Forging a Connection with 40,000 MOOC Students: A Princeton Professor’s Perspective

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How can you teach a course to 40,000 faceless students and still maintain some semblance of a teacher-student connection?

This was the challenge that Professor Mitchell Duneier of Princeton University faced last year when he offered an online course in introductory sociology. The non-credit course was offered free of charge through Coursera, and had an enrollment of 40,000 students from 113 different countries.

When Professor Duneier agreed to teach the course, he had several concerns: How could he possibly connect to such a massive faceless group of people? “Was it really possible,” he wondered, “to provide quality education to tens of thousands of students in more than 100 countries at the same time? And in a way that would respond to the diversity of viewpoints represented from six continents?” That the students came from such a diverse array of societies made it even more challenging for Professor Duneier to relate to them all.

Furthermore, Professor Duneier was concerned about his video lectures. In a traditional classroom setting, there is a natural give-and-take between professors and students that adds a palpable vitality and buzz to the lecture. But when recording a video lecture by himself alone in a room, Professor Duneier could feel the difference:

My concerns grew deeper as I sat before the cold eye of the camera to record my first lecture. With nobody to ask me a question, or give me bored looks, or laugh at my jokes, I had no clues as to how the students might be responding. Staring into this void, it was hard for me to imagine that anyone was listening. Can we even call these “lectures” when there is no audience within the speaker’s view? Aren’t those interpersonal cues—those knowing nods and furrowed brows—that go from the audience to the professor as crucial to the definition of a lecture as the cues that go from the lecturer to the audience?

Armed with an awareness of these challenges, Duneier plunged ahead into strategizing how to best run the course. Since there was no way for him to accept live questions in the middle of his recorded lectures, Duneier set up a discussion board for his 40,000 students to post questions and comments. And because there was such a large and diverse pool of students, the questions came fast and furious, on the order of thousands. Although Duneier couldn’t possibly read through all the discussion threads, he focused his attention on the discussions that generated the most responses.

To add a more personal element to the course, Professor Duneier instituted a weekly live video chat with 6-8 student participants. Together with Professor Duneier, the students discussed the weekly readings while the rest of the class listened in (or watched the recording later). He made an effort to touch on the issues that were raised in the most popular discussion threads. These live seminars and discussion forums were quite successful in helping Professor Duneier form a connection with his students.

With so much volume, my audience became as visible to me as the students in a traditional lecture hall. This happened as I got to know them by sampling their comments on the forums and in the live, seminar-style discussions. As I developed a sense for them as people, I could imagine their nods and, increasingly, their critical questions. Within three weeks I had received more feedback on my sociological ideas than I had in a career of teaching, which significantly influenced each of my subsequent lectures and seminars.

Not only did the students interact with Professor Duneier himself, but they also made an effort to get together and connect with each other, as Professor Duneier describes:

There were spontaneous and continuing in-person study groups in coffee shops in Katmandu and in pubs in London. Many people developed dialogues after following one another’s posts on various subjects, while others got to know those with a common particular interest, such as racial differences in IQ, the prisoner abuses that took place at Abu Ghraib, or ethnocentrism—all topics covered in the lectures.

Word of Professor Duneier’s MOOC spread throughout the academic world and several press releases mentioned the course, including a feature in the New York Times and a plug for the course in a TED talk.

Interestingly, however, in September 2013 – about one year after teaching his wildly successful course – Mitchell Duneier renounced his career as a MOOC professor out of concern that MOOCs could cause cuts in state-university budgets.

What will be the future of MOOCs?

Source: Teaching to the World From Central New Jersey by Mitchell Duneier on The Chronicle of Higher Education

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