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Thousands Sign Up for Northwestern MOOCs

University’s inaugural Massive Open Online Courses teach Google, engineering, law

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September 9, 2013 | by Storer H. Rowley


EVANSTON, Ill. --- More than 68,000 students from all over the world have signed up to take Northwestern University’s first three massive open online courses (MOOCs) this fall, examining Google and the media, engineering’s unified systems and the legal aspects of entrepreneurship.

MOOCs are proliferating throughout the academic world, and Northwestern partnered with Coursera earlier this year to provide its own MOOCs on Coursera’s digital platform to anyone, anywhere, for free.

The University will launch its first pair of MOOCs this month and a third course in October, joining some 82 international and U.S. institutions now working with the company, with more than 4 million registered users considering about 400 courses. See a list of all of Coursera’s global partners.

  • On Sept. 16, Medill Professor Owen R. Youngman will launch the first MOOC: Understanding Media by Understanding Google, which will teach students about the company that touches not only every media enterprise, but also nearly every person who lives life online. Increasingly, Internet users must understand what the company has wrought not only to control their offline and online environments, but also to interact and engage successfully with anyone in their professional and personal lives. Youngman is the Knight Professor of Digital Media Strategy at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. (Some 41,000 students, and counting, have signed up so far.)
  • On Sept. 23, McCormick Professor Todd D. Murphey will launch the second MOOC: Everything is the Same: Modeling Engineered Systems, which is an introduction to engineering course that will help students learn modeling and analysis techniques for electrical, mechanical and chemical systems and discover how engineered systems that seem very different are actually very similar. This “systems” view has been responsible for much of the progress in the last several decades in aeronautics, robotics and other engineering disciplines where many different technologies work together. Murphey is an associate professor of mechanical engineering in the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science and of physical therapy and human movement sciences in the Feinberg School of Medicine. (More than 13,300 students have signed up so far.)
  • On Oct. 23, Northwestern Law School Clinical Professors Esther Barron and Steve Reed will launch the third MOOC: Law and the Entrepreneur, which will highlight the critical legal and business issues entrepreneurs face as they build and launch a new venture. The course will explore real world scenarios and address the legal and business issues that entrepreneurs face, from the moment they conceive of the "million dollar idea" to all of the important junctures along the path to success. Barron is a clinical professor of law and the director of the Entrepreneurship Law Center in the Bluhm Legal Clinic at the Law School. Reed is a Clinical Professor of Law, the assistant director of the Entrepreneurship Law Center and co-director of the J.D.-MBA Program at the Law School. (More than 13,700 students have signed up so far.)

The Coursera model offers non-credit courses through a platform that allows open enrollment with no admissions requirements, no tuition costs and an asynchronous course delivery, so students can complete the coursework at times convenient for them. Elements of the procedures Northwestern faculty learn by helping develop MOOCs may be adapted over time to on-campus teaching at the University, as well.

“This allows us to evaluate learning outcomes from new modes of education, to expand the visibility and impact of Northwestern and its faculty and to showcase what is special about our research and curriculum,” Northwestern Provost Daniel Linzer explained. “Ultimately, we hope this endeavor will help shape the evolution of higher education.”

Coursera’s mission is to educate millions of people by offering a digital learning experience and classes and professors from top universities online. The company has a comprehensive education platform that combines mastery-based learning principles with video lectures, interactive content and a global community of peers. The same course could be taken by an advanced high school student in Evanston, a worker in Paris or a mother in Beijing.

Following is a snapshot of the inaugural MOOCs at Northwestern and the professors who teach them.

Understanding Media by Understanding Google

“Any professor would love to reach thousands of people and get them to think about one big idea and help them navigate their lives better,” observed Youngman, explaining the allure of the MOOC model as he prepares to teach the University’s very first one. “I suspect many members of the Northwestern faculty would like to do that.”

For Youngman, who has taught an “on-premises” version of the Google course twice in the classroom, one reason to teach it on a massive scale in the virtual world was that the prospect raised “really interesting possibilities about how I could leverage that class” to a broader audience.

“People don’t reflect as much on their day-to-day online activities any more,” he noted. “You don’t stop to think about why you get recommendations for certain Google ads, YouTube videos or Amazon books.“ Beyond that, he added, “There are learning methods to be tested out here. I hope to derive lessons from this course that will be useful and applicable for the entire University.”

