The mechanics behind making a better MOOC

8-mrev-2The rush to convert popular college courses into MOOC’s is a strong indicator that we’re still in the early days of the MOOC phenomenon—“first-to-market” has long been the golden rule for all things Internet. But a new MITx course starting June 1, Mechanics ReView, offers a peek at what a more mature MOOC market might start to offer its audience.

A team of educational technology specialists from MIT’s RELATE Lab have designed their MOOC with a pedagogical focus and attention that sets it apart from the rest. “Within the next year or two, we expect to see a lot of standard introductory mechanics courses out there to choose from, and we believe it’s worth creating a niche,” said Dr. Colin Fredericks, who helped create Mechanics Review, “This course will be quite different from the rest.”

By closely studying where past students have encountered difficulties with introductory mechanics, the RELATE team designed a course that is specifically designed to help students more effectively ground themselves in Newtonian physics. Mechanics ReView gives learners not simply a better toolkit for solving physics problems, but a richer understanding of the world around them. “Physics is really just a way of creating a mental and mathematical model of the world,” offered Fredericks, “Something that’s close enough to the real world to allow us to perform calculations and figure out what would happen. Once you understand the model, everything else falls into place.”

The course was initially conceived as a recovery course for MIT freshman who had performed poorly in introductory mechanics, but the course proved so successful at both lifting student grades and enhancing academic performance in later courses that the RELATE team expanded it for a broader audience of teachers and independent learners.

“Our goal was to help students cultivate what we call an ‘expert’ scientific attitude. When faced with a problem to solve in physics, a non-expert looks through all the equations he or she has memorized and finds one that fits the problem. But an expert thinks about which concepts apply and chooses the right one,” explained Fredericks, “Building that strong conceptual foundation is one of the things that creates that style of expert thinking.”

Mechanics ReView covers all the core topics of an introductory mechanics class—force, energy, torque and momentum—but forces students to identify the underlying conceptual models that govern a situation, rather than simply memorizing equations. “For any question, we ask the students to identify the system,” said Fredericks, “In the original course, we always asked students to put the interaction model onto the board. In the online version, you can click and reveal the interaction models that we used for our example problems. We want to constantly reinforce that way of thinking about and breaking down problems.

A second important differentiator of Mechanics ReView is the course designers’ focus on cultivating openness. “We wanted to make sure that the course is available and usable by others. That’s partly about being a good Samaritan, but we also really believe that we’ve got a good methodology,” Fredericks explained, “We’d like to see others using it. The best way to encourage the adoption of our method is to make sure that it’s easy for others to use.

Through their conversations with other teachers, and their in-depth work with the LON-CAPA bank of physics questions, the RELATE team discovered some of the more subtle difficulties that can stand in the way of adoption of open education materials. “What we’ve found is that often the single greatest barrier is simply time – it takes time to incorporate someone else’s resources into your own work,” said Fredericks, “Part of the solution is making a better database of your problems – not simply based on what chapter it’s in, but the actual learning objectives that these problems test.” Thus, by isolating and tagging their questions’ relationships to the concepts taught in the course, they are hopeful that others can more easily repurpose and use their problems.

Through their commitment to both students and teachers, demonstrated in their innovative pedagogical methods and the highly effective questions embedded throughout the course, the RELATE team demonstrate what will likely become key factors in the success of future MOOC’s.

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