Thoughts from a MOOC Pioneer

A screen capture from Scott E. Page's MOOC.

A screen capture from Scott E. Page’s MOOC.

Recently Scott E. Page did a presentation at the University of Wisconsin Center for Educational Innovation where he reviewed his experience teaching his Model Thinking course twice through online course provider Coursera.  (He’s had 150,000 people sign up for the course and over 3,000,000 YouTube video downloads.) The presentation runs a little more than an hour, including one embarrassing technology glitch. (Fast forward from about 11:40 to 14:40 if you want to miss it.)  The talk he gives is a very interesting insight into the process of creating a very successful MOOC (massive open online course), but ties the experience into the typical role of a professor. For him, the mission of the professor is to share important ideas as deeply and with as wide an audience as possible.

One of the things that makes Professor Page such an engaging commentator is that he obviously believes the world would be a much better place if more people knew how to use models to make decisions. The problems the world faces are complicated, and, without models, decisions get made based on bias or superstition. MOOCs represent one more tool for the professor to use in communicating a message that needs be communicated.

Seven Different Methods for Sharing Knowledge

In his talk, Page identifies seven different methods that he’s used to share his knowledge with a wider audience.

  1. On stage at the University of Michigan, where he teaches undergraduate courses in modeling and game theory.
  2. As an author, writing scholarly and popular books and articles.  As one student told him, “You look just like your book.”
  3. Encouraging students to put information about model thinking on Wikipedia.
  4. By sharing his PowerPoint slides and notes with students and nonstudents.
  5. Through making PechaKuchas (presentations made up of 20 slides in 20 seconds).
  6. The “Garage Band Version” of his course, as you see in the MOOC.  This was recorded using a $19 camera and a $100 microphone in an unfinished room in his home.
  7. The most upscale presentation of his ideas was the Great Courses Series on The Hidden Factor: Why Thinking Differently is Your Greatest Asset.  In this version, the cameras cost $150,000, the microphones cost $50,000, and a staff of four production and four post-production staff worked on the project.

Each of these methods has a different set of constraints and different expectations of how the content will be communicated. Here are some of the major points I took away from the presentation.

How Do You Pay For It?

The first question from the audience was, “What’s the business model?” and I think his answer may not be the one that some boards and administrators really want to hear. He thinks that it’s not at all a sure thing that individual universities will ever make much money from MOOCs, though some might.  Making money requires volume, which is going to work to the advantage of the aggregators (such as Coursera and Udacity), not to the universities or faculty members. The actual demand for college-level courses is large, but it is still limited.  As more and more universities get into the game, we’re likely to see many more courses enroll a thousand or so students rather than a hundred thousand.  (His discussion of “Algebra and the Long Tail” starts at around 42:14.)

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though.  As he emphasizes several times throughout the program, the real mission of the university is having an impact on the way students (and others) think — not in turning a profit.

How Much Time Does it Take?

Six to eight hours per hour of lecture seems to be a realistic estimate. The MOOC course required 300-400 hours of faculty work — with no graphics, music, or fancy effects. The productions weren’t particularly slick, but working as a team of one, supported by a couple of undergraduates, requires as much work as being the content expert with a larger team. Producing decent video takes much more skill and concentration than it would seem.

Your Course “Needs a Look”

Veterans of online learning have long known that consistency and coherent expectations are crucial in helping learners navigate the complexity of a course.  He cites TED and the Kahn Academy as being examples of organizations that have much different “looks” but that have established consistent expectations for users about how to navigate the sites. (He talks about this around 32:00 into the talk.) The brand really matters to enhance learning.

Strengths and Limitations of Online Learning

Now that he’s taught the course a couple of times, he’s had the chance to involve students in comparing the online and in-class versions. Page believes that the constraints of sharing video with the entire world and trying to keep it reusable strips out much of the humor, the personal stories, and the other emotional content that make even average lectures more engaging than carefully produced video.  One student noted, “You don’t seem to care as much in the videos.” He notes that he gets asked to speak on MOOCs in lots of settings, but, when he offers to send a video, almost no one takes him up on it. They want face-to-face interaction.


One of the key features of his course is its emphasis on modularity. He encourages students to guide their own journey through the material, thinking of it “like a trip the zoo,” not a “train trip from New York to L.A.”  Lectures move (somewhat) predictably from short descriptions of what the model is to a second session covering the basic mathematics.  The third session is more extended examples. Tailoring the videos towards learning individually makes the resource extremely valuable to other teachers in a variety of settings. (About 40:00 into the program.)


Teaching these courses is made even more complex by the huge charges that might be incurred for even trivial use of copyrighted materials.  Universities will have to come to some agreement with publishers, and faculty members will have to be able to have the resources to fully cover topics in online formats that approaches what they can do in their face-to-face courses. (This was a major concern for the MIT open courseware initiative as well.)

What’s the Mission?

Having your courses available in such a public venue can dramatically change the mission of a professor. Page now spends an hour a day on email dealing with high-level questions at the corporate or country level about how his ideas might apply to pressing international problems. Thousands of people from around the world have watched his materials and feel the sense of connection that encouraged them to try to draw him into their amazingly complex problems.  (46:20)

It’s not very often that I sit through an hour-long video, but this one really did grab my attention. It was a well-told story by a thoughtful academic who believes that universities have the capacity to share important ideas with learners who never would have had access to them before.

If you’re interested in reading more about MOOCs on this blog, here are a few posts that you may want to take a look at: What We Can Learn from Bryn Mawr’s Online Learning ExperimentThree Reasons MOOCs Should Include Digital Humanities ProjectsThe Final Last Word on MOOCsInconvenient Truths about MOOCs, and The MOOCs that (Almost) Ate UVA.

About Gene Roche

Gene Roche is director of Academic Information Services with responsibility for assisting faculty in using technology effectively in their teaching, learning and research. He also has an academic appointment as Executive Professor in the School of Education where he teaches courses in educational technology planning, emerging technology, and adult education and works with with students on independent study, dissertations and comprehensive exams. Current projects include working with the SOE’s Executive EdD program, co-chairing William and Mary’s Survey Center, and serving as chair of the Electronic Campus of Virginia. Gene completed his AB degree at Hamilton College and his MS and EdD degrees at Syracuse University–all in the snow belt of upstate New York. Before coming to William and Mary, he was the Director of Career Services at Hamilton and taught in graduate programs in Adult Education at Syracuse University and Elmira College.