Why Rice University’s Massive Open Online Courses Are Attracting Attention and Scrutiny

This year, faculty at Rice will teach almost two dozen free online courses to thousands of students and teachers around the world as part of a movement to make higher education more accessible. What's in it for Rice students in Houston and beyond?

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Rice computer scientists (from left) Stephen Wong, Scott Rixner, John Greiner and Joe Warren are the team behind Rice's first massive open online course, or MOOC.

The modest video features two men sitting side by side in a sparsely furnished office, speaking directly into a webcam. The bespectacled one on the right wears a button-down blue shirt and tie and speaks first. “Hi, I’m Scott Rixner.” The bearded one on the left wears a striped purple polo shirt. “And I’m Joe Warren. Scott and I are professors in the Department of Computer Science here at Rice University. With the help of Stephen Wong and John Greiner, we are proud to offer an exciting new course designed for Coursera.”

The course, “An Introduction to Interactive Programming in Python,” teaches the simple-to-learn, high-level language used in many introductory computer classes at Rice. Warren explains that the two developed a new browser-based environment called CodeSkulptor to make programming applications easier, and Rixner adds that students will learn by building fun games, such as “Pong,” “Blackjack” and “Asteroids.” “We can’t promise that you’ll be a professional programmer,” he said with a boyish grin, “but you’ll definitely know enough to be dangerous!”

With this charmingly nerdy video, Rice launched itself into the technologically sophisticated and rapidly evolving world of MOOCs last year. They reached more students (80,000) with one course than have ever attended a class at Rice in more than 100 years. A MOOC is a faculty-taught course made available to students worldwide (massive) via the Internet (online) for free or at a minimal cost (open). While the concept of distance education is nothing new — motivated learners have long turned to radio, television and closed-circuit video networks for access to education — MOOCs leverage today’s technology to broadcast courses to audiences undreamed of in the era of extended education. Such courses harness video technology, online textbooks, student chat rooms or forums, virtual labs and other new software applications to facilitate learning.

This new brand of online education is the subject not only of intense debate about teaching, learning and campus resources, but also of entrepreneurial invention and capital investment. Proponents say MOOCs will democratize knowledge; critics say MOOCs will dilute scholarship or undermine the traditional classroom learning environment. Some see a revolution in personalized learning, while others see a new revenue stream.*

What do the Rice guys in the video see? Something that has changed the way they think about and practice the art of teaching. “I will never ‘lecture’ in a classroom again,” said Rixner, during a talk last December about what he learned by teaching his first MOOC. “This is how I will teach in the future, whether I’m teaching for 80,000 people online or 20 people in a Rice classroom.” If that sounds counterintuitive for a faculty member at a university like Rice — with its 6-to-1 student-to-faculty ratio, median class size of 15, wealth of undergraduate research and distinctive residential college system — read on. 

The Rise of the MOOC
To trace the rapid rise of MOOCs in higher education’s discourse, we need to page through only a few years of history. A legacy of the open-source software movement of the 1980s, MOOC is an acronym coined by Canadian educators as recently as 2008. The term breached the public’s consciousness only in the past couple of years, after some university-level experiments in placing courses online resulted in then-unheard of enrollment numbers.

In 2011, for example, more than 58,000 people enrolled in Stanford’s “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” online course, which was taught by two superstars in the field, Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig. In The New York Times, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) computer scientist commented on Stanford’s megaclass, saying “… we will see lots and lots of models over the next four or five years.” That statement turned out to be prescient.

These early experiences, along with the success of online educational nonprofits like the Khan Academy, inspired the founding of two ventures, Coursera and Udacity. Coursera, which launched in spring 2012 with four university partners — Stanford University, Princeton University, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Michigan — has signed up more than 100 universities and other organizations to provide free, online education around the world. Udacity functions more like an online university with courses that can be taken either for free or for a fee that guarantees college credit. MIT and Harvard University also formed the nonprofit edX. Much like Coursera, edX acts as a hub or consortium for its member universities, which include many international schools. These MOOC providers created sophisticated platforms for course delivery and began forming partnerships with universities to access course content.

It seems like not a week goes by without a major news article about the growing phenomenon of MOOCs. The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed, as well as The New York Times, have put together special online sections to keep administrators, faculty and the public informed. David Brooks has weighed in. So has Thomas Friedman — more than once. MOOCs are here, and Rice is actively engaged in both conversation and experimentation to figure out what this means for teaching here and afar. 

A Pioneering Year
Rice became an early adopter by piloting a handful of courses beginning in fall 2012, after signing an agreement with Coursera. The provost’s office recruited volunteers willing to quickly translate a classroom learning environment to an online one — in other words, to be Rice’s MOOC pioneers. In addition to Rixner and Warren’s team, three other professors answered the call: Dean of Undergraduates John Hutchinson; Don Johnson, the J.S. Abercrombie Professor Emeritus of Electrical and Computer Engineering and professor of statistics; and Vicki Colvin, the Kenneth S. Pitzer-Schlumberger Professor of Chemistry, vice provost for research and professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering. 

These faculty members quickly found themselves at the bottom of a steep learning curve in online teaching and technology. For many, preparing short, instructional, tailored-to-their-course videos was time-consuming. “It is much more difficult to make an effective 10-minute video than it is to prepare for a 50-minute lecture,” Rixner said. One week, Rixner tracked 75 hours on the project, and Warren logged another 83. What compelled these faculty to spend entire summer vacations — Johnson invested 600 hours in his first electrical engineering MOOC — learning new technology for an untested educational platform?

