We recently launched Software Design & Architecture, a four-course specialization produced for the University of Alberta delivered through Coursera. We met with Dr. Ken Wong, who is the instructor of record for the Software Design & Architecture specialization and an Associate Professor in the Department of Computing Science, at the University of Alberta. He has been a university instructor for 18 years, regularly teaching team-oriented, project-based software engineering courses, including several offerings of introduction to software engineering, and software process and product management. Dr. Wong has also been been an instructor for the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) Software Product Management Specialization (SPM). Dr. Wong shared with us some insights about teaching online courses, the benefits of Blended MOOCS and his experience working with a production studio to create them.
What are the challenges of teaching online lessons and how do you overcome them?
Big teams are involved in creating high quality online courses, on the content side at the university for the pedagogy and on the production side who produce videos and assets; and because of this, there has to be an underlying design and plan to coordinate all these different tasks. In a traditional classroom that might require only the instructor, with the help of the TA’s (Teaching Assistants) to design and coordinate the material that is delivered to students.
MOOC productions requires more design work and collaboration, working with a professional team like Onlea to produce high quality audio/visual material. That level of production value isn’t something that I or my TA’s can do efficiently.
What are the values you get as an instructor teaching MOOCs that you don’t often get with traditional in-class courses?
I get a very different view of the audience. In the courses I teach on campus, students generally have similar backgrounds. They are either engineering and computing science students, and I have an expectation of what their backgrounds are. However, there could be variations, as some people might have been programming for 10 years, and others may be relatively new. Whereas with a MOOC, or at least for Software Product Management students, their backgrounds are much more varied. A lot of them are already working, looking to advance themselves with a management topic. Each brings a different industrial background to the table. Some of them bring a lot of expertise. Some have software development experience, and others do not. It gives me the chance to learn a lot from students from all over the world.
What is the key to creating a successful MOOC?
The demand for the topic is key. For example, the need for Software Product Management and Software Design & Architecture was determined after market research by Coursera. Software Engineers needed those skills in their professional lives and there was a high student demand for obtaining those skills.
Once there is a demand, we need to make the MOOCs engaging so the students don’t see it like a online textbook, but instead, the content is delivered somewhat like a campus experience where there is engagement and feedback. For example, we have our own course facilitators available online for students taking the course. Also, the students help each other out.
Why do you think some MOOCs fail? Or what are some reasons a MOOC might fail?
When the content is not very practical, or is not kept up-to-date. When taking an online course, a lot of the students are already self-motivated, and they are looking for skills that they can apply in a practical sense.
What you don’t want is where something is taught that leaves people thinking: that is interesting but where do i use it? I don’t think this is always necessary for every MOOC, but this happens for the kind of courses that I teach in computing science. Often students are looking for a skill or qualification, something they can apply at a job or will advance their career.
Do you think MOOCs can be developed for any topic?
It depends on the platform. There are other types of MOOCs where students can compose the content, connect to each other, and form the content themselves. The kinds of courses that are provided on platforms like Coursera, have been generally focused on technical and business subjects. I think MOOCs can work for other topics, but it requires teaching them in a different way.
How do you think MOOCs are going to evolve in the future?
I think there's a possibility of a more sophisticated platform in the future. Something where we learn more about the student, so we can offer different paths through the material depending on their background. We are designing MOOCs that appeal to a broad audience but there can be people that have special needs. If we know this, we can offer a different supplementary material.
Can you tell us about your experience teaching in the Software Design & Architecture (SDA) MOOC and the benefits of blended MOOCs?
I teach a third year course in Introduction to Software Engineering, a large portion of that course is about Software Design such as Design Patterns, Object Oriented Modelling and those are key courses in SDA. The MOOC content could be blended into a campus course. I’m trying to find ways to tighten things up, so instead of me delivering every lecture, I can have students go to the MOOC content so I can use the time in class more effectively, to put into practice something that was explained in the MOOC.
The intent is to blend-in more material and to see what we can do to support more students taking the campus course. There is a big demand for Software Engineering and Computing courses and to see where we can scale out our own campus courses we can learn from how we do things in a MOOC.
These types of blended courses for campus students also provide a different way for them to learn. Sometimes there can be students that might not follow what is being said in class. Maybe there is a language barrier for example, but they can understand what was said in a video. They can go back to the video and play it back as many times as they need. They also can read the video transcripts and course notes for the lesson as well. Different people learn in different ways. By blending in the online course content into the class, it might make it easier for certain students to learn.
What do you like the most about working with a production team like Onlea? And what benefits did you see working with Onlea?
The role I play at the university is often as an educator; educating students in classroom, educating Teaching Assistants to help students, and educating graduate students with research. When I work with a studio like Onlea, I’m working with professionals where I don’t have to play the educator role with them. It relieves me that I can focus on the pedagogical content that is to be delivered. The roles are kind of reversed. Onlea has taught us so much about how to present on camera, how to be clear and deliberate, and how to properly deliver audio and visual content. It isn’t the same experience teaching in a classroom when you are in front of a camera.
Do you have any other thoughts that you want to share about creating MOOCS?
It is a big effort, a lot of people might say, “How do we do it?” People might not understand how much work is required in creating a MOOC. These kind of MOOCs are much more professional with very high production values. They are recorded in studio, require scripts, and need to be planned as there are a lot of moving pieces that requires collaborative work.
It’s a big task in coordinating all of that. When teaching and developing a MOOC I think it is very similar to software development. Some strategies that we use for creating software we also use for creating MOOCs.
Do you have any advice for people who want to produce or teach a MOOC for the first time?
Have an open channel of communication: If you are working with a studio this is very important because you have two different teams. One in the university and one at the studio. Having a flat form of collaboration and communication with your teams is also important, it allows to make decisions more quickly and to move faster.
Be flexible in your plans: Although you have your work planned, you need to be ready and willing to change something. You need to find ways to adjust, for example, after beta testing with some learners we might get that some material isn't in the right sequence, or a certain week may have too much material to go through. You should be able to be adaptive to make adjustments as appropriate, from all the feedback you receive.