What does it mean to produce a MOOC? What are the challenges faced by professors when creating a course online? How does it feel to stand alone in front of a camera? While MOOCs have definitely the potential to challenge the politics of education and the very bases of the transmission of knowledge, they also encourage professors to test new educational possibilities and confront themselves with digital tools. To discover more about this adventure, we turned to the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), one of the earliest Swiss academic players to enthusiastically jump on the digital train and asked Jérôme Chenal, General Secretary of the Urban and Regional Planning Community (CEAT), to share his experience of producing a MOOC on urban planning in African cities. Written by Vitalia Bakhtina & Beatrice Ferrari, SERI, Bern.
By launching its first course in 2012, EPFL took a pioneer role in the development of MOOCs in Switzerland. Today, there are some 21 courses available on Coursera and 6 on EdX. Every year, the school offers the possibility for the teachers to submit proposals for creating new MOOCs, which are then examined by an editorial board. Since their production cost is estimated between 80’000 and 100’000 Swiss Francs, there is a careful selection that is not only taking into account the pedagogical project and the quality of its content, but also its potential for attracting a broader audience. Some courses given by high-profile professors are unique and have the prospective to raise EPFL’s visibility on the international scene. Others have an internal scope, by replacing for instance first-year introduction theory courses. There are also “citizen-oriented MOOCs” which aim at sharing scientific knowledge with the public, while others are part of a broader exchange network between universities. Jérôme Chenal launched the first edition of his MOOC dedicated to urban planning in African cities earlier this year and is already preparing the next module.
What brought you to develop your own MOOC on African cities?
I have been teaching this course at EPFL for some years already and I was interested in testing a new format and exploring the possibilities that digital technologies can offer. There was also a good opportunity to insert my course in a broader context: EPFL has indeed shown much interest in intensifying the collaboration with African universities by developing French-speaking MOOCs. EPFL is part of the RESCIF program, the “Network of Excellence in Engineering Sciences of the French-speaking Community”, created in 2010, which comprises 14 French-speaking universities in 11 different countries all over the world. Its main goal is to promote research in the fields of water, energy and nutrition, as well as to encourage the training in cutting-edge technologies for young researchers and implement innovative ways of cooperating between the partner universities. My course is part of this network and EPFL is currently negotiating with several partner universities in Africa to complement their curricula with specialized MOOCs. However, students do not wait for the signature of formal agreements to start the course, and I already have a broad audience: 42% of the enrolled students are located in the Global South.
What is the format that you use for your MOOC?
The typical format of my MOOC is a 12-week course, where standard 2 hours lectures become a set of 5 to 10 videos of 10-12 minutes each. Another major characteristic are assignments given to the students. Those can be very challenging and demanding in terms of working time. They can be graded automatically or peer-reviewed by the students themselves, which is what I do. I opted for quizzes: students receive them after the course has been put online and have a given amount of time to answer them. Moreover, they have to read some texts and produce notes that are evaluated by other groups of students.
The third dimension of a MOOC is the forum, where students can interact with each other as well as with the teaching staff. For instance, students can post questions and vote for the most relevant ones that will be then answered by the professor. Apart from very specific moments, I am usually not interfering in the forum and I leave students discussing among themselved. This social dimension brings a MOOC closer to a traditional lecture and yet offers a lot of potential to create new types of interaction: I also use social media like Facebook and twitter to exchange with the students and create a community.
How does it work, concretely?
Every lesson needs to be prepared very carefully – much more than for a “normal” course. One obviously needs to think about the message he wants to convey, and the best way to express it – but because there are no direct interactions with the public, each course is very dense, leaving no space for spontaneity. When you are alone, facing the video camera, every word and every detail has its importance: am I speaking clearly enough? Am I moving in a strange way? Are the images that I am using free of copyright? What are the appropriate clothes to wear while addressing a global audience? What should I do if I say something wrong? Concretely, for each course I need to prepare a very detailed storyboard; moreover, it takes some time to feel comfortable with the camera and with the whole technical part involved. This is a very time consuming process: I estimate that for each hour of course, there are some 50 hours of work involved, including preparation, production and technical issues. It takes one week for the editing, one week for review, another to put it online and finally an additional week for the subtitles. Since my courses are available every Monday at 10 am, I really need to plan carefully in order to be able to match the schedule.
How would you compare a MOOC with a more traditional face-to-face interaction?
As I mentioned, the time involved in the preparation is very long. Another aspect is the need for regular contact expressed by the students. They ask questions, seek for help and advices. There is much more follow up, tests elaboration, grading involved. But it is very rewarding, the students are very interested and asking for material. A MOOC is also very interesting from an educational point of view. One has the possibility to test new pedagogical tools and ways of transmitting knowledge and I really feel that I am learning a lot while doing it. I am also planning to use the MOOC in the course that I give here at EPFL. Instead of coming every week, students will watch the video at home and come only for some lessons, where we will use the time together in a more interactive way, to exchange and discuss together.
What are the advantages of producing an on-line course?
I have reached a broad audience, and this is definitely very interesting. There are more than 9000 students following my course, a number that is relatively high for a French-speaking course. Obviously not everyone is following it entirely and one third of the students are “tourists”, as for most MOOCs. That said, it still offers the possibility to reach a very broad audience. Even if you simply consider the 500 students who received a certificate for completing the course, that means that in one single semester, I reached a number of students that I would have barely reached in a lifetime teaching here at EPFL. This is amazing. What is also very interesting is that I am now well known in the scientific community interested in the topic and I am regularly contacted by other researchers to exchange, take part to discussions and so forth. For a young scholar, this is truly a unique opportunity to constitute a very broad network and to gain visibility. Obviously, this also puts a lot of pressure on the quality of the course itself. Knowing that it will be broadly distributed, you need to be careful – it is a challenge, but also a chance to improve the quality of teaching as a whole.
How is your course going to evolve in the future?
My current course has a three-year lifetime, since this is the contract that was signed with the platform. I am also considering recording it again in English. Coursera is providing subtitles for hearing impaired so it is very easy for us to translate these subtitles in other languages, and we started to do it already. I am also working on the second part of the course, which will be the advanced version.