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Wesleyan's Secrets To Successful MOOCs

Wesleyan University polls students regularly and avoids flashy Hollywood techniques to ensure its massive open online courses are effective without breaking the budget.

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At Wesleyan University, a private college in Middletown, Conn., "learning by doing" has been the approach to its first round of massive open online courses (MOOCs) with partner Coursera.

"Getting our feet wet makes us think more deeply about things," said Jolee West, director of academic computing services and digital library projects. "We're going to start from a different point from schools who've never mounted one."

The classes can be seen at Coursera.org/Wesleyan.

For instance, every university and college running a MOOC will need to figure out best practices for video, West said. Interestingly, Wesleyan does not believe Hollywood-style, high-production values make sense in every case, for every professor. West uses the example of having the instructor stand in front of a green screen for which a computer-generated background can be substituted later -- an essential technique for science fiction, but not necessarily education. "Rather than put everyone in front of a green screen, you want their personality to come through," she said. "That's what captures student attention."

[ For more on MOOCs, read Will MOOCs Massively Disrupt Higher Education? ]

West is part of a group working on surveys of students, which she hopes will shed light on what works and what can be improved.

"Next round, we'll have pre- and post-course surveys," she said, adding that this could help uncover what kinds of students stay in the course until the end.

David Baird, VP for information technology and CIO at Wesleyan, also is interested in using data.

Coursera has not yet shared with Wesleyan the data it has collected, including engagement metrics on how students are interacting with course material. "They haven't figured out how to show us the data," Baird said.

Another area of inquiry could be why students picked Wesleyan courses in the first place. "Consider this: we didn't really advertise we were doing this," Baird said. "People pored over the Coursera topics and they found us."

This might explain the higher-than-average 10% completion rate for Wesleyan's MOOCs, he speculated.

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