“We’re going to set a world record for creating a MOOC,” laughs Kris Stabel, the university’s online education project leader. “Normally it takes about a year to complete a MOOC. Now we’ll do it in two months.” The online Philosophy of Science lecture series is scheduled to go live on 7 January. “That’s a pretty tight lead time,” university lecturer in Theoretical Philosophy Tim De Mey notes with a touch of understatement.
A MOOC? Yes, that’s a Massive Open Online Course, an online lecture series with videos, assignments and discussion forums. It can be followed remotely, is accessible to everyone and is largely free of charge – often you only pay for an official certificate. Since Stanford University put its first MOOC online in 2011, a lecture series on artificial intelligence in which 160,000 students from 190 countries eventually participated, growing numbers of universities are offering education this way. Erasmus University now has fourteen MOOCs on Coursera, a kind of Netflix for online education, and another thirteen are in production.
Still, they think this one’s certainly going to work, because this isn’t the first time Stabel and De Mey have created a MOOC. De Mey already produced two and also has a good number of them in the pipeline: “In fact, they call me the moocie monster.” They’re also able to use the raw images from The Mind of the Universe, an interview series from Dutch broadcaster VPRO, where the complete interviews are freely available. 1
On the tables in the middle of the room lies an enormous sheet of paper with a whole host of coloured Post-its. This sheet is the design for the MOOC Philosophy of Science, the subject De Mey has been teaching since January. Educational advisor Romy van Leeuwen has also been appointed alongside Stabel and De Mey. In two days, the three of them will fill the sheet of paper with Post-its until there’s a complete storyboard. Blue for the weekly title, yellow for the title of the video, green for the accompanying literature or other additional material, pink for the assignment, light pink for the learning objective and red for the final objective: at the end of this MOOC, every student must be able to draw up a sharp definition of a problem.
During this second ‘storyboarding session’, those present will devise and discuss each Post-it on the basis of their own expertise. De Mey bears most responsibility for the content. He regularly waves a book around (“This is my new hero!”), launches into an anecdote (“Do you know how blood circulation was discovered?”) or brings up a film or theatre scene he wants to use as an example (“Tim Roth in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead has to be included!”). Van Leeuwen and Stabel keep a tight rein on the learning goals, provide didactic support and occasionally point out technical possibilities or limitations (“Why don’t we do a FaceTime interview with this class instead of literature?”).
The lecture series lasts eight weeks, with three videos, assignments and additional literature or extra images every week. Students learn about the history of the philosophy of science in the first two weeks. “The title of the first video is Abduction and theory-ladenness,” says De Mey. “It’s about theorising and on the other side of the coin, about being stuck in a tunnel by the assumptions you have as a researcher.” Van Leeuwen asks what assignment students should do after watching the video. De Mey: “I want students to think about an example of abduction or theory-ladenness within their own discipline.” Adds Van Leeuwen: “You could also get them to provide an example from everyday life.”
“We deliberately start with an easy task like this,” explains Stabel, while De Mey and Van Leeuwen discuss the next video. “You can’t immediately expect students to understand how you learn through online education.” He compares it to the first day in a large lecture hall. “As a student, you look around a bit anxiously there too. The assignment isn’t threatening if you give them an example from everyday life. Students don’t have to enter into discussion with each other immediately, or deliver a critique; what’s most important is that they get to know the learning environment.”
Why does the university actually produce MOOCs? To a cynical outsider, it sometimes seems as if a great deal of time and effort is put into extensive advertising videos for universities. “For many MOOCs it is indeed the case that they’re not educational products, but a kind of showcase for a study programme or research group,” explains Stabel. “That’s changing: growing numbers of people are considering just how this can improve regular education.”
“For some time I also regarded it as a kind of showcase for your own expertise or that of the university,” concedes De Mey during the coffee break. “But I’ve taken a very different view since I’ve worked with it in my own teaching.” Since then he’s caught the bug, although he’s not sure if it’s right for every teacher. You do certainly need something of an urge for educational innovation, and a feel for the camera. “I had long been looking for ways to improve my teaching. And I have a bit of theatre experience, so I enjoy working with the camera.”
