Lessons Learned: Teaching a Geospatial Professional Development MOOC for Educators

February 12, 2014

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Back in July 2013, before Geospatial Tech for STEMx Learning, a massive open online course (MOOC), was open to students, Directions Magazine asked Dr. Rick Smith about the course he co-wrote and would co-teach. Six months later, several cohorts of students have completed the 16-hour professional development course for educators offered as part of the HP Catalyst Academy. Smith, an assistant professor in the Conrad Blucher Institute for Surveying Science at Texas A&M University—Corpus Christi, shares his thoughts on student success, peer grading and what he learned about teaching a MOOC.

Directions Magazine (DM): While the course “ran” for a month, educators were expected to spend about 16 hours total on the course. Did that turn out to be an accurate estimate of how much time was spent?

Rick Smith (RS): Unfortunately we did not have the ability to measure those types of metrics. We over-estimated the time requirement slightly to give the students an “outside” number for the time investment. Based on my teaching experience, I would estimate that a student who is new to the geospatial field and is a novice with computers would approach the 16-hour estimate, but my feeling is that most students that had intermediate or above computer skills and little to no geospatial field experience finished in between 10-14 hours.

DM: You used short videos to introduce content and had students share their “homework” for peer review and learning. How effective were those in terms of engagement and learning?

RS: The peer review of homework worked out extremely well; much better than we had hoped for. The amount of engagement and discussion that took place on the message boards was great. We saw students engage with each other in meaningful conversations and really take the assignments to heart. We tried to generally stay out of the way when a discussion was already started and was going well, but we did kick-start a few discussions and intervened in discussions that we found particularly interesting or had questions that we felt we could address.

DM: What was the most challenging part of teaching this, your first, MOOC compared with more formal online courses? What one thing do you know now that you wish you knew then?

RS: Designing for autonomy. We were not sure how large the enrollment was going to be, so we wanted to plan for the entire course to run autonomously. We wanted to avoid making our input/grading/etc. be the bottleneck for the course, so we had the students run the course and work together on the assignments. In a traditional online setting (if that even exists), I would design for much more personal interaction between the professor and the student. I would grade every assignment (with some peer interaction, of course), provide feedback, and pace the class to my liking. In the MOOC setting, we knew this would be unlikely.

As for what I wish I knew then that I know now?  I guess the advice I would have given to myself is to plan to let go and see what happens. It was really hard to design the course to run without my heavy presence like the university courses I teach. It was rewarding to see the students really take the ideas and run with it on their own. I have taken quite a bit of what I learned from teaching the MOOC in to my university classes.

DM: Part of the vision of the course was that educators would re-purpose some of the course content in their own classrooms. Has that happened? What GIS software were educators drawn to? Why?

RS: I can’t say that we have seen any widespread adoption. In the feedback we received from the students, a few did mention that they planned on using some of the content and/or software in their classes. Others commented on how they appreciated a vocabulary in geography and GIS to use when teaching. I did fulfill probably around 10 requests for the teaching materials, but have not heard anything about how or if it is being used. For future offerings, I would like to try and maintain that contact for the future; another lesson learned.

We focused on using QGIS and indiemapper for the software labs as we felt they would be easiest and cheapest to use in an education setting with limited budget (QGIS) or no install (indiemapper). Both software packages were well received and we did virtually no tech support with either of those programs (which was a surprise compared to how much tech support I usually do in a class).

DM: Were you happy with the number of educators who started the course? Who completed it? Did participants feel they got out of it what they wanted?

RS: We had a little over 300 educators accept the course invitation. From that, 107 were considered active and 32 completed the entire course to gain their badge of completion. I was very happy with the numbers considering how quickly the entire MOOC had to come together. Naturally the more, the merrier, but for my first MOOC (or mini-MOOC compared to the larger MOOC population), it was a manageable size.

DM: Several cohorts of students have completed the course since the first one. What, if anything, is planned for this course or perhaps a second one on the topic?

RS: We have since run two more cohorts through the fall. The enrollment numbers (in the dozens) were far smaller than the initial offering in the summer. With the smaller community participating, these two courses did not succeed in building a community or a significant amount of interaction.

I would like to run another MOOC in the future, but there are no immediate plans. I really enjoyed this one and learned quite a bit about techniques for teaching online that I now use every day in my university courses. 


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