Combining undergraduate and graduate programs, Northwestern has a total of about 19,000 students. More than two and a half times that number enrolled in Medill professor Owen Youngman’s online class.
“Over the course of six months,” Youngman said, “55,000 people said, ‘I might be interested in taking this, I’ll register.”
His class – Understanding Media by Understanding Google – is the first of six massively open online classes (MOOCs) to be offered at Northwestern. Administered through the platform Coursera, he was able to teach thousands of students simultaneously.
Fifty-five thousand people, however, is a bit misleading.
“Of the people who actually did the homework, there were maybe 2,000 who decided they would try to pass and do all the homework and do all the readings,” Youngman said. “And about 1,200 of them passed.”
Many students, however, were not college-aged. According to senior Dawnthea Price, who was one of several Medill students who helped Youngman administer the class, the majority were “life-long learners.”
He had students who had taken his class – the live version – in the past assist him. It was their job to monitor the discussion forums on the Coursera site, one that had around 25,000 posts on it.
“Our primary duty was to facilitate and monitor discussions on Coursera’s forums,” Price said. “Every course get sits own forum, and we were in charge of keeping track of common posters, people who were breaking the rules, people who had questions.”
On the forums, Youngman was particularly active, according to another student who helped, senior Eric Brown.
“When the students were having discussions,” Brown said, “Owen would really participate… It was really interesting because actually online he would still hop in however often he could.”
These students, who came from all over the world, were able to tune into Youngman’s video lectures, complete homework assignments, take quizzes and get credit for the class without ever saying a word to each other or Youngman in person.
“How else are you going to simultaneously teach people – [from] Kazakhstan…China, [the] more than 80 countries where students got degrees – we had registered students from nearly every country in the world,” Youngman said. “How else are you going to do that?”
A primary grading method for the class – peer grading – was one of the few tricky parts in administering the MOOC. Because there were so many non-English native speakers, there was a language barrier.
“That occasionally made it difficult when it came to peer grading or even discussion on the forums,” Price said. “Because students from India or students from Brazil would be talking, and it would just be difficult to understand them. A language barrier, in the scope of everything that we are doing, was not bad.”
Despite that small issue, the class went on about as smoothly as it could have. Now that the class has concluded and final grades have been handed out, Youngman is in the process of doing some research.
“I had astonishing response to the survey that I sent to the people who took the class,” he said. “Voluntary survey, sent it to 1,200 people. Eight hundred responded, it took 20 minutes. It was not a yes or no. So that gives me lots of rich data to look at. I am satisfied that a lot of learning went on.”
Brown believes that Youngman’s teaching method translated well to the online platform.
“In his on campus class, Professor Youngman has super thorough, detailed, organized assignments,” he said. “That really translated well. It was better than it would have translated had it been a more disorganized, kind of loosey-goosey professor, so I think it was a great match.”
Price shares Brown’s sentiment, thinking that the class was very successful.
“As on online class, it has a much higher population, and some would say, a higher threshold for failure,” she said. “But the reality is if you have tens of thousands of people in an online class, and even just a small fraction of them pass, or get perfect scores – as some students did – then it’s absolutely a success because you’ve already reached more people than you have in person.”
Photo Credit: London School of Economics Library