Massive courses: massive opportunity or massive problem?

Dan Ariely is an economist at Duke University who has been teaching a massive open online course on behavioral economics to 140,000 students, titled “A Beginner’s Guide to Irrational Behavior”. He recently sat down with the PBS NewsHour to answer questions and share perspectives about the MOOC: “The Plusses and Pitfalls of Teaching Online”. It is a long piece with many useful parts, here’s a sample:

there's a great deal of room for variance once you have over 140,000 students in a class. There's a substantial probability that at least some students will be engaged, knowledgeable, thoughtful, and passionate about the class. And indeed, the discussion boards for my online class show just this -- a select group of students truly stand out as motivated individuals who are taking the content seriously and thinking critically about how ideas can be developed and applied to the real world. In this regard, the diversity of backgrounds is also a huge benefit in online classes that are available internationally. We hear from students of different ages from around the globe who have so much to contribute. And they not only contribute by sharing their perspectives with their professor and teaching staff, but also with their fellow students.

Ariely also discusses some of the negatives of a very large student sample: the greater likelihood of disgruntled students looking to draw attention in a public forum, for example.

This is a really concern for me as I prepare my course, “Human Evolution Past and Future” (which I announced here earlier this week). A fraction of my students may have goals that include promoting creationist or fringe ideas, for example.

We are working on some strategies in both the design of the course and the materials that will help to focus students of all backgrounds on the science, while hitting their learning level appropriately. That aspect of the course will really be an important target of our assessment and research efforts. Can we engage this diverse audience productively, increasing science and evolution literacy while stemming possible attempts to derail the process?