Boston University’s New MOOCs Created to Enhance Traditional Courses

Boston University is the newest university to get in the MOOC game with edX.  BU will be offering four new MOOC courses available to anyone interested in taking a course unique to the university.  The four new MOOC courses are: Sabermetrics 101: Introduction to Baseball Analytics, Alien Worlds: The Science of Exoplanet Discovery and Characterization, War of the Greater Middle East, and the Art of Poetry.  Sabermetrics is being offered at the end of the month while the rest will be made available in September.  Anyone can audit the courses for free, or a mere $25 will get you a certificate upon completion of the course.

The university plans to use these MOOCs to update their current courses and explore the idea of hybrid and flipped classrooms. Chris Dellarocas, director of the Digital Learning Initiative at BU said he thinks it’s time for every big university to leave the traditional ways of the classroom behind and enter a phase of experimentation and innovation. He said MOOCs are one way to galvanize this conversation. “MOOCs can help change pedagogy.  Once you have the MOOC you can use the materials and flip your class and try to produce more active learning into the experience,” said Dellarocas.

The university will also utilize the MOOCs to study learning analytics. “MOOCs leave a detailed data trace. Every click of every student is recorded and can be analyzed to find patterns that can help us understand how to make the MOOC experience more engaging and more effective,” Dellarocas said. “For example, by analyzing the conversations at MOOC online forums one can find what patterns of interaction among students, or between students and teaching assistants or professors, correlate with better completion rates and lower attrition.”

Dellarocas is not very concerned about the high drop out rates that have recently been reported with MOOCs. He said the university first needs to understand how MOOCs work before they figure out how to retain students. He also notes that the intentions of students who sign up for classes vary. “It’s not as big of a concern as it has been reported because you have to understand that registering for a MOOC doesn’t always imply serious intention of taking it.  It’s something that you can just do online. It’s easy, it’s free and so many people just do it for whatever reason.  What is more telling is people who withdraw in the second or third week,” he said.

Andrew Anders is teaching the baseball analytics course being offered this month.  He said Sabermetrics is an attempt to create an interesting way to start learning about data science by using baseball as an applied example.  As a numbers guy, Anders looks at the dropout rate through figures. “Let’s say I have 10,000 students and only 15 percent finish the class.  Well, guess what, that’s still 1,500 students that finish the class. That’s a huge number and in my mind that’s a huge impact.”

Aside from how many people actually finish the course, Anders believes that it was a good move for the university to start offering the MOOCs. “I think BU was very smart to get involved in digital learning and the MOOCs to better understand how this all works and how to mix and match online learning with residential learning,” he said.

The only concern that Anders has with putting his course into a MOOC format is that he will not be interacting with students like he does in a residential course. “I have to trust the technology and that the students are putting the effort in and learning and they’re going to ask questions in the right places so that I can help them learn,” Anders said. “I have to trust that learners who are motivated are going to learn and I’m just creating the opportunity by offering this material.”

Anders will help learners by offering resources like Google hangout office hours and BU SQL Sandbox, a development effort to make learning SQL easier for students. Students who take the baseball metrics course can expect to learn data science, database languages, programing languages, and an introduction to baseball science.

Andrew West, the instructor of the Alien Worlds course hopes to excite learners with what he said is probably the greatest scientific discovery that has been made in the last couple of decades.  “For the first time in human history we know that planets are very common in the universe, and 20 years ago we could not say that. Actually three years ago we couldn’t have said that,” West said.

He hopes that MOOCs never get to a point where they replace teachers, but thinks they can be used in plenty of enriching ways. He believes the MOOCs will have a strong legacy at Boston University by using the components and tools developed for the MOOCs in the traditional classrooms. “I see plenty of good,” said West.  “The ability to use them for flipped classrooms, or blended classrooms, the ability to reach an enormous audience around the world, especially people that do not have access to higher education in the way that many of us are fortunate to have. I think there are some amazing ways that this could touch people.”

Register for the BU MOOCs
For more on MOOCs check out the head of edX, Anant Agarwal, making the case that MOOCs still matter


Photo by Henry Zbyszynski

Michelle Harven

Michelle Harven

Michelle is a current graduate student at Emerson College and an intern at Boston's public radio station. She enjoys exploring the world of educational technology and writing about the ever-changing sector and its potential.