For Johnson, who taught “Fundamentals of Electrical Engineering,” the answer points to a love of both teaching and problem-solving. “It sounded fun and hadn’t been done before,” he said. Another selling point was that the course’s textbook — which he authored — was already online via Rice’s popular open-education repository, Connexions. “I do all of this as an experiment,” Johnson said. “Unless we’re participating, we won’t appreciate or figure out what its drawbacks are, figure out what’s good, what’s bad. More than 35,000 students registered for the rigorous course, and about 5,000 of these watched the videos. Approximately 500 worked the problem sets, and 100 took the final exam.

Johnson is now busy working on a sequel. “It’s the hands-on lab part of the course at Rice,” he said, while demonstrating for a visitor to his Abercrombie Engineering Laboratory office how he records video lessons. How can hands-on take place online? Turns out there is software that mimics a few of electrical engineering’s standard test instruments, such as the oscilloscope. “There are all kinds of issues to work out with forming virtual lab groups,” said Johnson, who seemed not at all deterred by the challenge.  

Last summer, Colvin taught an eight-week course called “Analytical Chemistry/ Instrumental Analysis” that covered about half a semester of material. “If chemistry is the science of stuff, then analytical chemistry answers the question: What is it?” she wrote in the course description. Colvin designed the course specifically for chemistry students working toward their degree — but her audience turned out to be much broader than she anticipated. “It was just an incredibly diverse audience, everything from a 14-year-old to professional Ph.D. statisticians,” Colvin said. “That makes it really hard to teach. Part of being an effective communicator is to know your audience.”

In addition to the unexpectedly diverse audience, Colvin identified another challenge. “That’s the idea of keeping people’s attention,” she said. In a voluntary setting versus a Rice classroom, Colvin had to design her lessons to “grab someone’s attention and hold it for eight weeks.” She sees that this attitude will improve her teaching in the traditional classroom format. Colvin will have an opportunity to gain more MOOC experience in her upcoming course, “Nanotechnology: The Basics,” which she is co-teaching with Daniel Mittleman, professor of electrical and computer engineering, this fall.

Hutchinson, a professor of chemistry as well as undergraduate dean, created “Chemistry: Concept Development and Application,” which drew 16,000 registrants of all ages and levels of chemistry knowledge. In the online environment, “people are coming and going like crazy,” he said. “It’s not like an on-campus course with a start and end.” This asynchronous, come-and-go environment inspired Hutchinson to come up with a uniquely personable solution in his course videos.

“The approach I took was to imagine that I was sitting next to students and tutoring one-on-one. So, on the screen, while the lecture’s going on, there’s a slide presentation.” Next to the slide, students “see me solving a problem or working through a line of reasoning.” The app for that? A document camera and an old-fashioned physical notepad that he scribbles on while teaching. “I tried six different formats before settling on that one,” he said.

All faculty have adopted these video lessons for their Rice classes in some version of teaching by “flipping the classroom.” It’s a term Hutchinson hears a lot in higher education circles these days. “In the conventional classes, students show up, take notes, go back to their dorms, sit around tables late at night and have deep discussions trying to understand what they’re learning,” he said. “The class time delivers information. Out-of-class time is used for discussion and synthesis.” The new goal is to use class time for more discussion, problem-solving and interactive learning — not for delivering information that has to be learned later.

“I think what we know a year into this is that our faculty, our very best faculty across departments, are really interested in experimenting with a new teaching tool,” said Caroline Levander, who in a new position as vice provost for interdisciplinary initiatives and digital education is overseeing all of Rice’s digital learning initiatives, including MOOCs.

Growth and Guidelines
Since those first classes were taught via Coursera, Rice has doubled down by joining edX, a nonprofit MOOC platform with a deep commitment to open access. In this case, the term “open” in MOOC not only means “open to anyone,” but perhaps more importantly open for university partners to innovate and to develop — in any way they see fit.

“EdX is developing a set of best practices that will govern how consortium members share information across institutions,” Levander said. Physicist Jason Hafner launched Rice’s first edX course, “Electricity and Magnetism,” in October. Hafner’s course will be followed early next year by two additional Rice courses on edX, “Discrete Time Signals and Systems” taught by Richard Bariniuk, the Victor E. Cameron Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and “Fundamentals of Immunology” taught by Alma Novotny, lecturer in biochemistry and cell biology.

And in June, Rice became the first university to offer continuing education classes for teachers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields, via Coursera. Five professional development courses, each lasting four weeks, are coming from Rice’s Center for Digital Learning and Scholarship with materials from STEMscopes, the center’s online comprehensive science curriculum used by more than a million students in Texas.

“Rice has a strong combination of ongoing discussions about online education that involves all the right people. They might not have all the answers, but at least everyone is aware of what the issues are,” said David Alexander, professor of physics and astronomy.    

When Levander put out a call for new MOOCs to start in the fall of 2013, she received more than 20 proposals. With input from a faculty review panel, a dozen new courses were given a green light. The cohort remains heavily science focused but also includes philosophy and religious studies. Rice has recently hired staff to support the infrastructure of instructional design, including the time-consuming efforts of course design, videotaping, testing and more. Rixner remains a vocal convert. “[It] has forced me into thinking a lot more carefully about what I’m going to teach. It also helped the on-campus experience in that there’s this polished product out there that I can have Rice students use. That left a lot more free time during class to do other things that were more interactive and more one-on-one.”

“It is just really clear our students are going to be benefiting profoundly. Our faculty are having remarkable conversations about teaching and about how we teach,” Levander said. “That’s only good for what we do here. It’s completely enlivening.”

*The term continues to evolve rapidly in 2013, as MOOC providers expand into for-credit, K–12 and professional development offerings.

 Read more about Rice University and online education at www.rice.edu

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