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MOOC Profs Supplement Coursera Discussions With Town Hall

Here's how Ohio State University's online course on tech for city planning used MindMixer's civic engagement app.

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The discussion forum is an important feature of any massive open online course (MOOC), but when Ohio State University professor Jennifer Cowley was developing a course on technology and urban planning she decided the Coursera forums weren't quite what she had in mind.

For the TechniCity course on Coursera she taught with Thomas W. Sanchez of Virginia Tech, they instead tapped MindMixer, a "civic engagement platform" for hosting virtual town halls used by municipalities, school districts and other public institutions such as hospitals.

"I was familiar with MindMixer from a city planner perspective, and when I decided I was going to teach a MOOC I was looking for an alternative to the typical discussion forums that are within Coursera," Crowley said. One reason for the switch was that she wanted to add some structure around the discussion, because when that's lacking "nobody focuses attention on anything," she said.

Much like a classroom instructor might open up a class for discussion on a specific focused topic, Crowley wanted to be able to set an agenda for the online discussion. This different format caused some confusion at first because people had other topics they wanted to raise, and she did establish a message thread for suggesting new discussion topics. "In some cases, I would tell people, 'That's really aligned with what we'll be talking about in week three, but we're going to talk about week one right now.' Once people understood that, they were okay with it," she said.

TechniCity was structured as an urban planning course that emphasizes the impact of technologies and strategies for capitalizing on them. From the course description: "The increasing availability of networks, sensors and mobile technologies allows for new approaches to address the challenges that our cities face. The way we understand cities is undergoing sweeping transformation, right along with the analytical tools we use to design our cities and the communication tools we use to engage people."

Crowley and Sanchez came up with the idea for TechniCity following a conference on education for urban planners where the MOOCs were one of the topics of discussion.

TechniCity discussion
MindMixer discussions about the TechniCity course on Coursera.

"I've been teaching online for more than a decade, but this was my first massive open online course," Crowley said. One reason MOOCs really are different is that about 70% of the students in her class already had a college degree but were pursuing additional education for their own reasons. These were "very accomplished" people and a significant number of them said one of the things they wanted to get out of the course was "a social experience," she said. "One of the things I was hoping to do was create more of a sense of attachment to the class and being part of a community of learners."

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