Behind the scenes of my MOOC

2 minute read

The alumni magazine of the University of Wisconsin-Madison has done a great article about my recent massive open online course (MOOC), written by the science writer Jill Sakai: “Behind the Screens”. The article introduces some of the team behind the creation of the course, and discusses how we made some of the course’s more unique elements:

He assembled a portable video kit and carried it everywhere, recording interviews with experts and lectures at field sites all around the world. He caught colleagues at conferences and at digs, in labs and over beers, and he talked to them about what they do and why, what they’ve learned, and what it means. He sent small cameras into the field with UW students to capture the unique feel of an archaeological site — a mixture of tedium and toil punctuated by flashes of discovery.
Then, working with a team from the academic technology group of the university’s Division of Information Technology (DoIT), he edited dozens of hours of footage into eight units of five- to twenty-minute video segments that were posted on the Coursera site each week from mid-January through mid-March this year.

I have been following up the data we gathered during the course. We saw some remarkable outcomes – including the global scope of the students, their willingness to assist in evaluating their own learning during the course, and their interactions with each other through discussion forums. I have been inspired by some of the stories students told about their experiences. The outcomes have deepened my commitment to bring the stories of human evolution research out to a global public.

MOOC skeleton photo illustration
Photo illustration by Earl Madden, for On Wisconsin

The entire process was enormously time-intensive, and the graduate student TA’s were incredibly important to the success of the project. I’m very pleased that Sakai was able to feature the work of the entire team:

In the sea of students, those forums served as a source of community, say graduate teaching assistants Sarah Traynor PhDx’15 and Alia Gurtov MS’13, PhDx’15, with posts ranging from the serious to the lighthearted. “They made a forum called The Pub, and people would go in and chat, [writing], ‘Welcome to the course, grab a beer, and sit down and talk!’ ” says Traynor.
Watching the videos is less like watching documentaries and more like sitting in on real conversations between people who happen to be world-class experts and professional colleagues. Their talks dig into the very roots of the human race.

As many readers have noticed, I have begun releasing some of the videos here on the weblog and through YouTube. I’ll continue to premiere these during the next few months, particularly as I have been adding new interviews and films in anticipation of offering the course again sometime in 2015.