Youngman is particularly interested in using the MOOC to reconnect with Medill alumni who couldn’t take such a course “in the old days,” because Google -- and, perhaps, even the Internet -- didn’t exist when many of them were at Medill. To that end, he plans to discuss MOOCs during a “Classes Without Quizzes” segment for reunion visitors Oct. 4 during homecoming weekend.

Another motivating factor for Youngman to experiment with MOOCs was the rapid evolution of the actual subject matter he taught in presenting the American media through the digital lens of Google. He observed that it was “moving so fast that every time you teach this subject, it’s different.”

One example is his own experimentation with Google Glass. Youngman is one of the first in an army of “Glass Explorers” trying out Google’s digital “wearable computing” system that takes photos and videos, helps with status updates and tweets (and naturally learns about the subject wearing it). With the swipe of a finger along the touchpad built into the eyewear, Youngman can activate the central navigation devices on Glass that provide “cards” of information gleaned from everything he does while guessing at what he might do next.

And, of course, Glass will be incorporated into the 20 video lectures and other course material in Youngman’s MOOC about Google. For more on Google Glass, go to Youngman’s blog, "The Next Miracle."

There will be weekly lectures to review, automatically graded quizzes and peer-graded homework assignments, and a variety of readings and lectures and online videos from popular blogs and websites. Students also will post in discussion forums and hear authors discuss their writing, research and books about Google.

The MOOC has already generated interest from tens of thousands of students, and for one Medill senior who took the “on-premises” course earlier, the subject matter goes way beyond technology and gets to more important privacy issues and the future of media.

“I think Google’s motto -- 'Don’t be evil' -- is becoming more relevant with every step they take to push the boundaries between what is public and what is personal,” observed Dawnthea Price, 21, of Fredericksburg, Va., whose words are quoted in the promotional video on the course on Coursera’s website.

Everything is the Same: Modeling Engineered Systems

Murphey developed this course with assistance from McCormick junior Camaria Lehman, 20, from Harmony, Pa., a biomedical engineering major who took the “on-premises” course (Engineering Analysis III) last fall. Lehman works in Murphey’s research lab and was invaluable in helping him create a course that was accessible and oriented toward students. Between them, they spent more than 500 hours creating the course structure, material and methods.

“As an engineering major, this is the first McCormick class you take here that talks about engineering as a whole and about systems -- that takes you beyond the math,” Lehman recalled. “It is the class where I got an understanding of what it’s going to be like to be an engineer and to be working in a lab and working in industry.”

Murphey wanted to design his MOOC in such a way as to make Lehman’s experience become part of the MOOC for thousands of students. “This is a purpose-driven MOOC,” he said, and it is designed in part to try to communicate to students what it would actually be like to become an engineer.

Murphey’s class has combined a variety of different technologies to teach students, including 24 recorded lectures, homework assignments, exercises to reinforce class material and readings, and six videotaped demonstrations that apply ideas from class to real-world engineering applications. See a demonstration involving a Slinky that helps students calculate numeric values for oscillations and decay.

Students also will learn about robots, one of Murphey’s areas of specialization. They will use the commercial software MATLAB, and they will do their own demonstrations at home, as well. One extraordinary thing the course promises they will do is “learn how to build an electronic circuit that behaves exactly like milk in coffee.”

The course also will seek to ease the transition for high school students into a university, and Murphey is initiating a high school pilot program with some students and teachers in Pennsylvania and with others in rural schools in the Midwest.

“Engineering as a discipline needs a broader representation of a wider array of talents and backgrounds, from students who are from traditionally underrepresented groups to those in rural and urban schools,” Murphey said. “And one of the things I want my MOOC to accomplish is to show someone who does well in this class that it’s a good indication of whether he or she should be an engineer.”

Murphey also plans to launch his MOOC on the same day he starts teaching the “on-premises” version of the class, which will be useful for pedagogical reasons.

"My students at Northwestern will take the Coursera course with the rest of the online students, allowing my students at Northwestern to spend more time in class working on projects and experiments we would not normally have time for,” Murphey noted. “Moreover, they will get to contribute to the online learning experiment and will be able to share insights from the in-class forum with the rest of the online community."

One piece of technology used in the class is an overhead camera view of Murphey writing out equations in his lectures and providing commentary and information, so students can see the real-time process to better understand the math, symbols and principles involved.

