MOOC-Supported Learning Communities for Future STEM Faculty

I’m very pleased to announce that the free, seven-week, online course “An Introduction to Evidence-Based Undergraduate STEM Teaching” is now open for enrollment. The course is designed to provide graduate students and post-doctoral fellows in the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) who are planning college and university faculty careers with an introduction to effective teaching strategies and the research that supports them. Although aimed at future STEM faculty, we expect that current STEM faculty will find the course interesting and useful, too.

One of the ways this course is a little different from your typical MOOC (massive open online course) is that it is being developed by faculty, staff, and students at seven different institutions, most affiliated with the CIRTL Network. I discussed some of the pedagogical and logistical challenges of this aspect of the course in my last blog post. In today’s post, I’ll focus on another interesting aspect of the course, the incorporation of what we’re calling MOOC-supported learning communities.


Here’s what we say about these learning communities on the course page:

Learning communities are at the heart of CIRTL’s activities. We encourage course participants to find or create local learning communities, meeting in person during the course to share and discuss what they are learning about STEM teaching. If you’re interested in hosting a group of students or colleagues on your campus to participate in this course together, we would love to hear from you!  We will provide suggested discussion questions and activities for local learning communities to use during weekly meetings, and the communities in turn will be asked to share their ideas and perspectives with the global learning community created by the course. See our page on facilitating a MOOC-supported learning community for more information and to sign up as a host.

What we’re planning is an extension of the local study groups that often form in conjunction with MOOCs. Since our primary audience for the course, STEM grad students and post-docs, can largely be found in clusters at research universities, we’re designing the MOOC to support and enhance local learning communities of MOOC participants. We’ll give those who facilitate these communities early access to the MOOC learning materials, as well as discussion questions and other activities they can use in their weekly meetings. Think “flipped classroom” lesson plans here, where the pre-class assignment is participation in the MOOC, and the weekly learning community meetings help MOOC participants go deeper with the material, applying it to their own teaching contexts.

In turn, we’ll ask these local learning communities to contribute to the global learning community organized by the MOOC. We’ll invite them to

  • Share highlights from their discussions on the MOOC forums,
  • Send representatives to virtual office hours held by MOOC instructors and guests,
  • Suggest not just forum topics but forum folders to shape the online conversations, and
  • Contribute their unique perspectives to the global learning community.

Regarding that last item, we’re expecting that some local learning communities will be discipline-specific, perhaps an informal group of graduate students from a physics department or the students in a graduate-level pedagogy course in a chemical engineering department. We’ll ask these groups to share how the STEM teaching principles and practices we discuss in the MOOC apply to their disciplines. We’re also expecting that some local learning communities will consist of faculty at types of institutions other than research universities. It would be extremely useful to the graduate students in the MOOC to learn about the teaching context at, say, a community college or historically black college or university. Relatively few STEM graduate students will end up as faculty at research universities, so it’s important they learn more about teaching and learning at other kinds of institutions.

We currently have individuals (mostly faculty and staff) at 22 institutions who have signed up to host and facilitate local learning communities in association with the MOOC. The institutions are a mix of public and private, some already affiliated with the CIRTL Network, others not affiliated, and one university in Germany! It looks like eight of these local learning communities will be associated with credit-bearing pedagogy courses at their institutions. We hope that our MOOC will be a useful resource for these courses and their instructors. We also hope it will be helpful to faculty and staff at institutions that don’t have such courses on the books (these courses are far from universal), expanding their capacity to support graduate student professional development on their campuses.

Future STEM faculty (grad students and post-docs) aren’t always provided with training as teachers, which is unfortunate given what a big role teaching will play in most of their careers. One of the goals of this MOOC is to take what’s been learned about future faculty preparation at the CIRTL Network institutions and leverage that experience to equip a far greater number of graduate students to be effective teachers. And that means working with and supporting the faculty, staff, and students already involved in such efforts on their campuses.

Using an open, online course to network a set of local learning communities interested in a common topic isn’t a new idea. ds106 is a digital storytelling course that started at the University of Mary Washington and has involved various local learning communities, including credit-bearing courses at other institutions. Mike Caulfield, now at Washington State University at Vancouver, applied the ds106 model to a different topic — water — creating the Water106 thought experiment. FemTechNet, a group of scholars interested in the intersection of feminism and technology, ran a “distributed open collaborative course” (DOCC) in 2013 that connected academic courses at fifteen colleges and universities. Cathy Davidson’s “History and Future of Higher Education” MOOC earlier this year (#FutureEd) involved a loosely coordinated network of local learning communities. I have my eye on Connected Courses, an upcoming open, online course on building open, online courses that’s facilitated by some of the inventive people behind ds106 and FemTechNet, among others. I suspect Connected Courses will play with ideas similar to our MOOC-supported learning communities model.

What makes “An Introduction to Evidence-Based Undergraduate STEM Teaching” and its MOOC-supported learning communities different from these other experiments? I think the difference is that we’re taking this idea of using an open, online course to network local learning communities, and structuring it in a way that makes sense to a wide swath of faculty and administrators, particularly those in the STEM disciplines. Don’t get me wrong, I think Headless ds106 is brilliant, but it’s not exactly a course I can share with just anyone in academia. But creating a fairly “traditional” (as these things go) MOOC, then inviting instructors to facilitate reading groups around the MOOC or “flip” their courses using the MOOC? That’s an easier sell. And I think (I hope) because of the accessibility of our model, we’ll create a vision for how MOOCs can be used to enhance on-campus student experiences, by networking local learning communities across multiple campuses.

