Q&A: Behind the Scenes of HMC’s MOOC

After pursuing a mathematics degree at Harvey Mudd College, Elly Shofield HM ’13 is currently the project director of Harvey Mudd’s massive open online course (MOOC) program. The program, which launched this month, hopes to share some of Harvey Mudd’s most popular courses in an online format to a global audience. So far, the MOOC program has a computer science and a physics course available, with plans for more to be added in the future. To learn more about the brains behind MOOC and the planning that went into the program, TSL spoke with Shofield about her experiences working at her alma mater.

TSL: Is this a replacement or a supplement for the traditional classroom?

Elly Shofield: I like to think of it as a supplement. There are things that you can do in an online setting that you can’t do offline—for example, there’s no way that these students from opposite sides of the world could connect with each other in an offline setting, but watching a video isn’t the same thing as seeing a lecture in person in a class, and posting on discussion boards isn’t the same as having a real-life conversation. So I think the greatest success that we’ve seen so far with MOOCs is in blended classrooms, where you use MOOC content for part of it, and then you’re also working with your peers and teacher.

TSL: How is Harvey Mudd’s MOOC unique from the MOOCs of other institutions?

ES: Probably the most unique aspect of our MOOC is that all of our courses have been designed with the idea of supporting teachers. For pretty much any MOOC out there, a subset of the audience is teachers who are looking for an alternate resource for their curriculum. I think ours is unique in the sense that these teachers aren’t just a subset of our audience; they’re our primary audience.

TSL: So is Harvey Mudd’s MOOC more designed to teach about teaching than to simply teach the content of its courses?

ES: It’s kind of in between. For example, in our MOOC’s computer science courses, the emphasis is to provide the content. The goal is not to introduce pedagogy. Zach Dods, one of the Harvey Mudd professors who are involved in this project, firmly believes that middle and high school teachers know their students better than we do, so us trying to offer advice on how best to teach this content isn’t in the best interest of anybody. However, we do try to provide things like lesson plans, and we’ve been gathering information specific to offering the course in the classroom.

TSL: How many students are currently enrolled in the program?

ES: The physics course is close to 3,000 students. The computer science course has about 21,000 students signed up. That was really exciting to see, especially on the first day of the launch, when we got to see students introduce themselves on discussion boards. These students are from 165 different countries across the world. Someone from the Philippines will be like, “Oh, I’m in the computer science course, and I need some tutoring help,” and someone from Australia will be trying to help them—it’s all over the place. It’s so great.

TSL: What would you attribute that success to?

ES: For the CS course in particular, I think it’s a combination of things. There’s a huge demand right now for CS knowledge, and a lot of the courses that have been developed for it have not been developed with an eye for making the subject welcoming and friendly, and that’s something that this course does especially well. Also, our MOOC is teaching Scratch (an educational programing language,) which is something that the organization we’re partnering with, edX (an MIT-based online education company), has been looking to teach for a while. When they found out that we were planning to teach Scratch, they helped us put it together, and they put our program on the front page of their website.  

TSL: As the MOOC project director, what was your role in the project?

ES: Basically, my job is to try to take care of the things that are not already intuitively taken care of. So, I’m not teaching the courses or structuring the multiple-choice questions. Everything else—debugging, running the discussion boards, communicating about the project—basically, everything that doesn’t fall under the easy categories of what is covered is my job. It’s been a really fun job to have fresh out of college—one day, I’ll be helping fix multiple choice questions, the next day I’ll be making digital graphics, the day after that I’ll be working out the math of a physics problem, and the day after that I’ll get to do an interview. So it’s great, it’s all over the place.

TSL: How did Harvey Mudd prepare you for your job?

ES: Harvey Mudd taught me how to solve problems. I don’t always remember the specific methods I used to solve certain problems, but I learned how to pick up new things quickly and see things from different perspectives quickly. And I think that comes from working with a whole bunch of really smart and analytical people, with a whole bunch of faculty that paid a lot of attention to the students. I also had a ton of fun—it was a really fun school to go to, albeit very stressful at times. It’s a lot of work, but on the other hand, I wouldn’t change that if I could go back. I don’t know what I would not have wanted to learn during that time.

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