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Virtual Reality

Lessons that a professor learned teaching an online course enhance the classroom experience

by Sandy Smith | Features, Winter 2013 | Comments | Print Print |
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David Owens taught 52,000 students in a massive open online course—and it changed how he reaches students in the Vanderbilt classroom.

When David Owens set out to teach a massive open online course (MOOC) with 52,000 registrants across the globe, he knew he was charting new territory. What he didn’t know was that the territory would also include his classes right here at Owen.

Owens, professor of the practice of management and innovation, was one of four professors asked to pioneer Vanderbilt’s participation in Coursera, an online learning platform through which higher education institutions offer MOOCs. Students take the equivalent of a university-level class for free but do not receive credit.

He taught the Coursera class in spring 2013. The class, which will be offered again in 2014, aligns closely with the professor’s Mod 2 Innovation Strategy class as well as his book, Creative People Must Be Stopped.

Owens, who is also faculty director of the Accelerator— Vanderbilt Summer Business Institute, says that what he learned in teaching 52,000 students online has changed how he teaches his in-person Vanderbilt class of 67 students.

Not the usual MOOC

On the surface, the methods of teaching a MOOC are simple. Prepare slides to be the visuals and then digitally record lectures to be viewed online by MOOC participants on their own time. Class interaction happens in online forums. The number of students and their geographic locations vary.

Owens started by trying the basic MOOC tack—recording his lectures, both in class and in a makeshift studio—but found that boring. So the professor of innovation found his own way of improving the online course.

“I went with more high-quality production. It made more work, but made it more interesting and fun,” he says. “It was all-consuming.”

And that was just the creation of the video lectures, which he then edited, incorporating music and slides; a teaching assistant created original artwork. Since Coursera is a for-profit company, the same copyright laws that allow fair use of creative works in the classroom did not apply.

After each Coursera lecture posted, he and teaching assistants would participate in forums with the students. “Every time I went into the forums, I’d see something and go, ‘Wow that’s interesting.’”

Project work was another area in which Owens veered from usual MOOC practice. The Coursera students were offered two options. The first was to view the lectures, participate in forums and take quizzes to receive a certificate. But those who completed an additional project received a certificate with distinction. The tiered certificate—Owens’ idea—was a first for Coursera. About 1,000 students completed the project.

The classroom profits

Understanding how online students applied the course material and built upon insights shared in the forums led Owens to make a change in his MBA classes.

For his on-campus fall Mod 2 course, he assigned students to view his video lectures outside of class. They also read material and took quizzes online. Class time was devoted to working on projects.

“I can tend to projects—which is more my stronger skill—during class time rather than trying to fit them in between classes,” he says. Students benefit from the focused classroom time to work on projects.

Based on the success of the Coursera students’ projects, Owens has also raised his expectations for what Vanderbilt MBA students can accomplish.

Owens says that the Coursera students who chose to do extra work ended up doing amazing projects. “It makes me believe that I’m not challenging students enough. We’ll push ourselves to do more complex projects,” he says. “On the other hand, the goal of the project is the application of the material. It was interesting to see that the problems people in China were having were the same as in the U.S. People in Tierra del Fuego have the same issues of pushing projects ahead. In that way, it was reassuring.”

“I can tend to projects—which is more my stronger skill—during class time rather than trying to fit them in between classes”—David Owens

The international cooperation carried out in the Coursera program has led to another requirement for Vanderbilt MBA students: Each project team now includes at least one international student. Owens says this allows students to “work on the skill of being able to bring people to your problem or issue and getting them committed to it.”

Powerful online discussion

He’s also gained a new appreciation for the power of discussion boards; he had used them previously at Owen but without success. “I’d use one, and two people would post, so I’d stop it. In the online course, all the action was there,” he says. “I saw that it can be powerful if I enforce the use of it, build etiquette around it and tend to it myself.”

Requiring students to participate in the forums is better than inviting them into the classroom discussion, Owens believes.

Students' creativity exercise

Donning blindfolds and being led by partners around campus encouraged Owens’ Innovation Strategy students to think differently. Using the Coursera model of having students review lectures outside class allows Owens to teach more dynamically.

“Requiring people to post and respond to posts, you can’t hide. I may cold-call a student in class once, and if I see I have made a horrible mistake, I tend to not do that again because of the emotional effect it will have on the class,” he says. Some students are shy, haven’t read the material or are in a bad mood, he says. “In the online forums, when they feel like doing it, they can.”

Owens also believes teaching through Coursera has transformed his lectures forever.

“I’m more careful and aware that there is a lot of power in the slides. If I do a lot of slides, any one slide is a throwaway. But through Coursera, I had to look at every slide to make sure that there was nothing copyrighted and knowing that thousands of people would be looking at it,” he says. “Now I’m aware of the power in that, and in the image, and that I can use it very powerfully or very poorly.

“I think more about using video and audio in class,” he says. “Those are things that help bring classes alive.” ■

photo credit: Joe Howell

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