The Lean MOOC

This learn-by-doing approach is not without some pain points, but the exercise in collaboration and creativity epitomizes a new academic model that we as academic technologists strive toward in our work with faculty. It is also reflective of what I believe are future models of teaching and learning, whether that is within a residential classroom or a fully online course. I will touch on the pain points in future posts, but for the moment, I want to focus on the promise of MOOCs for the academic technologist at a small liberal arts institution.

Photo described in caption
Members of the DavidsonX team, from left, Sara Swanson, Robert McSwain, Prof. Erland Stevens, Paul Brantley, and Allison Dulin (not pictured Kristen Eshleman)

On Teaching as a Team Sport

At a recent SXSWEdu panel titled “Making MOOC Magic: What Students Have to Say”, Steven Mintz described the current controversy around MOOCs as not really about MOOCs at all, but about the future of higher education, including course delivery and faculty roles. He argues that the explosion of information resources (much of it open and digital) increasingly requires a course design process that is collaborative. At Davidson College, that collaboration incorporates librarians and technologists, as well as faculty. Teaching, he argues, is moving away from the lone practitioner.

I am inclined to agree. Our experiences with digitally infused residential courses reveal a similar shift toward team-based instruction. But, where our residential courses have included technologists and librarians largely around the fringes, we are participating fully in the MOOC. This participation, with more limited resources than typical MOOC teams, means that all members of the DavidsonX team are equally invested in the outcomes. Our process has caught the attention of our edX Program Manager, Rebecca Petersen, who notes: “

Davidson has managed to run a very lean course development process due to a very shrewd project management process with shared ownership between the faculty and staff developing the course. This sense of shared ownership comes very naturally to many smaller schools who must be very strategic around managing resources.”

Smaller schools have resource constraints that are difficult to overcome without a significant investment. We are fortunate to have donor funding to address some of the strain, but ultimately, we have to absorb the work within our existing academic technology services. We are discovering that this structural shortcoming has a silver lining.

On Constraints and Creativity

“…embrace the constraints you’ve been given. Use them as assets, as an opportunity to be the one who solved the problem. Once you can thrive in a world filled with constraints, it’s ever easier to do well when those constraints are loosened. That’s one reason why the best filmmakers learn their craft making movies with no budget at all.” -Seth Godin (on Embracing Constraints)

Constraints and stressors do breed creativity. In our case, we are constantly balancing residential course needs with those of DavidsonX. The challenges in doing so are very real, and at peak times, can be stressful. I’ll provide one example to illustrate the value of working within these constraints.

Early on, and as we predicted, it became apparent we would need an additional full-time media specialist to handle the increased workload associated with DavidsonX courses. About 1/3 of the way into the initial course development process, we made the case with the evidence in hand and were able to fund a two-year temporary position with donor money set aside for this MOOC experiment.

You might be asking why we waited, if we knew we would need someone? And, why was this a creative solution?

Instead of starting with a dedicated industry-defined online content producer, we started with our existing media specialist. We wanted to better understand the skills we already possessed as they relate to online course production. When we posted the additional position, we did not seek an experienced online course content producer. Instead, we looked for complementary skillsets that would benefit the academic needs of the campus broadly. The new hire joined the larger academic technology team, bringing a new set of skills, adding greater value to both DavidsonX and existing residential courses.

MOOCs as a Value-Add at Small Liberal Arts Institutions

We do not have an online learning division at Davidson College. Online education is not central to the mission of the college. From the outside, a MOOC experiment seems out of place and likely not contributing to the value of a residential experience. But if you believe, as I do, that digital technology is changing teaching and learning toward collaborative models with an emphasis on creating knowledge, then an integrated MOOC experiment like ours can serve as a boot camp to position academic technologists to better serve new pedagogical designs.

Because we lack dedicated online instructional designers and producers, our academic technologists are deeply involved in the instructional design and production of DavidsonX courses. We’ve watched each other rise to the occasion many times, and we are a stronger team as a result. In my assessment, the collaboration and creativity around the DavidsonX experiment is continually deepening our pedagogical understanding, expanding our skills in digital learning, and adding value to our on-going work with existing residential courses.

Kristen Eshleman

Kristen Eshleman is Director
 of Instructional Technology
 at Davidson College. She can be reached or 704-894-2583. This was originally written for the Davidson College Blog