Saving Universities in the Era of MOOCs Part II: Supporting Educators to Support Students

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Steampunk Mech (Photo credit: Bricknave)

In the previous post, Saving Universities in the Era of MOOCs, I discuss the value proposition of traditional universities, and how those values are changing as massive, free online courses gain traction in higher education. This post will examine our traditional assumption that classrooms are made up of one teacher and 30 students, and offer an alternative vision for how we can free our teachers to interact more deeply with students to promote critical thinking.


In every school I’ve seen, teachers who want to incorporate multimedia learning objects into their courses have no choice but to produce those materials themselves. Teachers who want to offer interactive group activities must plan and orchestrate those activities themselves. Teachers who want to explore open education resources must locate, evaluate, and plan with those materials themselves. Teachers who want to implement frequent assessment and analytics must put such a plan in place… themselves! As teaching techniques grow more complex and the needs of students grow ever greater, we should stop and ask ourselves if “one teacher alone in a room with 30 students” is still the right way to support student learning in the 21st Century.


In a recent study of higher ed. STEM teachers, 63% said they make use of “extensive lecturing”. It seems strange that so many teachers today still fall back upon lecturing even though it’s widely known that this approach is less effective than interactive methods. I believe the old paradigm of “one teacher to thirty students” works best when the solitary teacher can monologue to a large, silent room of students scribbling notes. Massive open online courses have challenged the notion that this is the only way to organize classrooms by throwing open the virtual classroom doors to thousands of students at a time.

While universities are mostly staffed with faculty, the big xMOOC providers are splitting their workforce up to reflect the different needs of online learners.

Udacity has 30 employees, split evenly between instructors, engineers and video producers.  [CNet]

While I think this approach isn’t for all students, it also serves as a challenge to examine how we can get maximum benefits from the tools of MOOCs. I think focused video lectures are great, especially when they’re just one part of a multimodal course design which also features high levels of interaction between students, faculty, and the LMS itself, frequent outcomes-aligned assessment, and coaching towards mastery.


But there’s the rub– can one teacher do all this work at a high level? I propose that each teacher should be one part of a four-person team, with each team member focusing expertly on the different skills it takes to produce excellent learning experiences.

A content expert, focused on creating and curating high quality educational materials and assessing proficiency in course objectives. Many higher ed. instructors are content experts first and educators second– people whose education has focused on the core content skills. Currently we expect each content expert to also master the tools of pedagogy, multimedia production, and interpersonal expert. What if this person was freed up to create rigorous online exams, write world-class lectures, and assess student mastery of achievement according to professional outcomes? Pairing this person’s valuable expertise with a solid support staff can help them (and their students) capitalize on their strengths.
An instructional designer, fluent in the tools of online learning and trained in effective instructional techniques. This person helps the content expert turn content into robust learning activities that are designed to promote higher order thinking skills, assess stated outcomes, and promote interaction. This person’s mastery of education pedagogy is matched by an understanding of which tools in the LMS are best suited for achieving specific objectives. This person collects and compares data on student achievement over multiple terms, comparing the effectiveness of a given learning approach on student achievement and recommending changes. This person can also help translate faculty’s content-dense learning materials into more engaging and attractive online experiences.
A multimedia producer, whose time and energy is focused on producing appealing videos, audio, and animated learning objects that can be reused, remixed, and shared across the university or the wider world. When teachers have to do this part of the job themselves, often the results feature garbled audio, ineffective visuals, and poor pacing due to the lack of editing. In fact, many faculty are so intimidated by the many technical details of producing multimedia that they avoid it altogether. I recently took the “Think Again: How to Reason and Argue” course and was pleased to find a full set of expertly produced videos which added clarity and appeal to the lectures. MOOC providers are investing in the “lights, camera, action” side of online learning, capturing lectures by academic luminaries using Hollywood-quality TV production techniques.  Even with the democratization of production technology, using these tools masterfully takes time and specialized knowledge and could/should be a job of its own.
An interpersonal expert, with excellent communication and mediation skills to promote interaction between students and faculty and to play the role of the “caring demander” in online learning activities. This person ensures that the course is personalized to students and bears the psychic load of staying emotionally invested in students’ success– even when it involves challenging meetings or explaining content multiple ways. In massive online courses, this person could also resemble a community manager– a social web-era job title responsible for keeping online communities productive, positive, and enjoyable places to be. Beyond the confines of a single course, this person could help students and faculty from throughout the university form communities around common areas of interest and promote interaction between disciplines.

I believe that more courses should feature all of these diverse skills– even if it means that it takes more than one person to deliver them all.  Ideally, this approach might make it possible to cost-effectively provide a higher level of service to a greater number of students by combining the strengths of the technology with the power of caring teachers. As the team generates re-usable learning materials that can endure into the following terms, the value of this approach will continue to pay for itself. Even if it only improved outcomes for the same number of students at the same cost, it would be an unqualified win all the same.

If your school currently has a teacher to student ratio of 1:30, ask yourself if you could combine four classes together so that each teacher could play one of these roles for a group of 120 students?


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Written by

Ted Curran is a Learning Experience Designer/Developer for Autodesk. He is committed to empowering educators and learners to create transformational change through effective pedagogy and technology integration. You can follow Ted on Mastodon, LinkedIn or learn more at my 'About" page. These thoughts are my own.

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2 Responses

  1. December 17, 2013

    […] “This blog post originally appeared on” […]

  2. October 28, 2016

    […] tuned for Part II of this post where I will discuss how we can use existing online course tools in the context of face-to-face […]


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