Penn State’s early MOOC faculty share lessons from their classes

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Faculty who taught Penn State’s initial round of MOOCs, or massive online open courses, say their experiences will influence how they teach their regular classes.

The five MOOCs offered by Penn State have attracted more than 300,000 enrollments so far.

“I was overwhelmed by the level of engagement,” said Anthony Robinson, whose course Maps and the Geospatial Revolution drew more than 48,000 students. “I was blown away by the extent that people got into the details, went out and tried to help each other, and created these wonderful discussion threads.”

Almost 70,000 students enrolled in Introduction to Art: Concepts & Techniques, creating some 14,300 original works of art. Anna Divinsky, lead faculty member of Penn State’s Digital Arts Certificate Program, said as a result of the experience she will now add discussion forums to her non-MOOC classes. “I can see how important it is to have an ongoing discussion with the students as a group, not just on an individual basis,” she said.

Robinson and Divinsky’s courses were among five initial offerings resulting from Penn State’s partnership with the MOOC platform Coursera. The other courses are Creativity, Innovation and Change, which began Sept. 1, Epidemics: the Dynamics of Infectious Diseases, which begins Oct. 15, and Energy, the Environment and Our Future, which starts in January.

Surveys and online assessments taken by tens of thousands of participating students have produced an unprecedented set of data about online learners. “The volume of participation opens the door for tremendous research and evaluation opportunities,” said Craig Weidemann, vice president for outreach and vice provost for online education at Penn State.

The free courses have spurred an increase in requests for information and applications for Penn State’s online World Campus, one way that Penn State hopes to leverage MOOCs. The University, which has been a leader in online learning since World Campus opened in 1998, also hopes to use MOOCs to showcase faculty and university expertise, test teaching strategies and delivery models, and engage with international students.

Robinson, who is lead faculty for online geospatial education and assistant director for the GeoVISTA Research Center for Penn State’s Department of Geography, said he was inspired by the hundreds of study groups for his course that sprang up on and off the discussion forums, across the United States and abroad. There were study groups for Chinese and Russian speakers, and even one group that met in person in Cambodia, he said.

While the common wisdom is that professors can’t interact with individual students in MOOCs because of the sheer numbers, “I sort of took that on as a challenge,” said Robinson. “I know what makes our online classes at Penn State good — it’s the level to which we engage our students.”

Robinson spent several hours on the class discussion forums each day during the five-week course and ended up posting to students almost 1,000 times. “It’s hard not to be motivated as a teacher when you see so many people who are just craving more of this stuff,” he said.

Robinson said he also had valuable interactions with students on social media outside of the official forums and expects to incorporate that into his other classes. “We can’t expect students to always be logged into our class — but they probably have Twitter or Facebook open on their phone.”

For more information on Penn State’s MOOC offerings, visit

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Last Updated October 03, 2013