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An edX SPOC as the Online Backbone of a Flipped College Course

I set out to use the edX 7.00x MOOC The Secret of Life to provide content to support flipping my General Biology I (Bio 111) course at UMass Boston. In this flipped class, students watch lectures and work problems online to prepare for class sessions that consist of problem solving and application. To support this format, I have restructured the content of the 7.00x MOOC into a custom Small Private On-line Course (SPOC). So far, the results have been extremely positive.

Students are using the online materials, participating actively in the class and their exam scores are significantly higher than when the course was taught in conventional lecture format – all without me giving a single 50-minute lecture!

Educational Goals for the Flipped Class

Bio 111 is the first semester introductory biology course for Biology majors at UMass Boston. I have taught this class in a traditional lecture/lab format for the past 15 years. Typically, there are 350 students in lecture; they are split into 14 lab sections taught by graduate TAs. Although the class has been successful, I had four main goals I wanted to achieve that required a radical restructuring of the course:

  1. Make better use of the students’ time. Students are supposed to be spending ~12 hours per week studying for my course. However, my small teaching staff prevented me from offering traditional graded homework problems. As a result, most of the students’ homework has consisted of writing lab reports and studying – often ineffectively – for exams. I wanted to make more effective use of this study time and to provide homework that would help these students learn how to study for college science classes but was limited by our ability to generate and grade challenging problems.
  2. Make better use of the Teaching Assistants. Bio 111 has always emphasized problem solving and application of the material. Traditionally, I provided the content in lecture and the graduate TAs showed students how to apply the material during some of the lab sessions. Unfortunately, the TAs are beginning teachers and thus find leading problem solving discussions particularly challenging. I wanted to lead the problem solving discussions myself, but this was impossible with 14 lab sections and only one of me.
  3. Include more hands-on labs. Although the lab sessions were well suited to teaching problem solving, the students expected hands on “wet” lab activities rather than discussions of pencil and paper problems and computer simulations. Although I wanted to give the students a chance to personally apply what they’ve learned in class to a real live biology lab, a large fraction of lab time was needed for working problems.
  4. Include more active learning in lecture. A wide range of studies have shown the value of active learning approaches in large lectures. I wanted to employ these in my class as well but these activities took time away from covering the material that students needed for later courses.

The SPOC I created from the materials in the 7.00x MOOC allowed me to solve all of these problems at once. The clear presentations and practice problems in the SPOC allows me to move lecture content and some of the problem solving to homework. This frees time in “lecture” to do problem solving and application using active learning techniques. This, in turn, frees lab time for real wet labs. This is shown in the figure below:General Biology I Comparison between traditional course and blended course.


The 7.00x MOOC is structured as an on-line analog of an in-person class. The material is broken up into weekly units each with several lectures, supporting materials, and a problem set. The goal of the these materials serve a different role: to support activities during the in class sessions. To facilitate this alternative use, I made several changes to the MOOC materials to produce the SPOC that I use with my students:

  • Make independent units for each class session. Each of the 30 class sessions is supported by one lecture video with associated ‘test yourself’ questions and some problem set questions (now called “warm-up questions”).
  • Use problems for warm-up not credit. My goal is to have the students come to class prepared to use the material. They do not have to understand it all; my minimal goal is that they have at least thought about all of it. For that reason, the students are required to answer the problems correctly to receive credit towards their final grade, but, after their first attempt, they can see the correct answer. So, at the very least, they’ve entered the correct answer to each problem before coming to class.
  • Add supplementary problems. To provide further practice for the exams, I link to a book of practice problems (“A Problems Approach to Introductory Biology” aka “APAIB”) as well as several software simulations that were part of the 7.00x MOOC.

The difference between a “MOOC unit” (one week) and a “SPOC unit” (one day) is shown in the figure below:


More tips and findings to come from the Bio 111 Flipped Experiment…

Note: Brian White is a professor in the Biology Department of the University of Massachusetts, Boston. He recently teamed up with Eric Lander from MIT’s Broad Institute to develop a Massively Open On-line Course (MOOC) in General Biology called “7.00x: The Secret of Life”. It uses software he developed in its problem sets, exams and more. He has adapted the 7.00x MOOC into a flipped classroom SPOC (Small Private Online Course), Bio 111 at UMass Boston. This is Part 1 in a series chronicling the process and findings from his blended learning experiment.