Teaching and Learning: Massive Open Online Courses

  • Stephen R. Thomas
  • Assistant Professor
  • Department of Zoology
  • College of Natural Science
  • Associate Director
  • Center for Integrative Studies in General Science
Foundations of Science curricular materials

Technology affects life today in many, often unpredictable, ways. One revolutionary change in education involves a new type of learning offered on the Internet. Known since 2008 as MOOCs, Massive Open Online Courses are free classes with subject matter taught by faculty from institutions ranging from Ivy League to community college. Because classes are offered on the web, they can attract a vast range of participants from around the world and from diverse education levels, ages, and ethnicities.

Stephen Thomas sees MOOCs as a rare opportunity to make education more accessible to more people, in much the same way a museum exhibit offers information compiled in a structured format that is available for anyone to learn about and understand.

Dr. Thomas believes that online learning can reach those who have had few educational choices, and make a significant difference in educating nontraditional classroom learners such as those with autism. His effort to utilize educational tools to their greatest effect for more members of society involves exploring curriculum development, creativity, and connections with communities that embrace and promote an egalitarian approach to education.

Teaching science to non-scientists is another goal for Thomas. He discovered that "soft" introductions to weekly topics, such as hand drawn comics that depict topical concepts, worked well, particularly for those students who expressed anxiety about the complex nature of the subject material. He also found that posting a series of images with explanations on a YouTube channel under Evolartist was both well received and effective. One of his courses won an AT&T/MSU award for best online class, as well as the James D. Hoeschele Endowed Teaching Award for excellence in teaching science to non-science majors.

Creating an Online Science Curriculum

Thomas's research focuses on the role instructional technologies play in engaging students, and he designs course curriculum to challenge critical thinking skills and promote active participation. One of his most recent accomplishments involved designing, implementing, and evaluating an online course funded with a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Foundations of Science development team at work

The primary focus for Thomas and colleague Julie Libarkin, geological sciences associate professor and co-PI on the grant, was to create a science curriculum for a far-reaching audience that included learners with varying skill levels in technology and education. The Gates Foundation supported the project, in part because of the potential for MOOCs to dramatically change international education, broadening the ability of teachers to reach remote or inaccessible populations. The current challenge is to conduct enough MOOCs to analyze successes and challenges, and ultimately create a template for successful MOOCs that can serve as a starting point for Internet- and other forms of technology-based education.

The course, Foundations of Science, proved to be "a crazy experience in all ways," according to Thomas. "One of the biggest misconceptions is that you don't have to do much if you participate in online learning. It is not passive. It is interactive and dynamic, and requires significant effort on the part of students, instructors, and a team behind the scenes," he said.

Ryan Yang, assistant director of the Learning Design and Technology Center at MSU, mirrors this attitude about the need for teamwork: "Working on the Foundations of Science MOOC gave our team an opportunity to design an effective course for a large audience. The peer-learning exercises and assessments for digital badging that we developed with Dr. Thomas may benefit future MOOCs and large online courses at MSU."

Building a Collaborative Team


Thomas and Libarkin had a short production timeline and moved quickly to hire graduate students to help develop the course. After combing through the applications of many qualified candidates, they hired 23 students to assist with curriculum development, instruction oversight, and evaluating participant performance. They paired student groups with faculty teams to improve critical thinking in the MOOC curriculum and to develop a supplemental "how to teach an online course" session for the graduate students.

In addition to the graduate students and the Gates Foundation, partners included Matt Rowe and Marcus Gillespie of Sam Houston State University as well as internal partners: MSU Global; Desire2Learn; LearnDAT (MSU's online instructional design team); College of Arts and Letters; Adan Quan, Anthropology; Carmen McCallum, Center for Integrative Studies in General Science; and librarians from MSU Libraries.

Creating Original Content

Thomas put substantial effort into creating original images and building original content because of copyright issues involved with online learning. He hired an artist to generate some of the images and now regards the creative process as an essential part of planning and budgeting for future MOOCs.

"We tried to have fun with the material but also be robust in the amount of information conveyed. The key messages still have to come across, and the only way to do that is to cover a tremendous amount of material. The expertise is in presenting a great deal of information and having students pick it up without thinking that it is painfully boring or complicated," said Thomas, adding that "MOOCs present a unique situation because you are working with everyone from retirees to home schoolers, and they can be anywhere around the globe."

The registration for Foundations of Science included 1,250 participants from 37 countries and 37 US states. The attrition rate was 90 percent, in line with the emerging statistics for those who complete free online courses.

Securing Institutional Support

Offering MOOCs requires substantial institutional support. Thomas stressed the importance of buy-in from the dean, department chair, IT staff, communications and marketing staff, administrative support staff, and faculty colleagues. "Preparing for a MOOC takes coordination up and down the ladder, and everyone has to do their part for things to run smoothly," he said. "There is definitely more involved, and everyone needs to work together."

Strengthening MOOCs Through Community Connections

One of the key insights for Thomas came when the Foundations of Science MOOC was nearing completion. "It is clear that building relationships with community partners will lead to greater success for educators who design MOOCs and the participants who sign upfor these courses," said Thomas. He pointed to forming connections with nursing homes, libraries, home school associations, prison education programs, faith-based groups, nonprofits, and a host of other organizations that could work with MOOC administrators to better address community needs and spread the word about course offerings that benefit both those seeking education and those looking to employ a more educated workforce.

"These are virtual classrooms, and students benefit from creating a sense of community and engaging each other. The technology opens a new frontier, and I'm working to create some of the best methods for those who may not have yet had a chance to access education in a way that is now possible," said Thomas.

  • Written by Carla Hills, University Outreach and Engagement

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