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Moocs are a good alternative to books

Panagiotis Tsigaris found the online learning tool to be a positive addition to his courses

Ian Summers opinion illustration (24 October 2013)

Source: Ian Summers

There has been a lot of hype about the potential for massive open online courses to revolutionise university teaching. After years of developing my own teaching methods, I did not know if I was ready for any big upheavals in course delivery. However, watching my students struggle with the rising cost of education convinced me to test whether it was possible to save them an expensive trip to the bookshop without their education suffering.

With this in mind, I decided to change the way I would deliver my introductory economics class last semester. Rather than requiring my students to buy a textbook, I asked them to use a range of free online materials available through Coursera, Saylor.org and the Khan Academy.

The switch was intimidating. Suddenly I was questioning my role as a professor. Would my students really need me when the course content was available online from another institution? Would they stop attending class because they had already watched the videos? Would they compare me (unfavourably) to the “superstar” Mooc lecturers from top universities?

One thing I decided straight away was that I would not be giving up my role at the front of the classroom entirely. An introductory economics class is where students learn to think like an economist: something that doesn’t come naturally to most. My role is to teach a certain way of seeing the world; for that, a live professor who can gauge comprehension and interact with students is invaluable.

Through classroom games and other interactive exercises I have developed over the years, I am able to demonstrate economic principles in fun and engaging ways, as students have attested. But I have embraced the fact that students can, through Moocs, hear concepts explained in different ways and see examples from other experts in the field. I have also been influenced by the testing mechanisms used by Moocs and have adapted some of their methods into my evaluation. I have been testing my students more frequently through in-class quizzes, assignments, “one-minute comment” papers, and participation in economic experiments.

Because of this new approach, I have been keeping a close eye on student performance. Relative to introductory economics classes since 2005, the grade-point average for the Mooc class was at the upper end of the distribution. (It is noteworthy that 15 per cent of the class also completed a similar course offered by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign via Coursera, which earned them a certificate of accomplishment.)

Reassured by this, I asked my students to anonymously give their thoughts about using only online materials. A large majority reported that they were “very happy”. Reasons included the cost savings, the value of online quizzes, and the ability to stop and rewind lectures. The 17 per cent who wished they still had a textbook cited challenges associated with the need for an internet-connected computer to study.

There is no question in my mind that the printed textbook will die out soon. In Canada, British Columbia is taking the lead as the first province to offer students free access to online textbooks for the 40 most popular post-secondary courses next year. However, I also think it is important to accommodate different student needs – so now I plan to offer “à la carte” course materials. Students will have the choice of buying a textbook – either printed or electronic – or using free online educational resources. My guess is that most students will choose the latter, since, as my experience has shown, they are similar enough to be considered almost perfect substitutes for traditional textbooks.

My appreciation for Moocs has extended beyond my introductory course. When a student approached me regarding a self-directed studies course on world poverty, I suggested that she take “The Challenge of Global Poverty” Mooc offered on the edX platform by two professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee, and then undertake a research paper. A weekly meeting allowed us to discuss the course and my student’s progress on her paper. The arrangement also gave me an ideal opportunity to take the course myself: the sixth Mooc I have taken. I had always wanted to “go back to school”, and this delivery method allows me to do just that without giving up the day job.

Although my use of Moocs in the classroom will continue, I have no plans to accede to requests to record my own lectures. I tell my students that they don’t need to watch me again when they could be exposed to the views of other experts. Besides, when I am in the classroom, I am live. I am still a scarce and valuable commodity. It is not so easy to stop and rewind me.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • I think that this is a terrific article that expresses the growing trend of MOOCs and education in general. I am currently a student taking online Master's courses. What has been somewhat unsatisfying to me is the approach taking by many professors. It is the same approach that you would see from classroom lectures. I like the idea of integrating MOOCs and other online resources to change the learning process, similar to what is described in the article. I have found myself searching for my own alternative forms of learning through sites mentioned in the article as well as other ones such as www.CourseWorld.org in order to shift away from strictly reading. I hope that more teachers will take this approach in the future as well.

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