Moving Pieces in a Coursera Initiative

Green ScreenSince Vanderbilt announced its partnership with Coursera back in September, I’ve been fielding calls and emails from colleagues at other teaching centers interested in learning about our process for launching this digital learning project. I thought that a “behind the curtain” look might be of general interest, so I’ve prepared this blog post to describe some of the big pieces of our Coursera initiative.

Vanderbilt isn’t the only university launching Coursera courses this year, and if process questions interest you, I would suggest you read Randy Riddle’s post, “What does it take to prepare a Duke Coursera course?” over on the Duke University Center for Instructional Technology blog. Our process is similar, although a bit less structured, given the tight time frame we’ve been operating on. In what follows, I’ve emphasized some of the differences between our process and Duke’s.

I’ll also note that although the Center for Teaching is supporting the Coursera initiative at Vanderbilt, we’re not running the show. That would be the Provost’s Office, who manages and has responsibility for the project. In what follows, I’ve focused on the parts of the process in which I’ve been most involved to this point.

Video Lectures

Most of those involved in the Coursera initiative here are interested in Vanderbilt’s courses meeting fairly high video production standards, and so much of our early effort went into building capacity for video capture and editing.  This was largely new territory for Vanderbilt, since, outside of the School of Nursing, there’s very little experience on campus with distance or online education.  Nursing has been running a distance ed program for over a decade now, and so they had the hardware, software, and, critically, expertise to get our Nursing course up and filming quickly.

For the other four courses, our Coursera task force has managed to build out a temporary recording studio in the basement of one of the dorms, complete with multiple cameras, lighting rigs, green screen, teleprompter, and editing software. (See photo above.)  Putting all that together took some work, although gathering the necessary person power has been the bigger challenge.  I’ve been told that for every hour of video footage, about ten hours of editing is required!  The finished products (see below for an example) are incredible, with integrated video and slides, but it takes a significant amount of work to get there.

Intellectual Property Issues

We all expected the video production to take a lot of time and creative energy.  We didn’t see as clearly from the beginning all the thorny intellectual property issues that would arise.  Our legal team weighed in on a number of questions early on, setting some important parameters.  Our library representative on the task force is handling the remaining big questions (e.g. What happens when your “textbook” is a third-party online role-playing game?), while I’ve been providing resources around the smaller questions.  In particular, the faculty have to avoid using copyrighted images in their slides, since these courses are open to the world.  Fair use doesn’t go very far in this context.  I put together a guide for our faculty on finding and using Creative Commons and public domain images.

Faculty are also welcome to create their own images, which can be time-consuming, unless one has a talented graphic artist as a TA—which turned out to be the case for one of our courses!  There’s been some talk of using medical images generated at the hospital here on campus, but that raises another set of complex issues around privacy (HIPAA, primarily) and permissions.

Course Design

Leading faculty through a “backward” course design process (identifying objectives, then assessments, then learning activities–see Duke’s course design guide) would have been ideal, but given our time frame and the need to get our video lecture process up and running, such an experience wasn’t practical.  Instead, I’ve consulted with our Coursera faculty on a more ad hoc basis, helping them refine their course designs as appropriate.  I’ve also directed them to the resources that our Provost-funded graduate assistant, Katie McEwen, has put together mapping out the kinds of teaching choices available on the Coursera platform.  Katie has signed up for every single Coursera course, and, while she’s not completing more than one or two of them, she’s a fount of information about common and exemplary teaching practices in these courses.

It’s worth noting that the faculty who signed up for this Coursera experiment were selected, in part, because of their strong teaching skills.  Teaching an online course with tens of thousands of students is new to all of them, certainly, but they have good instincts and great ideas for innovating in this space.  These are faculty who are game for making their courses more student-centered; the challenge is that none of us quite know how to do that yet on the Coursera platform.

Teaching Assistants

With the faculty focusing their energy on course content and lecture videos, there’s been a need for teaching assistants to help build out other components of our courses.  We have teaching assistants helping with slide preparation, loading lecture videos onto the platform, writing those “pop-up” quizzes that appear within Coursera lecture videos, drafting quizzes and other graded assignments, and, once the courses start, monitoring discussion forums.  At least a couple of our TAs will probably appear on-screen, too, here and there.  TAs are being compensated in a variety of ways, including Provost funds, faculty research funds, and independent study credit.  We have a mix of undergraduate and graduate student TAs.

Most of our TAs have some amount of content expertise relevant to the courses they’re assisting.  However, we have a couple of computer science undergrads who are helping with platform-related support outside of their majors.  And I’ve just lined up a graduate student with very strong teaching skills to assist all our faculty in the design of assessments (non-graded, robo-graded, and especially peer-graded) for their courses.  She’ll consult with faculty, then help them draft assignment descriptions and rubrics.

One more note about teaching assistants:  It occurred to me several weeks ago that many of our TAs are graduating from Vanderbilt this spring and won’t be around next year!  It’s the senior undergrads and final-year doctoral students who seem to have the time, interest, and skills necessary for this work, but they’re also the ones leaving us the soonest.  Since this realization, I’ve been looking for slightly younger students to work on this project so that we’ll have more institutional memory next year.

Research and Assessment

As with intellectual property issues and the need for TAs, this is another area that we didn’t have mapped out very well when we launched the project.  Fortunately, we’ve had no problem coming up with interesting research projects related to the Coursera initiative, nor have I had a problem finding faculty and students interested in taking on these projects!  We have a few projects underway right now, both qualitative (relying on surveys, interviews, and focus groups) and quantitative (leveraging all the data on student learning the Coursera platform collects).  Right now, I have my hand in all of these projects, which makes for a very full plate.  I’m hoping to organize a research seminar, hosted at the CFT, that would bring people together from around campus so that they can learn from each other and build on each other’s work.  Once that’s launched, I should be able to be more selective about which projects I spend my own time on.

As excited as faculty and students are about these research projects, there’s a need for a bigger picture assessment of the whole Coursera initiative.  We’ve launched this experiment as a way to explore how the university can leverage online and digital technologies to enhance its teaching mission.  How are we going to learn from this experiment?  There are many questions we could ask about the Coursera initiative.  The individual research projects sprouting up will answer some of those questions, but I don’t want us to miss important ones.  I’m hoping to pull some people together soon for a brainstorming session to start mapping out this bigger assessment challenge.


But wait! That’s not all!  Other challenges have included working with our legal team to negotiate the Coursera contract, recruiting and compensating faculty to teach Vanderbilt’s first MOOCs, engaging more of our faculty in conversations about online learning, and figuring out what kind of on-campus events and meet-ups will be useful once our courses go live. But I’m pushing 1500 words in this blog post, so I’ll stop now.

I hope this has been helpful for those considering their own campus digital learning initiatives. Best of luck!

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