When a MOOC is more than a MOOC: How online learning is shifting the academic goalposts at UVA

UVA professor Lou Bloomfield demonstrates the laws of physics at play in everyday activities while filming video for the online version of his popular "How Things Work" course. Photo: John Robinson UVA professor Lou Bloomfield demonstrates the laws of physics at play in everyday activities while filming video for the online version of his popular “How Things Work” course. Photo: John Robinson

Lou Bloomfield is behind on his correspondence.

A teetering stack of letters and postcards sits on the desk of the UVA physics professor, creator of the much-loved undergraduate science-for-non-science-majors course “How Things Work.” They’re all from students, and full of praise and thanks. He’s met none of them.

“I really want to be able to devote some time to my replies,” he said.

Time is something Bloomfield doesn’t have a lot of since he took on the challenge of becoming the creator of one of UVA’s first Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, through the University’s partnership with online learning hub Coursera. He’s spent more than 1,000 hours creating short videos for his class, an online version of his popular lecture hall course, illustrating the basic principles of physics with ramps, rolling wagons, and bouncing balls.

UVA first announced it would become one of dozens of top-tier colleges and universities to partner with Coursera last summer, not long after the firing and eventual reinstatement of University President Teresa Sullivan. The attempted ouster thrust the issue of online learning into the spotlight after Rector Helen Dragas named the University’s lack of an organized approach to new learning technologies as one of the reasons she and the Board of Visitors were forcing a leadership change.

Nearly a year later, Sullivan is still at the helm, and it looks like the institution of online education is here to stay, too.

Coursera, one of the most popular MOOC hosts on the Web, currently offers nine free UVA lecture series running from four to 16 weeks in a range of topics: history, philosophy, education, and a whole slew of business courses out of Darden. Each of the five courses that launched earlier this year saw between 45,000 and 85,000 eager students sign up, and while the attrition rate is steep—usually, only about 5 to 10 percent of enrollees stick it out to the end—UVA’s courses are showing strong engagement. And even with a high dropout rate, participating in the Web platform has meant hundreds of thousands of learners are getting at least a sliver of a UVA education, and as Bloomfield found out from his influx of snail mail, a lot of those people have come away with a deep appreciation for what they’ve experienced.

But it’s having an effect on Grounds, too. One of the big arguments in favor of exploring online education nationwide, even if the courses aren’t widely disseminated, is that it gives instructors the ability to “flip the classroom”: Put the lectures online and make them homework in order to free up more time for discussion.

“That was one of the things we talked about when we were looking at this in the first place—creating more in-class time so students could have more direct interaction with the professor,” said Kristin Palmer, UVA’s program director for online learning environments. “Everyone said that. They nodded their heads. And then it actually happened.”

History professor and Associate Dean for the College of Arts and Sciences Philip Zelikow’s class was one example.

Zelikow was in on last summer’s early discussions about expanding online learning at UVA, and he started out a skeptic. As a reward, he joked, Dean of Arts and Sciences Meredith Woo put him in charge of following up on Coursera. The more he looked into it, the more intrigued he was. Could scrapping the stand-up-and-lecture approach to teaching change his own class for the better?

After a semester of trying the approach, he can say it has. All his UVA students have also been following the online Coursera videos. “They’re not just taped lectures,” he said—they’re elaborate multimedia video segments. “It’s a more interactive and flexible format for the students. It’s easier to take notes, freeze on maps, do close-ups. Then I broke the class up into two parts, and what used to be the discussion section with the grad student became discussion with the professor.” He’s felt the impact of spending more time with smaller groups, and so have the students.

“I think it’s a more powerful version of the class,” he said.

Bloomfield, too, has found that far from degrading the quality of instruction, Web-based lectures can improve it. His “How Things Work” class has always been interactive and full of live demonstrations. But in his elaborate videos, he can slow down a bouncing ball, zoom in on a seesaw fulcrum, and draw arrows to show the trajectory of a skateboard.

But there’s a catch, he said. A big one. The amount of work it takes to teach in a brand new medium is enormous, and nobody’s getting paid to do it—or recognized in any way.

“The MOOC is considered volunteer work,” he said. “It has no place in my life at the University, which is weird. It’s not teaching, and it’s not research.” And in academia, especially in science, research is the be-all and end-all. Bloomfield, meticulous and intensely focused on getting every detail of his MOOC videos just right, had to give up his on-Grounds lecture this semester, take accrued leave, and largely ignore his research just to keep his head above water. That hasn’t gone over well, he said, which he thinks indicates UVA wants online education both ways: All the gain, none of the pain.

“I don’t know that it’s sustainable at UVA,” he said. “Just expecting people to do this out of the goodness of their heart is unrealistic.”

Palmer said not every online course has to be as labor-intensive for professors as Bloomfield’s was for him. “You have to be able to work as a team,” she said. “You can’t go solo and do everything yourself.”

But she acknowledged that the academic community has to find ways to incentivize faculty for improving the way they teach. “We’re working on it, but there are no answers yet,” she said.

There, are, however, lots more questions. Zelikow offered one: Once you open the door to learning at UVA to hundreds of thousands of people, what’s your responsibility toward your newly expanded community?

“It’s a really interesting agenda for the University,” he said. “How do we change the way we think about undergraduate education? Or even who the audience is for our education? If we’re tapping potentially many thousands of nontraditional students whose lives we’re changing for the better, should the University reconfigure itself to serve them, too?”

One thing is certain, said Bloomfield, and that’s that change isn’t coming to academia. It’s already here, and it’s up to UVA to stay ahead of the curve and stay relevant. “Disruptive technologies are disruptive,” he said. “You either adapt or you die.”

“The MOOC is considered volunteer work,” said UVA physics professor Lou Bloomfield. “It has no place in my life at the University, which is weird. It’s not teaching, and it’s not research.”