lecture than they otherwise would be able to, than [if they were] just taking in a lecture and having a midterm on the material."

    With an increasing number of faculty and students disillusioned with current teaching and learning methods, a shift towards online education appears inevitable.

    "There's a school of thought that the lecture format is becoming archaic in terms of all the electronic devices right now," Schwarcz said. "It doesn't make sense to give classroom lectures the same way we've always been doing it when they can be recorded and people can look at those lectures. You can use the classroom time for other things."

    According to Teaching and Learning Services' Alexander Steeves-Fuentes, MOOCs and other forms of online learning will have a large impact on the future of courses at McGill.

    "The biggest benefit for McGill will be in terms of adjusting how the curriculum is implemented and how students are instructed," he said. "The majority of students these days do everything online [....] Why are we still doing things on paper? Why aren't we building everything online?"

    At the moment, however, MOOCs remain at the forefront of the conversation regarding McGill's role in online learning. Two new courses are in the process of being developed for edX. Dr. Ian Shrier, a professor in the Department of Epidemiology, Biostatistics, and Occupational Health, is set to release Body101X—a course analyzing physical activity—on Feb. 25, 2015. The Faculty of Management will be launching a course next Fall titled Social Learning for Social Impact, which is being marketed as a Group MOOC (GROOC)—a MOOC designed to encourage people to collaborate in groups to share knowledge.

    Yet a variety of factors—including funding from donors and available support staff—will most likely limit the number of MOOCs that McGill can produce.

    "We cannot meet the demand [of professors that want to come on board]," Winer said. "We've had way more professors who would be interested in developing MOOCs or developing blended learning approaches than we have the capacity to handle with the current resources."

    Regardless, the impacts of online learning will most likely be felt across campus in the years to come.

    "I think [blended learning] has to be a big part of our future at McGill," Winer said. "How do we take advantage of the tremendous resources that are available online, the tremendous access to people around the world, [and] the collaborative nature of the work you do? To shut ourselves off from that would be an exercise in tunnel vision [.... Blended learning] provides opportunities to really give students the best and most powerful learning experience possible, [and] MOOCs provide a vehicle to facilitate and expedite that process."