Thought Leader Interview: Dr. Charles Severance
Dr. Severance taught the online course “Internet History, Technology, and Security” using the Coursera teaching platform. His course in July 2012 was free to all who wanted to register.
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There is much debate about what makes a MOOC successful. Is it the teaching style of the instructor? The opportunity for communication and collaboration between students? Incentives to stay enrolled and finish the course?
One of the most consistent ideas about what makes a MOOC successful is that they allow for such a large amount of student interaction. Dr. Charles Severance, MOOC professor at the University of Michigan, couldn’t agree more. Dr. Chuck, as his students call him, recognizes the importance of student interaction in his online courses (and in general), and firmly believes it to be an integral part of the overall success of the MOOC movement.
“One of the things that MOOCs do is convert students into teachers,” Dr. Chuck said. “And that’s the only thing that makes it work in my mind.”
The basic foundation of a MOOC implies that classes are taught online and open to the public, with no cap for enrollment. In a class of thousands, then (Dr. Chuck’s first class had 56,000 students), the responsibility for instruction does not lie solely on the teacher. If it did, Dr. Chuck says, teachers would be in trouble.
Dr. Chuck has been teaching for around 20 years. In his experience, typically the larger the class, the more difficult it is to teach. With more students comes more grading and more individual student issues to resolve.
But how big does a class have to be before it actually becomes easier to teach, rather than harder?
In a class of thousands, Dr. Chuck says, there are so many students who really grasp the material the first time it is presented. Then, they actually turn around and tutor the students who need more clarification.
“When you have a class of 30 and you have five students who are falling behind, it is your job as the teacher to help those five students catch up,” Dr. Chuck said. “But when you have a class of 5,000, there are enough students that absolutely rock the information.”
Dr. Chuck’s course on Internet History, Technology, and Security was the first of the two MOOC he taught through Coursera. On the University of Michigan website, there is a page for the course where students can view lectures and assignments, participate in discussion forums, and even join study groups to learn from one another and help each other succeed. In this way, the students seamlessly transform into teachers, and the MOOC is more about a collective transfer of knowledge among a group than absorbing material from one instructor.
“As long as there is a forum or some way for them to socially teach each other, I did less student-to-student tutoring for my 56,000 students than I do in a typical 20-student class,” Dr. Chuck said. “And that’s what’s beautiful about it.”
Dr. Charles Severance is a Clinical Associate Professor and teaches in the School of Information at the University of Michigan. He also works for Blackboard as Sakai Chief Strategist. He also works with the IMS Global Learning Consortium promoting and developing standards for teaching and learning technology. Previously he was the Executive Director of the Sakai Foundation and the Chief Architect of the Sakai Project. Dr. Chuck can often be found visiting his students around the world.