Similarly, another innovation used in the class is a “lightboard” developed by Michael Peshkin, a professor of mechanical engineering in the McCormick School. The unique device is a glass panel the size of a blackboard -- pumped through with LED light from its edges -- on which professors and students can write out symbols, drawings and equations. (See video.) The instructor speaks and writes while facing the viewer, through the glass. A video camera films the lecture in mirror reflection so that the writing does not wind up reversed for students viewing the lecture.

Creating a MOOC is a long, arduous process, including painstaking production, staging and videotaping of the many segments, lectures and exercises. It also has its humorous moments. Take a look at a bloopers reel for some of the things that ended up on the MOOCs cutting-room floor.

Law and the Entrepreneur

Barron and Reed have taught the “on-premises” classroom version of their MOOC for seven years, mainly to second- and third-year law students. Now they are excited to reach an audience of thousands of students who may be high school seniors, college and graduate students or people of all ages who are trying to create a business.

This MOOC will address the legal aspects of entrepreneurship and will highlight the critical legal and business issues entrepreneurs face as they build and launch a new venture. The massive online format of the class will allow the faculty to reach entrepreneurs who may otherwise lack access to legal resources for their new business or who may want to be more prepared for an initial meeting with an attorney.

“We're really excited about being able to provide information on legal issues to entrepreneurs who might otherwise be intimidated by lawyers and the complexity of the law,” Barron said. “We hope entrepreneurs who might give up because of legal worries will have the confidence to move forward after taking this course.”

“Working on the course is helping us to stay on the cutting edge of legal education, which has begun to incorporate online teaching,” Reed explained. “There’s no doubt the future of higher education will include online instruction, so the chance to get this opportunity is great. We're enthusiastic about integrating our new skills teaching a MOOC into our classes for Northwestern Law students.”

The curriculum will cover U.S. law on choice of entity; selection of a company name and trademark; protecting intellectual property of the business with patent, trade secret, trademark and copyright law; structuring agreements among owners; financing a new venture; and the relationship between attorneys and entrepreneurs.

The online class -- which is for entrepreneurs, aspiring entrepreneurs and lawyers who hope to represent entrepreneurs -- will explore real-world scenarios and address the legal and business issues that entrepreneurs face, from the conception of an idea to completion.

Barron and Reed have outlined the course based on legal doctrine as it applies to a case study of two entrepreneurs who are starting a business and facing legal issues along the way.

Their recorded lectures are a key component of their course, which also engages students through helpful readings, interactive exercises, online conversations and quizzes. By the end of the course, students will have a better understanding of practical ways to protect a new venture and spot potential issues from a business-legal perspective.

Enrollment is still open for these MOOCs

Enrollment is still open for all three courses. Visit Coursera to read more about these three MOOCs and see some of the other Northwestern MOOCs in preparation.

They include:

How Green Is That Product? An Introduction to Environmental Life Cycle Assessment

Learn the basics of the life-cycle assessment (LCA) method for holistic environmental analysis of products, technologies and systems. LCA sheds light on the environmental implications of the consumption and behavioral choices we all make on a daily basis.

Fundamentals of Digital Image and Video Processing

Learn the basic principles and tools used to process images and videos and how to apply them in solving practical problems of commercial and scientific interests.

Content Strategy for Professionals: Engaging Audiences for Your Organization

This professional content strategy MOOC is for people anywhere in an organization who have content development experience and now want to significantly improve their abilities to understand audiences and develop strategic words, pictures, graphics and videos to convey their organization’s most important goals.

For some of the individual schools launching MOOCs, alumni will be a natural and desirable target audience. Medill leaders, for example, are excited about the prospect of reaching alumni through this first-of-its-kind teaching platform.

“For Medill, this particular course has special value as it is the kind of class that, frankly, alums and prospective students alike may well find to be more than curious and interesting,” noted Tom Collinger, executive director of the Spiegel Digital & Database Research Initiative and senior director for Medill Distance Learning. “In fact, it does a great job of focusing on ‘media,’ which we believe is increasingly the place that elegantly and simply connects the future of the journalism and integrated marketing communications fields.”

For the broader University, MOOCs provide an innovative, experimental teaching and learning platform for professors and prospective students.

“The primary goals of engaging in the development and delivery of MOOCs are to allow faculty and the University to explore and support new pedagogical and course delivery methods,” Provost Linzer noted. “We want to provide access to meaningful learning opportunities -- without geographical or financial restrictions -- to non-traditional students, current students and alumni and those who currently have limited access to higher education.”

The provost will be sending out a request for proposal (RFP) for the next cohort of MOOCs later this fall.