What makes a Great Online Course?

Recently I’ve been reading Karen Head‘s guest blogs for Wired.Campus, part of The Chronicle of Higher Education. She’s a faculty member at Georgia Institute of Technology. I like her blogs. She’s a good writer and she provides an interesting picture of the struggles Georgia Tech has gone through as they set up courses for their partnership with Coursera. But she brings up — and many of her commentators bring up — the pressure teachers of Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) feel to have TV quality lectures superimposed on absolutely gorgeous illustrations or amplified PowerPoint slides that look like they were put together for NBC Nightly News. I resonate to the word “pressure.” Some of the best online courses I’ve ever taken didn’t have TV quality production values. Instead, they’ve been decidedly homemade.

So Coursera is a couple of steps above the kind of courses I usually take and at first I was intimidated. Then I decided to lurk in four Coursera courses as a way to see what constituted online teaching best practice for Coursera. The courses were: Duke Professor Dan Ariely’s “A Beginner’s Guide to Irrational Behavior,” University of Maryland Professor Hank Lucas’s “Surviving Disruptive Technologies,” University of Michigan Professor Chuck Severance’s “Internet History, Technology and Security,” and Georgia Institute of Technology Professor Anderson Smith’s “Introduction to Psychology as a Science.” I liked them all, but I had the most trouble sticking with the last one. In fact it’s still going on and I’m seriously behind.

I never meant to “take” the courses actually. My plan was to sample some things on Cousera that seemed interesting and watch how each of the universities/professors handled the online teaching environment. If you think Coursera imposes a cookie cutter sameness on its university partners, this is a great way to find out that no, that isn’t happening. There are a lot of different ways to handle content, and each of the four schools I sampled did “the online thing” quite differently.

For example: Georgia Tech and Duke were committed to high production values in the recorded lectures and other materials that were presented on screen. In fact Dan Ariely’s wonderful course was so high quality, my aging Gateway laptop faltered under the strain. I had to give up before the course finished although now that I’m writing this, I’m thinking I might borrow my husband’s computer in the morning before he wakes up and take a stab at the last couple of weeks’ worth of videos.

What’s interesting about these two courses is that while both Duke and Georgia Tech went for the “standing in front of the camera” video lecture model, the outcome was very different. Dan Ariely has a fantastic personality and his course design exuded whimsy and enthusiasm not just because of the various visual elements chosen to  present what would otherwise have been PowerPoint-esque — I’m betting the deft hand of Duke University’s Center for Instructional Technology was behind a lot of that — but also because of the active presence of his Teaching Assistants and students in the visual materials. On the other hand, Anderson Smith does a great job of presenting his material clearly and seems like the kind of guy you would most definitely want supervising your doctoral dissertation. It’s just that he doesn’t come across as if he’s enjoying the process.

Dan Ariely’s boundless energy was clearly captured in his lectures. But it wasn’t just the force of his personality that made the difference. There was also something infinitely less stilted about the way he was filmed. In contrast, the oh-so-formal “stand still and deliver” Georgia Tech filming style seemed to squash Anderson Smith’s personality and diminish the force of his knowledge as well. I’m determined to finish his lectures, but I just know it’s going to be more of a chore than a joy. There’s warmth and knowledge in Anderson Smith’s teaching style that’s buried by the filming. That’s unfortunate.

Then there’s the other two courses I signed up for: I really loved the courses by Drs. Lucas and Severance.  I confess I had a personal reason to lurk in Hank Lucas’s course — my family’s business succumbed in the 1990s to the impact of the digital imaging revolution on X-ray technology like a small business shadow cast by the dark-dark-darker experience of our once X-ray film supplier Kodak. I found Chuck Severance’s romp through the history of the internet endlessly fascinating because I’m old enough to remember a working life before that revolution changed everything. But I’m a research psychologist so I loved the content of the two high production value courses as well. It just surprised me how eager I was to check in with Dr. Chuck and Professor Hank as soon as I saw the video lectures were up. The content of both courses was great, of course, but there was something else that was drawing me back to class.

Finally I put my finger on it: I didn’t expect to be so appreciative of the relatively low-tech non-TV quality aspect of their lecturing. Both of these Professors chose the “sit-at-the-computer-talk-into-the-webcam” variety of course delivery. And whatever software Coursera uses, it had the happy feature of allowing both Lucas and Severance to scribble endless enthusiastic doodles all over their slides.

Course extras, readings, projects, vibrant and well-tended discussions, Google hangouts, virtual office hours and course wikis enhanced all four of these courses. But it was the intimacy of the Lucas and Severance broadcasts that kept me coming back for more. And I realized there was a parallel to smaller online courses I’d taken in the past. There’s nothing like getting a glimpse of the Profs’ working environments, with clocks, calendars, pictures on the walls, coffee cups, and even pets. (In Lucas’ case, it was his dog Frankie who was clearly taking the course with us.) This glimpse of home and office combined with the close face in the camera and the doodling on the slides made the courses more sticky, more inviting, more likely to be the first ones I hit in the morning.

I was surprised to realize it was the community building teaching style so typical of the courses I’ve taken over the years on www.WizIQ.com and elsewhere that made the difference in how I felt about the Coursera offerings. The feeling of person-to-person interaction could in fact be maintained even when 100,000 other people were taking the course with you. I’ve seen that person-to-person connection in the much smaller Moodle training courses I’ve taken that are taught by Dr. Nellie Deutsch and her volunteer facilitators on IT4ALL. And I didn’t expect to find it in a Coursera MOOC.

So now I know that best practices in a fancy MOOC are the same as best practices in small online courses: What makes a course worth taking is the feeling of real connection to the Prof and through him or her to the course material, even if you don’t have the time to interact with the other students in a big way. Whether a course is offered by grass root organizers or by big concerns like Coursera or by major universities like Duke, Michigan, Maryland or Georgia Tech, connection is the key. Nellie Deutsch says it better in her introductory playlist for the new Moodle MOOC that starts on WizIQ on June 1st. Click through and then roll up to the third offering on the playlist and you’ll see what I mean.

So okay I’m as hooked on Coursera as I am on grass roots MOOCs like the ones on WizIQ. The Coursera experience has reinforced my conviction that whether massive, or just big, or mid-sized, or really small, the most important production values in an online classroom are those that provide the best space for the people-to-people connection.


About nancyzingrone

An experienced Moodler, passionate about online education and WizIQ.com, psychology, history, history of psychology, exceptional experiences, survey research, and Second Life
This entry was posted in What Makes a Good Online Course. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to What makes a Great Online Course?

  1. Pingback: What makes a Great Online Course? | Maryland Online

  2. Rick Martin says:

    For me, a great online course has more visual interaction with the professor teaching the course, and a sense of belonging. In the corporate world, that is referred to as internal marketing. I am surprised at the lack of internal marketing in most courses. Think back to your school days, what sticks out most in your mind? Each course must make you feel like you are part of something greater.

  3. Jennifer Kidd says:

    Have you heard of the concept of Teacher Presence? This is what you are describing as the key ingredient in a successful MOOC.

    • nanzingrone says:

      Yes, I have, and I think Teacher Presence is certainly important, but it goes a bit farther than that in the sense that it has to be the type of teacher presence that invites intimacy or creates an illusion of this course is just for me in the video/presentation materials, and that coupled with the wider context of discussions and projects makes for the best type of learning. I didn’t get into the elements of collaboration/reflection in this blog because I only lurked. Do you have favorite ref for the elements of Teacher Presence and their relationship to student engagement? Always looking for more bibliography. 🙂

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