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MOOC Matters: Offering Labs Online

Jun 24, 2013 | Atlanta, GA

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Amelia Pavlik
Institute Communications
404-385-4142

Figuring out how to offer the lab component of a course has been a challenge for faculty members as they develop massive open online courses (MOOCs) — until now.

Georgia Tech’s Introductory Physics MOOC, which launched on May 20, is using video labs to simulate the experience students would typically have in the classroom. This topic has become the focus of one of seven mini innovation hubs that are researching questions related to MOOCs and online learning.  

“In some ways, the video labs provide students and instructors with a better experience than being in a traditional lab,” said Ed Greco, an instructor in the School of Physics and “champion” of the innovation hub that is examining the question of labs in MOOCs. “The videos single students out in a way that forces them to demonstrate their knowledge in a brief period of time, and it’s easier for instructors to hone in on who is getting the material and who isn’t.”  

There are 17,000 students enrolled in the MOOC, 11 of which are a part of a for-credit Georgia Tech version of the course where students have both online and on-campus experiences. (More details on the structure of this MOOC will be featured in a future Whistle article.)

All students are asked to complete five labs as part of the course, which will wrap up the last week of July. Each lab requires students to do the following:

  • Record a moving object (using any device that will take video).
  • Analyze the video using the free video analysis package, Tracker.
  • Create models of motion using computer programs written in Python/VPython.
  • Compare the observations to the models.
  • Create a five-minute video lab report.
  • Upload the video to YouTube.

Videos are then graded by fellow classmates based on a six-item rubric that includes questions such as “Does the author state the problem and show a result?” and “Is the video easy to follow?”

But, there have been a few challenges when it comes to the labs. For example, many of the students enrolled in the course live in countries that ban YouTube.

“Students living in places like Pakistan and China where they don’t have access to YouTube have been pretty frustrated with the lack of an alternative,” said Mike Schatz, the professor leading the MOOC. “So we’re going to have to think of a way to work around this with future versions of the course.”

Then there’s the issue of engagement. Schatz estimates that of the thousands of students enrolled, about 1,000 are actually regularly participating in some aspect of the course, whether it’s watching lectures, completing homework or quizzes, or participating in the online forum. But he estimates that only 300 to 400 are doing the labs.

Both Schatz and Greco agree that this is an issue that this hub will be considering as they tweak the course, which they hope to offer again in the fall.

“We’re still trying to figure out what we should expect of MOOC students when it comes to things like time spent on assignments and the money we should expect them to pay for a textbook,” Greco said. “Once we get a better handle on this, it will help us address the poor retention numbers that MOOCs typically have.”

To join the hub, email Greco. For more about the MOOC, email Schatz.

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