How To Make A MOOC, MIT Style

Here's how MIT professor Eric Lander's introduction to biology course is being turned into a massive open online course for remote students.
The course has six problem sets, plus a practice problem set, and many of those feature three-dimensional graphics. Some of the most complicated problem sets, such as the one that includes protein-folding simulations, can take close to 100 hours of development time. These are written in Java, and then converted into JavaScript by EdX. That conversion requires as much as another 60 hours of work.

EdX had to develop custom tools to make interactive, three-dimensional graphics work in browsers. It also helped develop a new tool called "deep dives" -- an in-depth look at parts of the course "where the students get hung up. We know this because (MIT students) are in our office all the time" asking questions, said Mischke. There are about two deep dives per week, each requiring about 10 hours of a graduate student's time to build, and EdX time to support and code.

No one is talking specific numbers for total development cost, but the project from scratch would probably cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. That's not counting Lander's time investment, which is significant. He, Mischke and her team met weekly over the summer to develop the course and its materials. He went in to EdX to review at least four different types of video technology to see what worked best for him, and went through coaching sessions to ensure he would do things like look at the camera. Now that he's lecturing he sometimes does not finish taping the "bumpers," the introductions to the various materials students will watch, until after 10 p.m.

Still, Lander volunteered for this, for two reasons. "It's giving us a chance to rethink the whole course," he said, still enthusiastic despite a full day of work followed by teaching and filming. He's also filming segments aimed at helping K-12 biology teachers use the material in their teaching. This came out of his role as co-chair of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

"Great MOOCs being freely available to high schools will be an enormous service to American education," Lander believes.

He isn't sure his MOOC could be described as "great." "We have to recognize we don't know how to do MOOCs yet. They're highly experimental," he said. "I hope that four or five years from now we'll be embarrassed by how we're doing things now."

"We are in the early days in terms of experimentation," agreed EdX's Rubin, but he predicted that EdX will see big payback from this course. EdX will apply what it did for the forums and for problem sets to future courses, he said, and "biology courses will never be the same again."

Eric Lander's welcome video for high school teachers.

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