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What Teaching a MOOC with edX Taught Me

This story originally appeared in The Independent School Magazine blog.

Last spring at my school, St. Margaret’s Episcopal School in California, I taught my first MOOC with edX: Psych101x. Right away, I was glued to the discussion board where the some 30,000 enrolled students wrote their thoughts, first impressions, and reasons for joining the class, and shared concerns or complaints about the operating system and course elements. I was holding my breath, praying that everything would work as planned.

When the 10-week course got underway, I frequently checked the ratings page to see if anyone had already made a decision on the quality of the course.  I observed the analytics page to see how many students were interacting with the videos and quizzes we posted.  As a researcher and data enthusiast, I was quickly beginning to see a valuable side to the MOOC experience: immediate and quantifiable feedback on my teaching. At the same time, this immediate feedback was almost overwhelming for me because I’m used to reading expressions and body languages cues, and administering annual surveys to determine my course’s success. All of the new information kept me on a tightrope of emotion, suspended somewhere between anxiety and excitement, as the course got going.

My Journey toward Teaching a MOOC

It was a bit of an emotional and cognitive storm to reach the point of teaching a MOOC (massive open online course). Like many educators, I have been both intrigued and concerned about the rise of online education. As a former university researcher, I believe it is important to implement curricula, programs, and technology based on research supporting their efficacy.  Yet the academic research to support online learning has not kept pace with the growth in this domain.  A meta-analysis by the U.S. Department of Education published in 2009 indicated that online and blended learning produced better outcomes than face-to-face instruction. However, a dearth of research is available in the K-12 setting, and one cannot assume the same outcomes. Despite my reservations, I reasoned that online learning will definitely be part of the future of our students’ learning experiences.  Further, my school is guided by a mission to educate students for lifelong learning, which compels us to understand this new educational domain.

Then, last year, St. Margaret’s was one of two high schools in the nation asked to submit course proposals for a new offering of advanced and college preparatory high school courses through edX, a leading online learning community created by Harvard University and MIT. As my colleagues and I learned more, we realized that this was a valuable opportunity to learn alongside leading educators and institutions, dig into online learning, particularly MOOCs, and understand the process from the inside out.  Furthermore, our school prioritizes service, and it supports our mission to partner with an organization that intends to democratize education by expanding access to everyone who wants to “achieve, thrive and grow.” So we wrote several edX proposals, and waited to hear whether they were accepted.

The Work It Takes to Create a MOOC

Immediately after my colleagues and I learned that three of our proposed courses, Psych101x (based on my AP Psychology class), The Road to Selective College Admissions, and Advanced Spanish Language and Culture had been selected and funded by edX, we assembled a team to attend a learning conference at edX in Boston to help us develop our MOOCs’ course curricula.  Our team of nine, which represented teachers, technology specialists, and administrative support for all three courses, went to edX not knowing what to expect, but feeling confident we were up to the challenge.  However, after receiving the 300-some-page guide filled with screenshots and technological jargon, meeting the professional film crew on staff, and hearing that it takes about 300 to 400 hours of work to develop each course, my confidence waned.  We returned home, anxious and apprehensive, but determined to move forward.  We assembled a bigger team, around 15 people, and developed a relationship with a professional film crew. From there, we created the film schedule and began to develop content to film.

The Best Way to Use Seven Minutes of Video

We outlined seven essential elements that would run consistently for each of the 10 weeks, all of which were parts of other successful edX MOOCs as determined by the analytics team.  Those seven elements consisted of a weekly email introducing material for the week, an opening video (entitled Psych Report), a textbook reading, a series of tablet capture videos, a quiz for content checks, a discussion question, and a reminder to add resources to the class wiki page.

The edX analytics team also gave us a critical piece of advice: Students rarely watch video clips that are longer than seven minutes.  Knowing this, we changed our approach to the video content we developed.  We decided that the best use of seven minutes was to pique students’ interest with a commonly held psychology myth and then give them just enough information to encourage them to learn more.  This subtle shift in mindset pushed us to develop each content element toward this goal and away from a focus on covering a lot of material.

