The sun is coming out from behind the clouds and makes the lake blindingly white. Skaters have come out in massive numbers on the first tour of the year on natural ice, starting uneasily but learning quickly with growing confidence. Skating is one of those things you only learn by doing.
While I am enjoying the beautiful landscape and concentrate on avoiding the sudden fissures in the ice, my mobile is receiving mails from the MOOC team, some 13 people working feverously to get their first MOOC out to the audience. We started with two: Rutger de Graaf, lecturer of the course Introduction to Communication Science and me, lobbying and trying to get people support the idea of an MOOC. We never expected we would have so many colleagues working on the project. It seemed quite simple to set up a course with video.
When I did the Artificial Intelligence course of Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvik in late 2011, I was immediately aware that this was more inspiring than any online or offline college I had before. This was so rich, so challenging and gratifying, that I knew this was going to change the world. The videos were simple and therefore feeling intimate. They were taken in their garage and Sebastian and Peter were clumsily shuffling pieces of paper to correct handwritten formulas and pictures. It looked like they spoke to you personally in a very simple set up. But later I became aware that it took lots of energy and time to create the video. Sebastian’s voice was giving away and later he was absent for a few lessons, and I understood he was exhausted of preparing the MOOC at night in his garage with normal classes and other obligations in daytime. Now I also saw that the course videos and quizzes were well orchestrated and followed a carefully designed path that finally brought me and my tens of thousands of fellow students to the final exam. I received the certificate and could not stop talking about it; this was something we had to do at the University of Amsterdam too. My expectations were very high. It could bring us much higher quality in our education, with a much richer experience because of the student’s interaction that provided extra feedback, with new explanations, examples and references on anything in or related to the course. Perhaps it would also be much more efficient, liberating lecturers to do more research and give any number of people around the world with a browser access to higher education. It would do some good branding as well, showing Communication Science at the University of Amsterdam is innovative in education and research.
Soon I discovered that it was not so easy after all. We started in May 2012, with virtually no budget, only the trust that the idea of a MOOC would be so compelling that we would win fans and budget holders along the way. And, actually, we did; the Graduate School, the College, the Faculty and also the top level decision makers at the University of Amsterdam liked the idea and managed to get us funding. The planning was to get the course out in September, OK, perhaps October. We bought a graphical tablet, some software and started experimenting. The first 30 seconds of the introduction took us a full day just to get right. The course was a replicate of the off line course Rutger was giving, but a MOOC is different, much more compact, and in need of a different narrative. It took us several months to learn how to create a relative efficient process. Peter Neijens, director of the Graduate School estimated we would be running the MOOC in January. I thought that was ridiculous, be I kept silent. Boy, we were going to show we were much faster. But soon I learned better. Making a MOOC is like moving a mountain. We now have a production team of 4, an editorial board of 4, designers and PR people, project managers, staff of the College of Communication and the Graduate School, the IT team with Frank Benneker our MOOC guru, etc. We have internal people on the job, but also some external people, which I think is very healthy for both speed and thoroughness. We have opened registration and plan to start with the course on February 20th. I promise: we will. After attending AI and a Statistics course, I now use the MOOC of Steve Blank on Udacity to coach and train student startups in a flipped classroom setting. The form of flipped classroom works very well, and using other MOOC’s helps to identify the best ways to setup a MOOC. One key component of the power of MOOC’s seems to be the amount of interaction between students, not between students and teacher. So what a MOOC should do, especially with smaller numbers of students, is stimulate the interaction between students. The more MOOCs we get and the fewer students per MOOC, the more important that becomes.
We have decided to see if we can join forces with Coursera, but at the same time develop on Sakai as well. Sakai is an open source environment that is developed by a large group of universities. It has some old fashioned quirks, but also some new developments that make it suitable for a pilot like this one. Besides, it is not yet clear where the American ventures like Coursera, edX, Udacity and others are heading to. What is their business model? What happens to the data of ‘our’ students, how well are their personal data protected the way we Europeans want it? Perhaps it is wise to organize a European platform as well; a little bit of choice for students and some competition would not be harmful. On the other hand it is clear that the largest platform will reach the largest audience and will get the most students. Coursera is growing faster than Facebook and seems to have closed its gates for new universities because of its tremendous growth, at least temporarily. So we are happy to develop on our own platform. The fire is on, other faculties and other universities are interested and want to join the platform and learn from our experiences. The UvA MOOC team is very energetic and dynamic, they know they have something new and exciting and want to make it work. So I feel a little bit guilty to be on the ice and stop now and then to answer mails and keep the speed and spirit up. All goes well. Do I now have different expectations from MOOCs? No, except that it is a lot of work to make one. Strange, why is making a video still so complex and so much work and feels so primitive? Perhaps this is an opportunity for a startup. Some 17.000 people have joined me on the lake, all learning to skate again for the first time this year. It feels like a massive open outdoor course!
Author Bio:Arie K. den Boon (PhD), visiting professor of the Department of Communication Science and organizer of the first MOOC of the University of Amsterdam.