Can mass sychronous events work with MOOCs?

Dave MiddletonMOOCs tend to involve consuming online content, taking automated assessments and peer networking. While students may feel some connection to the academics who create the courses by watching recorded videos of them, the opportunities for synchronous connection with subject experts are limited.

Dave Middleton is a tutor manager with the Open University and has been training tutors to use Elluminate effectively for several years. When online tutorials were offered to students in Wales on Exploring Psychology, one of our most popular modules with around 4,000 participants each year, students elsewhere began to complain that providing the events only to the Welsh was unfair.

So Dave spotted an opportunity to try something new. He opened up an Elluminate room to the entire module population, advertised a two-hour event, sat back and hoped that 3,850 registered students wouldn’t all turn up at once. In the event 200 did. The received wisdom is that online tutorials become unworkable when numbers exceed 20 but clearly the way this was being handled didn’t result in the expected chaos. Dave was able to enable group work and problem-based learning rather than simply lecturing at the students. 75% of them responded that the session had met or exceeded their expectations.

Comments included:

“The tutorial exceeded my expectations! It was well organised, easy to understand and packed with useful information”

“This was truly amazing and inspirational. The concept is fantastic.”

“Very enjoyable – I initially thought 2 hours would seem a long time for an online tutorial but the time just flew by. Great to be taking part from the comfort of your own sofa! ”

“I think these tutorials should be available for all modules as many, like myself, cannot attend face to face ones for the same reason we cannot attend brick uni’s and have chosen to study with the OU. I would like to say well done to the tutors, the organisation and structure was a great improvement. I only wish there were more of them.”

Faculty policy on online tutorial provision was changed after Dave’s experiment. For the first time there was evidence not only that the tutorials could offer an excellent learning experience to large numbers of students but would also be highly popular with those who didn’t otherwise have the chance to attend face to face sessions.

The lesson for MOOCs is that mass synchronous online sessions with subject expects can be motivational and effective. The tools available in Elluminate (now Blackboard Collaborate) and similar systems enable effective interactive teaching with hundreds of students simultaneously. Such sessions have to be properly planned of course both logistically and technically to avoid a “MOOC mess” such as the one which happened on Georgia Institute of Technology’s module with Coursera which resulted in the course being withdrawn.

Is Dave’s experience of dealing with a couple of hundred students at once the limit?  I suspect someone somewhere some time soon is going to push the technology and the logistics to accommodate many thousands of students in an engaging synchronous session.

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