Photo of Jeneen Graham filming her MOOC

Jeneen Graham filming a lesson for her online edX course Introduction to Psychology. Credit: St. Margaret’s Episcopal School.

The Details of Psych101x Content

Every week, my co-teacher and I began by launching an email to our students with a little information about the interesting topics we would discuss in the class. For example, when we launched the content on learning, cognition, and memory, we wrote the following to our students: “If you are interested in how we learn, remember, problem solve and use language, you will love the content for week 5.  This week, we will begin with our Psych Report, which will leave you wondering if your memories are entirely accurate….”

We then released the content for the week with a video clip that challenged the way most people believe memory works.  Research shows that memory doesn’t duplicate precisely what we experience but instead is reconstructive and actively fills in gaps. What we believe and feel affects our memory, and therefore it is not nearly as objective as we would like to think.  With that hook, we hoped that our students would then watch the tablet captures, read the textbook, take the quiz, and engage with the wiki page and the discussion question.  Depending on the topic, we also used video resources from the web, including TED Talks, and provided students some extra practice worksheets.

The Course’s Greatest Assets

Reading students’ backgrounds and their varied reasons for registering made us realize the course’s greatest assets: our diverse student body and the thoughts and ideas they bring with them. Thus, we focused much attention on our discussion questions, making the most of students’ interactions to share thoughts and ideas transcending traditional geographical, age, religious, and ethnic boundaries. At last count, our students represented 196 different countries. Realizing that I could almost fill Fenway Park with the close to 30,000 registered students prompted me to check for the hundredth time that everything I had written and produced was accurate and sensitive to a diversity of cultures.

In a MOOC, We Are All Students

As the course progressed, I found that I was really getting to know some students through their posts, which I frankly didn’t expect with 30,000 students. Not only that, but they were getting to know one another. As we discussed the psychology behind motivation, one student tried to understand what was motivating him to travel miles and wait days to pay his respects to the recently departed prime minister of his country, Singapore. Students from around the world shared thoughts and prayers for this young man who was clearly suffering.  As students shared their stories of loss, depression, confusion, excitement, and profound insights, I realized that although I created this course, I was very much a student in this journey. It was humbling to read posts from a retired teacher in Australia who laced his insight in psychology with his vast knowledge of chemistry, biology, and sociology. I saw the whole notion of teacher and student turned upside down in this environment where people have a rich array of backgrounds and experiences influencing how they engage with the material. (Our analytics showed that there were between 300 and 700 posts to our discussion board weekly, and approximately 1,000 to 4,500 students either watched a video, engaged with a quiz, or did both each week.)

What I’m Putting into Practice This School Year

I take away much from my edX experience that will enhance my teaching and learning methods.  Here are a few practices I’ll employ this year:

  • I will no longer lament my limited face time with students and instead just get better at preparing my lessons and being thoughtful about each lectured word, discussion question, or proposed project.
  • I will use the discussion board format to allow students to have time to think about a challenging question and weigh in when they are ready to contribute.  The format of in-person classes doesn’t always allow for this deep processing and often favors those who are confident enough to speak for an extended time in class.
  • I will make sure that all my students are registered for my edX class so that they can explore differing perspectives from around the world.  Building cultural competency is not always easy in a day school environment where students have more in common than they might realize.
  • Lastly, I will remember that I don’t have to be the expert, and there is a real beauty to remembering what it feels like to be a student.  I can’t and shouldn’t know everything, and that just makes me a better educator.

Overall, this process has helped me see the benefits of using online methods within my traditional brick-and-mortar class, and makes me consider using more online learning in my institution. This year, I intend to develop an online course to replace the lengthy teacher induction program at St. Margaret’s. Now that I know how to use the edX open source platform, Open edX, the possibilities are truly endless. One doesn’t need to create a course at the level of an edX MOOC to use this incredible platform.

Another meaningful takeaway from developing course material: understanding the level of professionalism and expertise of edX. I have never worked harder to create curriculum, and I know that every course offered requires this depth of thought and energy. While I continue to question how online learning fits in with a traditional independent school, the questions are structural and not about the quality of the online learning experience through edX. One thing I have learned for sure: edX is serious about its mission of democratizing education, and I’m proud to be a part of this noble goal.