Thursday, 27 February 2014

Perspectives on Dino 101

Last September, the Faculty of Science and the University of Alberta launched Dino 101(dinosaurs!) – our initial foray into the world of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Course). As many of you will know from my previous posts, Dino 101 was to be a high-quality online course that would be offered for free to anyone in the world (credit towards a university degree required a fee). Now that the first offering of the course is complete, it is time to look back at what was accomplished and the lessons learned.

The course took almost a year to design, build and deliver and was the result of the efforts of close to 40 people in the Faculties of Science, Arts, and Education, and the University Digital Strategy group. Over 23,000 students around the world took the course including 400 University of Alberta students (for bureaucratic reasons, we had to have a cap of the number taking it for credit). Feedback on the course was overwhelmingly positive. From start to finish, Dino 101 was a memorable experience for all those involved with it.

From the beginning, we knew we could produce the best course in this domain – with our international strengths in paleontology and local expertise in educational design, assessment, and in building a rich interactive digital learning environment. As a result, we did several things that were well received, including some that go beyond what can be done in the traditional classroom:
  • We had a talented graduate student deliver most of the course material (Betsy Kruk). She served as an aspirational surrogate for the course’s sage, Dr. Phil Currie. Our intuition was that students would better relate to a presentation by one of their generation, and the feedback seems to bear this out. Of course, Dino 101 was Phil’s course and he oversaw all the content and did some of the presentations.
Dr. Phil Currie and Betsy Kruk.
  • On-location shooting at dinosaur digs in Alberta – including the bone bed in Edmonton and at the World Heritage site of Dinosaur Provincial Park and the superb Royal Tyrrell Museum.
  • Engaging interactive software applications. Interactivity is critical for keeping learners engaged.
3D Fossil Viewer (using real scans of bones in the University collections).
  • Original artwork was created specially for the course (created by Jan Sovak, internationally renowned paleo-artist).
  • Created the idea of “credit by proxy” to allow non-University of Alberta students to earn the equivalent of a University credit.
  • Built an effective online testing tool, critical for us to evaluate the learning performance of the thousands of course participants. No one wanted to do manual marking for 23,000 students!

The University's new testing tool.
From my point of view, many things were accomplished by the course offering. Some of them include:
  •  Produced an excellent and novel science course, as judged by the students taking it. The student feedback was gratifying.
  •  Enhanced the international reputation of our acclaimed paleontology group and opened the program to the world – allowing people to experience science and ancient life in a rich and open learning environment
  • Showcased the research and teaching excellence of the Faculty of Science.
  • Received provincial, national and international media attention (e.g., BBC News, Huffington Post, and National Geographic).
  • Raised our academic profile. Over 50% of the students taking the course had not heard of the University of Alberta before.
  • Marketed the course in novel ways (at least for MOOCs), finding interesting and fun ways to exploit the power of digital platforms and social media.
  • I hope that for some people, we created or re-enforced their passion for paleontology/science/learning and that this course will impact their future educational and career choices.

Some of the lessons learned were difficult. First, we discovered just how much work is involved in producing a high-quality MOOC. Yes, we learned a lot and can use this experience to streamline the development processes for our next MOOC. It doesn’t change the fact that a high-quality MOOC is expensive and requires a large team of talented people to bring a course to delivery.

Second, it took a while but we eventually “learned” the formula for a successful MOOC. The following picture, created by Jennifer Chesney, Associate Vice-President, University Digital Strategy, shows that the academic side (pedagogy) is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. It is all the other things (below the water line) that add up to produce a high-quality MOOC. Nothing happens without a topic that has universal appeal (market value), the credibility to talk about it (international reputation), and the passion of the instructional and production teams to do something extraordinary.

The formula for creating a high-quality MOOC.
Finally, we uncovered several challenging aspects of  University of Alberta administrative policies. The University has rules/guidelines that were right at the time they were adopted, but have not evolved to accommodate the new reality of massive online courses. Hopefully, these bureaucratic obstacles can be quickly removed.

In January, we launched our second instance of Dino 101. The material was further streamlined and enhanced (including adding in Phil Currie’s discovery of a rare baby dinosaur. Going forward, we plan to offer the course once annually, probably in September.

I am very proud of what has been accomplished with Dino 101. The Faculty of Science and the University of Alberta are on the frontier of a new age in teaching and disseminating science.  The project represented the strong collaborative efforts of a great team of people, representative of our entire campus, who did amazing things.

What’s next? We are currently filming a second MOOC, part of a joint effort in the Faculties of Arts and Science. Two others are in the planning stage. All of them will be every bit as good as Dino 101. In addition, we are analyzing the data gathered from Dino 101 and will turn the insights gleaned from the course into research papers and into recommendations for better practices going forward.

Many people doubt that MOOCs are the future. However, the momentum towards putting more course material online and freely available is unstoppable. There is no turning back. We do not know how this will play out, but the University of Alberta needs to be a leader in inventing the future of online teaching.

1 comment:

  1. I greatly enjoyed the Dino 101 class. I have a degree in geology from Univ of Tenn/Knoxville, and can assure you that this class was much more fun than the palaeontology course I took back in the 1970's.