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Can we teach 20 000 students (at the same time)?

Published on 03 August 2012
Updated on 05 April 2024

Diplo specialises in online learning. As a result, people tend to send our director links for current articles on online learning. He tends to share these with me (Diplo’s educational programmes director) and suggest that I blog about them. Recently, we’ve seen several articles about the latest trend in online education: free ‘massive open online courses’ (MOOCs) offered by groups of major American universities. According to a recent New York Times article, one of these companies, Coursera, registered 680 000 students in 43 courses already, and has just expanded its partnership to include 12 further universities, including some outside the US.

Diplo teaches diplomacy and global policy online courses, based on collaborative learning and small group sizes, where instructors pay individual attention to participants and course coordinators offer assistance throughout the course. At times, our methodology approaches coaching or mentoring. We have great results: close to 100% completion rate for our courses, partnerships with diplomatic services and other institutions, and a high level of appreciation (and re-enrolment in new courses) from alumni members. In contrast, The New York Times reports that from 160 000 students enrolled in Stanford’s MOOC on artificial intelligence, only a small percentage completed the course. Understandably, our director is sceptical about the value of mass teaching and learning. 

Curious about what these mega-courses entail, I enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania course ‘Listening to World Music’ offered through Coursera. I wanted to see how the course was run, and whether, with thousands of participants, useful discussion and interaction would emerge. I also wondered if diplomacy could be usefully taught in a MOOC. When the course started, I learned that 20 000 students were registered, with just one lecturer and two teaching assistants!

The course structure has several elements:

  • Video recordings of lectures broken down into 10 – 15 minute segments, supported by Powerpoint slides, transcripts, and links to other listening and reading materials.
  • Multiple choice quizzes following lecture segments, which check for understanding of basic concepts.
  • Weekly peer-reviewed written assignments.
  • Discussion forums – some with given topics and others where students may post on any topic they wish.

By the end of week 1, almost 5000 people had introduced themselves in the introductions forum. After reading a few introductions I gave up: there were just too many. I noticed that discussion on course topics, however, tended to cluster, with many people responding to postings rather than initiating new threads. This makes the numbers less overwhelming (though not much: week 1 generated some 400 discussion threads, some with over 50 postings). But with participants from all over the world, I knew there must be useful and thought-provoking material buried in the forums.

With very limited time on my hands, I tried out the tools provided to find the best threads. I used the forum search facility to find posts on topics of particular relevance to my interests. I also noticed that readers can vote discussion threads up and down (and unreasonable complaints, for example, tend to get voted down). Threads are also marked to show if an instructor has joined in, or ‘approved’ the discussion. I concluded that I could not aspire to read all postings, but must focus on particular threads – identifying those students whose ideas I appreciate, or specific topics of interest. I also realised that I would need self-discipline and motivation to complete course work independently and search out the best discussions without wasting too much time. But the vast range of information and knowledge shared, and the many choices as to how to follow and learn in this environment, are exciting and rewarding.

Would this environment work well for teaching diplomats and other international relations professionals? They are generally motivated and disciplined. However, they are also very busy, and often face heavy responsibilities and unpredictable work schedules. Strong learner support and flexibility based on individual needs are needed to overcome these obstacles and lead to a good level of course completion.

What about the value of the actual learning? If I were responsible for human resources at a diplomatic service, I would want to know that a staff member who receives a certificate in multilateral diplomacy, for example, really does have a solid grasp of the topic. I would want to know that they had not just read some texts (or watched videos), but also thought, analysed, discussed, written, and received critical expert feedback on submitted work. Instructors cannot assess the level of understanding achieved by each of 20 000 students. In our experience, instructors can realistically work with no more than around 25 participants in any given class session.

Do you have experience with massive open online courses? Do you think this methodology (or elements of it) can work for professional training? Please share your thoughts.

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