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May 2, 2013

Pitt MOOCs: Tackling the challenge

Faculty members preparing to teach courses using the new online platform of MOOCs — massive open online courses — say the effort is worthwhile, but they aren’t entirely sure where it will lead the University.

Jennifer Zoltners Sherer, a course designer in the Institute for Learning at the Learning Research and Development Center, will be teaching Accountable Talk starting in June, one of five free, non-credit MOOCs Pitt will offer through Coursera ( Other faculty members are teaching A Look at Nuclear Science and Technology, Clinical Terminology for International and American Students, Disaster Preparedness, and Nutrition and Physical Activity for Health. Each course is structured differently but generally lasts six-eight weeks and consists of brief lectures and presentations on video as well as online tests and discussion forums.

Sherer is an expert in how people learn and how to design learning environments so people can gain more from their educational experiences.

For years, Sherer has been teaching an online workshop called Introduction to Accountable Talk, which educates teachers on using improved instructional language with students. Those online classes of about 20 have been in daily touch with her and with each other.

That’s going to be impossible with the more than 25,000 students who already are registered for the Accountable Talk MOOC, which she will be teaching with Lauren Resnick, co-director of the Institute for Learning. Nonetheless, “we’re pretty excited about the possibility of opening this up to a large audience,” she says.

Faculty teaching Pitt’s MOOCs say their administrators are very enthusiastic about taking this step and believe it may be the future of education. But all involved admit the entire MOOC enterprise is a bit of an experiment at this stage.

Many of the faculty teaching MOOCs based on existing courses are simplifying their lessons, apportioning their lectures or exercises in shorter segments and finding new ways to contact and assess their students. Sherer’s original online class depends on its discussion boards to give students individual feedback. With the MOOC, she has had to rethink not only what the students need to learn but how they should be assessed. Her MOOC has been designed to generate peer feedback for students and to offer more frequent tasks for them to complete.

She also has had to reconsider how adults and children interact in other cultures, since her class now has students around the world and likely includes some who are not even educators. “Getting smarter through a specific kind of talk culturally has different implications,” she says. “Some households do this at the dinner table. But in other cultures, children don’t interact with adults that way.” In fact, talk that is labeled “accountable” in American culture can be seen as inappropriate in other countries.

“It really forces you to rethink your pedagogy and to think: How are the tasks we’ve been asking students to do really focusing on what we care about most? What learning is there, by asking students to assess each other? The University and the Institute for Learning have so much to learn by doing these Coursera courses.

“Do I think that MOOCs will replace brick and mortar universities?” she adds. “I certainly hope not. I think that you learn to teach by teaching” on the ground — and Sherer has some experience with that too, having been an upper elementary grade teacher prior to earning her PhD. Still, she concludes, “There is so much we don’t know about how they’re going to help people learn.”


Since Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology collaborated in 2012 to create EdX as a nonprofit MOOC platform, several for-profit companies have begun to offer MOOCs, including Coursera, Udacity and, as of April 22, NovoEd, which forms teams among students taking its courses, claiming to facilitate interaction and class projects in this manner.

The Chronicle of Higher Education this spring surveyed professors previously or currently teaching MOOCs. Two-thirds of the respondents were tenured professors with more than 10 years of university teaching experience. The median number of enrollees for these classes was 33,000, and almost half the professors believed their MOOC offerings were as academically rigorous as their traditional classroom courses and deserved to be offered for credit, as part of a degree. Most reported that MOOCs had taken more than 100 hours to prepare and took 10 hours a week to run. At least 66 percent of those surveyed believed MOOCs eventually will decrease the price of higher education for everyone.

Larry Foulke

Larry Foulke

Larry Foulke isn’t sure yet what impact his MOOC might have on students, his school or Pitt in general. Foulke, an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science in the Swanson School of Engineering and director of outreach for its nuclear engineering program, will be teaching A Look at Nuclear Science and Technology to more than 16,000 people beginning next month.

“We do know that the drop rate for these 16,000-plus students is very high,” Foulke says. “The statistics show from previous Coursera courses that less than 10 percent of the students who initially sign up actually complete the course. They haven’t paid money; they just browsed the Internet, saw something interesting, clicked a button and they’re enrolled. So the level of commitment is not high.”

In fact, the Chronicle survey found that current professors experienced only a 7.5 percent pass rate on average.

“It’s not clear to me that the business model for these massive open online courses is a sound business model,” Foulke adds. “If people don’t have a sound business model for a payoff for these classes, I’m not sure they’re going to last.” Perhaps Amazon or his textbook publisher might one day have ads next to the courses online, he speculates. Right now, the courses are ad-free.

