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Online Video Disrupts Higher Ed, Streaming Courses to the Masses

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Let’s say you want to learn about database design or dive deeply into classic English literature, but you’re not ready to enroll in a full-time degree program. You could take classes at a community college or sign up for any number of distance learning courses. Just be ready to shell out several hundred, or thousand, dollars for each class.

Because of the growth in online educational video, autodidacts can surf iTunes and YouTube for thousands of free course lectures uploaded by top colleges and universities. But don’t expect any quizzes, grades, or feedback from the instructor.

But things are changing. In just the last 2 years, a new type of online course has emerged. It is creating a disruptive buzz in higher education and invigorating educational online video. Tens of thousands of students from around the world are taking classes from some of the most prestigious universities in North America, and they’re not paying a dime to do it. This is the world of the massive open online course, better known as a MOOC.

The modern MOOC was born in fall 2011 when Stanford University offered an open-enrollment class in artificial intelligence taught by professors Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig that drew 160,000 students. In this class, students watched video lectures designed for the course. But unlike previous free, open courseware, students proceeded through the course together as a cohort, just like a traditional classroom or online class. They also completed assignments that were machine graded and had their progress in the course tracked through to completion.

Buoyed by the massive success of this first MOOC, in February 2012 Thrun launched the start-up Udacity, Inc., funded by venture capital, to offer more open courses.

Launched in 2012 by Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun, Udacity offers MOOCs to students across the world, primarily in science, technology, and math. 

Coursera, also founded by Stanford faculty and funded by venture capital, launched in April 2012, partnering directly with institutions such as Princeton University and the University of Michigan to provide open courses and the faculty to teach them. That same month the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University joined together their MITx and HarvardX online initiatives to create the not-for-profit edX to offer their own MOOCs, striking partnerships with schools such as the University of Texas–Austin and the University of California–Berkeley.

A joint venture by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the not-for-profit EdX has formed partnerships with schools such as University of Texas and University of California–Berkeley to offer 63 courses. 

Video at the Core

Visit the websites of these three learning platforms and you will find an extensive list of course offerings on topics as disparate as science and cooking, parallel programming, and international criminal law. Click on each course’s homepage and you’ll be greeted by an introduction video, hosted by the instructor.

“These videos are a peek into the course,” says Pang Wei Koh, head of course operations at Coursera. “The philosophy behind these videos is to give the student some understanding of what the course will cover while getting them geared-up and excited for the course.”

According to Koh, “Video is very important to a Coursera course, being the primary vehicle for teaching class content for virtually all of our classes. Videos allow us to establish a visual connection between the professor and her students.” It also serves as a reminder to students that “their teacher is a real person rather than someone hidden behind text or images.” Indeed, video is central to virtually all MOOCs, a fact that is stimulating a sudden surge of interest in educational video on university campuses.

Marlon Kuzmick is associate director of the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning at Harvard, and he is the coordinator of the HarvardX Community of Video Practice. He says, “Thus far, video has been an integral part of each [Harvard EdX] course.”

Driving Interest and Innovation

Universities such as MIT have been putting full-length class lecture videos on the internet for nearly a decade, mostly captured in on-the-ground class meetings. MOOCs, on the other hand, are driving the production of content designed specifically for the online environment.

“Unlike lectures in a typical college classroom, we encourage faculty to keep these (MOOC) video lectures to 15 minutes or less,” says Elizabeth A. Evans, production lead for the Duke Digital Initiative (DDI) at Duke University, a Coursera partner. “The MOOC videos are designed to be short,” she explains, “not just extracts from a longer lecture.”

Evans emphasizes that “Coursera’s technical requirements for video are pretty high, so it seems to work best to create from scratch,” rather than repurpose existing lecture videos.

At the University of Illinois–Urbana-Champaign (also affiliated with Coursera), digital media coordinator Colleen Cook says, “We work with faculty to have a whole concept in a video. There’s a start, middle, and end.” Working at the university’s Online & Continuing Education program, Cook produced media for one of the university’s first MOOC courses. Focused on the topic of environmental sustainability, Cook and her team shot at different locations to illustrate the course’s topic each week. “One week we were in front of a coal power plant wearing hard hats for the week on energy,” she says. “The next we were in the prairie -- which is unique to our local landscape -- for a week on water resources and crops.”

In addition to English captions for hearing- impaired students, some MOOCs, such as this one from the University of Illinois, offer translations for non-English-speaking students.

Koh says that Coursera course videos take many other forms, “from picture-in-picture ‘talking heads’ accompanied by PowerPoint slides, to filmed classroom recordings, to round-table group discussions among the teaching staff ... to short films that form the basis of discussion in the class.”

At the University of California–Berkeley, production services manager Benjamin Hubbard says one faculty member took a unique approach with his in-class instruction to make it also work for the edX version. “[H]e refactored all of his lectures into 10 minute segments and recorded 5 to 6 segments per class period,” he says. Hubbard observes that “capturing content in the classroom for your online course means that you only have to present your materials once. This is a significant time-saver for faculty.”

According to Kuzmick, “[W]e are still shooting brick and mortar teaching in classrooms, museums and other Harvard spaces when we feel there is something irreplaceable about whatever it is that’s happening in the physical space.” This might include live performances, an artwork or artifact in a museum or “a spontaneous bit of dialogue between teacher and student that brings a new reading of a Dickinson poem in to the world for a first time.”

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