From the time I first looked in a Coursera course back in July 2012 and saw study groups forming, I’ve been fascinated by the potential connections between the global learning community created by a MOOC and various local learning communities associated with that MOOC. How might participating in a face-to-face study group enhance the learning experience for a MOOC student? And how might perspectives and ideas discussed by study groups feed back into the conversations happening on the MOOC platform? These questions, ones that tapped into the “M” in MOOC, were ones I wanted to explore.

During the fall of 2012, I had a chance to start answering these questions. My Vanderbilt colleague, computer science professor Doug Fisher (and now director of the Vanderbilt Institute for Digital Learning), taught a graduate-level machine learning course in which he “wrapped” his course around a MOOC on the same topic offered by Stanford’s Andrew Ng. Doug asked his students to participate in the MOOC, watching the lecture videos and completing the quizzes and assignments. Meanwhile, Doug met in person with his students once a week to discuss the week’s MOOC material as well as additional readings that Doug provided. During the last four weeks of the semester, after Ng’s MOOC had ended, Doug’s students worked on projects under Doug’s supervision, just as his machine learning students had done in past offerings of the course.

Doug invited the Center for Teaching to explore the student experience in this course, and so my CFT colleague Katie McEwen and I conducted a focus group with Doug’s students midway through the semester and surveyed his students after the course had finished. With some help from Blaine Smith, a doctoral student in education, Katie and Doug and I analyzed the student feedback, writing up our results for publication in the Journal of Online Learning and Teaching (JOLT) in the summer of 2013. A few key findings:

  • The students were very positive about the “wrapper” approach. They found the online component of the course well-structured and easy to use.
  • The students didn’t post to the MOOC discussion forums, preferring to discuss course materials with each other in person, in and out of class.
  • They did, however, occasionally look to the forums for answers to specific questions they had. Students noted that, generally, if one of them had a question about the material, that question had already been asked and answered in the forums.
  • The students felt that they had two instructors in the course, one they never met in person (Andrew Ng) and another they described as a “facilitator” of discussions (Doug Fisher).

Just after submitting that paper to JOLT, I attended the Computing Community Consortium’s “Multidisciplinary Research for Online Education” workshop in Washington, DC, in February 2013. During that meeting, I had the chance to talk with Stanford’s Amy Collier about creative uses of MOOCs happening at Stanford, including one for a MOOC on childhood nutrition. The idea was to reach out to various community organizations across the country and ask them (a) to invite members of their community to participate in the MOOC, (b) to provide computer access to community members who needed it to participate in the MOOC, and (c) to host cooking classes for local MOOC participants to help them take what they learn in the MOOC and apply it to their own families. I thought this was brilliant, a wonderful example of MOOC as educational outreach.

Could this same structure work in academic settings? Doug Fisher “flipped” his machine learning course using Andrew Ng’s MOOC — a single on-campus course supported and enhanced by a MOOC. What if machine learning instructors at multiple campuses did the same thing? Two months after that DC meeting, in April 2013, Amy Collier and Mike Caulfield (now at WSU-Vancouver) introduced the term “distributed flip” to describe this very idea. I’ll admit that it took me a while to warm to the term. I kept thinking about this model from the point of view of someone like Doug, who was just flipping his class using online learning materials. “Distributed” to me says “network.” Where was the network from Doug’s perspective? Mike helped me see things from the MOOC creator’s point of view, where there might be dozens of faculty at dozens of institutions all flipping their classes around the MOOC. There’s the network — and the distributed flip!

It turns out, while I was studying Doug’s class here at Vanderbilt, Amy and Mike were interviewing Doug and other faculty who had used Stanford computer science MOOCs in their courses. One of their main conclusions echoed the Vanderbilt findings, that students in these flipped classes didn’t participate much in the global learning community created by the MOOCs. But since they interviewed faculty (where we talked to students), they arrived at least one conclusion we didn’t: Faculty flipping their classes with MOOCs wished they could connect with each other as a community of practice, perhaps even contributing learning materials in their individual areas of expertise. As I said about, Where was the network from Doug’s perspective? Faculty participating in a distributed flip don’t just want access to learning materials, they want access to a network.

This brings us to the summer of 2013, when I was invited to become a principal investigator on a National Science Foundation grant proposal. Robert Mathieu, director of CIRTL, saw the potential of MOOCs to leverage CIRTL core ideas and findings over the last ten years to prepare large numbers of future STEM faculty to implement and advance evidence-based, high-impact teaching practices. Bob asked a few CIRTL Network colleagues to put their heads together and submit a proposal to the NSF’s WIDER program (Widening Implementation and Demonstration of Evidence-Based Reforms), and I brought to the table the idea of the distributed flip, of MOOC-supported learning communities, as we ended up calling them. And I knew we could pull it off because we already had a network in place, the CIRTL Network, consisting of 22 research universities, many of which would be interested in participating.

Four months later, we got a “yes” from NSF, along with some funds to make it happen. In the ten months since then, the MOOC development team has been hard at work preparing the course. And we’re not done yet! But we’re close. Very soon we’ll get to put into practice our ideas about MOOC-supported learning communities and see if they fly.

I’m excited. Want to join us?

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