The videos the philosophy teacher produces are not just intended for students from outside the university. His own students must also follow the MOOC in preparation for the regular lectures. “For me this is the ideal way to structure my teaching,” says De Mey. “I normally deliver rather questing lectures, too chaotic for some students. MOOCs force me to structure much more clearly, and to think about the sequence, the assignments and the learning objectives. This gives students a better handle. They can always go back to last week’s videos.”
“The nice thing about this form is that students have already had all the theory before the lecture. This lets you go into more depth during lectures,” continues De Mey. He also thinks that well-made videos are a valuable addition to regular literature. During the storyboarding session, they regularly discuss how to hold students’ attention as long as possible by playing with the length and design of the video. The order of the coloured Post-its is changed several times. “Stop, stop, stop!” exclaims De Mey at one such moment. “This is actually part of the previous topic.” And then Stabel and Van Leeuwen can resume working on the puzzle.
But do students really learn better? “Not necessarily,” admits Stabel. “At least they don’t learn any worse, according to research.” And he points out an example from Wageningen, where a number of master programmes were conducted both online and offline. The examination results of those students who only followed the programme online were better.
Meanwhile they’re discussing how the assignments are assessed. Part can be done via peer review, where the students assess each other’s work. “I think that’s an important part of the learning process,” says De Mey. “People do find it annoying that they sometimes have to wait indefinitely for their fellow students on Coursera,” Van Leeuwen objects. “And lots of external learners drop out during MOOCs. So perhaps we should get tutors to give feedback if a student misses the deadline because someone else is late in assessing.”
“We could use online proctoring for the final examination,” Van Leeuwen suggests. “Online what?” asks De Mey. “That’s software that makes it possible to take an exam at a different time or place,” she explains. “In fact you’re simply monitored remotely via your computer. For example, the software registers that someone is behind you, and then the teacher or tutor can take a look to check that no one is whispering the answers.”
De Mey and Stabel are both great advocates of the ‘modularisation’ of education. They’d like to see students have more freedom of choice in which subjects they take and when. They believe online lecture series are ideal for this, not being tied to place or time. Examinations and supervision need not be an objection. “I do want there to be some form of personal guidance,” says De Mey as the sheet of paper has almost been filled with Post-its. “That’s because one of the problems with online-only MOOCs is that lots of people drop out. You can prevent that by providing personal feedback.”
“We can also use student assistants or tutors for this in the months when the course isn’t offered offline,” says Stabel, throwing all the dead Post-its into the waste bin. “Or we ask if Coursera has anyone willing to take on the practical guidance.” He offers the Econometrics MOOC (from the ESE) as an example, with its 80,000 participants. It’s only supervised a few months of the year by EUR people. “For the rest of the year there’s a German who is in charge of guidance on a purely voluntary basis, just for fun.”
They think the Philosophy of Science MOOC they’re creating now would especially fit perfectly into an educational model in which students choose their own way more. “Actually, this lecture series is only about how to ask good scientific questions and make a sharp definition of a problem,” points out De Mey. “That makes it ideal for students who have to write a thesis.” Adds Stabel: “Actually every EUR student should follow this MOOC before writing a thesis.”
After a day and a half of storyboarding, all the Post-its are in the right place. But the MOOC still isn’t ready. In the next six weeks they will have to write 24 scripts for videos lasting five to ten minutes, record the videos in the new Education Lab, devise the corresponding assignments, questions and quizzes, find literature, describe the learning objectives and the various videos, select interview clips and ‘build’ the MOOC on Coursera. De Mey doesn’t do this alone. He writes the scripts and ultimately stands in front of the lens. In the meantime, alongside the educationalists, a designer, cameraman and people from the new studio are also involved in creating the MOOC. And fortunately there’s a PhD student for the drudge work: “He should really have been here today.”