Taking a bit of my own advice, I recently started working through a computer programming MOOC from Harvard, with the goal of distilling out teaching tips and online course ideas from a student’s perspective.  While learning some useful job skills, I will share my experience to help designers of MOOCs and traditional online classes think about best practices in their course design.

What I'm learning from Harvard: A MOOC story

The on-campus introductory programming course, called CS50, is one of Harvard’s most popular electives, with over 600 students enrolled this semester.  The vast majority of them are not computer science majors.  Their first attempt at a CS50 MOOC this fall had over 50,000 online enrollees in September, a month before the course started.  The on-campus lectures and small-group sessions are recorded and posted online for the MOOC students, who will use these to perform the same assignments through the same software, and the same learning platform as the "real" students.   While I get to learn programming for free and get a cool certificate in April, providing I have completed all 8 problem sets and quizzes by then, the on-campus suckers who actually pay to learn the same information only get a few credits toward a lousy Harvard degree in return. *obligatory wink*

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CS50 FairStudents from a wide variety of concentrations talk about the value of Computer Science 50 (CS 50) and the excitement of the CS 50 fair.

Week 0 Take-aways:

  • I like having a Week 0. It was challenging, but made great efforts to take baby steps in helping students prepare their heads for an online course.  Students were shown how to get around the learning platform, although this was only done after getting into the right place of the learning platform. So make sure your students can access the material that tells them how to access material.
  • Proposed timeline -- a MUST for a course that students complete at their own paces.  I need to complete the problem sets by mid-April.  That's far from now, so I can put this week's lesson off, right???  Oh, the timeline says “no.”
  • I was surprisingly excited about seeing the introduction videos from MOOC students around the world.  I'm not a bubbly socialite, but actually seeing and hearing the people with whom I would be learning made me feel more comfortable, especially since I started the course about a month late.  I liked seeing the other late-comers, so I knew that I wouldn't be playing catch-up alone.
  • CS50 is a big deal to Harvard students. It's a mostly unnecessary, yet very challenging elective that they wear as a badge of honor. That’s not an exaggeration. They have t-shirts. The first lecture featured this musical number performed on stage by former students.  Take CS50 - Call Me Maybe Harvard Parody

    The course you teach should be this cool and should unify your students this much. The far-reaching influence of this low-level computer science course is pretty amazing.
  • The instructor tells his journey here. He didn't program until taking CS50 on a whim.  All of the other completely inexperienced students now feel like he's one of them, and they have a chance too.
  • What about the students who have coded since middle school?  The course has "hacker" options, so everyone has something challenging to learn from the course.
  • Lecture videos are at least 70 minutes long. It was tough to find chunks of time large enough to make it worth the effort to get in study mode. After over a week, I still hadn't found enough time to get around to watching the first full lecture. Let alone the 70-minute follow-up.  Let alone the 45-minute recitation session.  But breaking this info into the 5-10 minute chunks that are recommended for online videos would be ridiculous. Then I would have 37 videos to watch in the week instead of 3. Way more daunting. I would also be more likely to take lots of procrastination breaks between clips.
  • A "Hey, you haven't completed anything yet. Is there something you need help with?" email in the first couple of weeks would go a long way toward retaining student enrollment.  Instructors seem to rely on the discussion boards and personal initiative to take care of this.  There are tons of posts about procedural class issues, like where to go for specific information, and the questions are answered quite thoroughly by peers.
  • The lectures have a few pop-up quiz questions, often, slightly harder than the example just explained. These aren't graded; they're just checks for students, but they should tell why 'B' is wrong and 'C' is right. Otherwise, they're not that effective for helping students learn.
  • The first problem set was done with MIT's Scratch program.  It's free to download and play around with, and is easy to learn. Good first activity, low entry-level, yet a challenge to each student, based on how ambitious he/she wanted to be. (My project lives here. Watch out for the monsters.) 
  • I followed along with the other students, who posted their assignment by sharing it on the discussion board.  It didn't show up as being turned in though.  ???   I had to search awhile to find the submission requirements hidden in a tiny hyperlink below a video.  The video was large enough that I needed to scroll down to find the hyperlink, but I hadn't done this on the first viewing.  To use a metaphor that will not be understood by students in 5 years: Don't put the important information below the fold.
  • I also found the actual assignment requirements in that hidden hyperlink.  The requirements had been explained, I thought, in the video, but I found that there were many details left out.  Instructors need to be aware that students will assume that video information about an assignment will be exactly the same as text information, and we will likely default to just watching the video if we think that viewing both will be redundant. 3 different strategies to design your way around this problem:
    1. Make sure that any video contains all of the important details from the text;
    2. Make sure that the videos are different enough from the text that students realize that these are two different sets of information, and that viewing both won't waste time with unnecessary repetition; or
    3. Tell students to stop whining and view both, just to make sure they're not missing anything. Whatever strategy you choose, one good bet is to post the assignment specifications along with the submission requirements, so that students can check them more easily.

So that’s week 0.  Stay tuned for more (likely shorter) updates on what design tips I can glean from future weeks.

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