MOOCs: Global Reach, Local Impact

When first offering “Everything is the Same: Modelling Engineered Systems” as a massive open online course (MOOC) in the fall of 2013, McCormick School of Engineering Associate Professor Todd Murphey was open to experimentation. By leading McCormick’s first MOOC, Murphey was excited to provide access to leading-edge instruction in engineering to people from around the world for free. Additionally, offering his course online allowed him the freedom to “try out new pedagogical ideas and have online students give us feedback.”

Since launching, the course has certainly reached a global audience. From people considering graduate studies in engineering to working professionals, job hunters looking to strengthen their resume, college students, and even high school students looking to get a taste of college-level coursework, thousands of students took part in the learning.

However, some of the most important advancements to come out of this experiment directly benefited Northwestern undergraduates.

Murphey had his engineering students enroll in the MOOC side-by-side with MOOC learners from all over the world as part of their on-campus course. His students’ participation in online forums and discussions greatly enhanced the level of discussion in the classroom so that students could delve into higher-level topics during the course.

Development of the MOOC required translating material from McCormick’s undergraduate curriculum into a medium that students would find more intuitive than traditional books. The result was the development of video material that could be used to “flip” the on campus Engineering Analysis 3 course, allowing students the ability to view online video content prior to coming to class.

Murphey found that having students watch material ahead of time made the in-class experience more efficient and beneficial.

“Sometimes we talked about questions students had, sometimes we even talked about questions they had from other classes,” he said. “Sometimes I had them do experiments, but I still had the same amount of contact with them—possibly more.”  

Students in the Engineering Analysis 3 class also benefitted from the “crowdsourced pedagogy” that Murphey employed in his MOOC. This created a reciprocity of shared ideas with Murphey teaching students around the world and simultaneously incorporating new insights into coursework on campus. It is still too early to know the full range of benefits the MOOC provides, but Murphey is sure that continued experimentation will push him to think more carefully about class design, both on and offline.