Still, Foulke is quite enthusiastic about giving visibility to the nuclear engineering courses here via his MOOC. He also was glad to bring his expertise to a much wider audience with much less knowledge about nuclear science than Swanson freshmen.

“The public doesn’t know much about it, and when they hear the word ‘nuclear’ they normally have a bad reaction,” he says. “I look at this to reach the grandmothers of the world.”

He is taking much of the math out of the classroom version of his course and shortening the daily lectures to 15 minutes. After each day’s lesson, students will receive a five-question multiple-choice self-graded quiz. The correct answers will be accompanied by an explanation from Foulke, and there will be discussion forums for each answer. At the end of each week, there will be a 10-question electronically graded exam that determines whether students earn their certificates of completion.

There will be weekly discussion forums for more open-ended questions, for which Foulke is employing several teaching assistants to review and respond to a selection of student posts. These student posts, however, are voluntary and will not be graded.

In contrast, online students who make up half of Foulke’s in-class course receive headsets with microphones to interact with Foulke’s live lecture and with each other.


For the design of their MOOCs, Foulke and other faculty credit the Center for Instructional Development and Distance Education (CIDDE) for a large amount of aid with course video and audio components as well as other instructional technologies and best practices.

Valerie Swigart, a faculty member in health promotion and development in the School of Nursing, currently is preparing a MOOC that will begin in November. “The University support and particularly the CIDDE support for the course is phenomenal,” says Swigart, who will be teaching the Clinical Terminology for International and American Students course with Michael Gold, emeritus faculty member in public administration in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. The course has nearly 8,000 enrollees to date.

With Carol Washburn, manager of teaching and learning for CIDDE, Swigart and Gold have been planning the course since last November. Nursing Dean Jacqueline Dunbar-Jacob suggested that they design a new course for their MOOC so that nursing students and other new medical practitioners entering the clinical setting for the first time could familiarize themselves with what is nearly a foreign language used by more experienced personnel there. It also could help students in early courses and in simulation labs.

“It is quite a shock, not only for our American students, but especially for the foreign students,” says Swigart about their first days on a medical unit. Particularly during the first three-six months, they may have a tough time understanding new terms that have multiple abbreviations and often different written and spoken forms, as well as all the acronyms. “It’s fast and furious and confusing,” she says. Most importantly, students’ lack of comprehension could affect patient safety.

Medical dictionaries are voluminous in print form and full of distracting ads online, so the team is developing its own dictionary as well, to which students can add materials.

“The course goes for six weeks,” Gold says. “The dictionary we hope will live forever.” It is English-to-English now, but in the future could expand to accommodate other languages.

The course design will be very simple and very interactive, using audio, video and text. For instance, students will be able to see labeled photos of different types of thermometers and scroll over each thermometer name to hear it pronounced, at normal speeds or more slowly. Then they will be asked to use each term in writing and recognize that the term was spoken correctly. Students also will be shown videos and be asked whether the correct term was used in clinical situations. At the end of the course they will integrate what they have learned by taking an exam in real time, answering questions in an evolving case during which they must listen, understand and make decisions based on their newly learned vocabulary.

Self-pacing and repeatable content are the keys to learning in this MOOC, both faculty members say.

“And we have to anticipate the types of questions they might have and answer them before they are asked,” Gold adds.

Washburn likens this MOOC to foreign-language teaching, “because all it is is practice,” she says.

To develop the content, Swigart is consulting with School of Nursing colleagues who teach students in clinical areas, as well as a current Chinese student and American and international students who recently transitioned to the clinical setting. She also runs an international discussion board as part of a global health course in nursing, so she has experience with students and faculty from around the world.

The MOOC movement, she concludes, “is a fascinating, very worthwhile experiment that can bring education to folks who wouldn’t usually have access to education … or as a stepping stone to a possible career. I see it as a social justice issue — education has to be available” and affordable, although it shouldn’t necessarily be free, she says.

The entire experience is causing a renewal of her thinking on pedagogy, Swigart says. “It has increased my sense of the University environment: What a fertile environment!”

Swigart and Washburn know first-hand about the MOOC high dropout rate. Each signed up for a course without finishing it: Washburn was simply seeing how other course designers worked, while Swigart admits she just didn’t have time to complete the MOOC she started. But neither is concerned about the dropout rate.

Gold added: “Right now it’s free, because free is the way to get lots of people to sample it. Even if they sample a week’s worth of classes, he believes, students will get something worthwhile out of the experience.

—Marty Levine

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