Faculty Spotlight: John Owens

jdo-closeupDr. John Owens, professor of electrical and computer engineering at UC Davis, takes a pretty traditional approach to undergraduate education at UC Davis—he regularly uses PowerPoint lecture slides, which he prints for his students, and he argues that “instructional technology is a tool. It can be used well and efficiently, and it can be used poorly.” Simply listening to some teachers speak, or watching them draw diagrams in chalk, is a compelling and effective learning experience, while watching other teachers use PowerPoint is a dispiriting experience (as Owens put it, “I’ve had horrid teachers that can’t PowerPoint their way out of a paper bag”). However, when instructional technology is used well, it opens doors to effective and innovative teaching and learning.

Last summer, Owens’ curiosity was piqued by the instructional technology innovations happening in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). He talked with people at Coursera and at Udacity, and decided to develop a Parallel Computing MOOC with Udacity. By the time he co-taught the MOOC in winter 2013, 25,000 students had enrolled. The course lasted for seven weeks and consisted of seven hour-long lectures and six student projects, all of which were auto-graded. At the end of the seventh week, 2,000 students received a certificate of completion. (This 10% completion rate is on par with other MOOCs; students may also continue to work through the course well after it is technically “finished.”) The course is also being re-launched in China in a few weeks.

In addition to designing the six projects, much of Owens’ time was spent creating the seven lectures. “It took about two days to write an hour-long lecture,” Owens explains, “ as well as a day to record it and 32 hours of editing by Udacity’s video editors.” Interestingly, Owens found that he had to change his lecture style when creating the video: “the lectures were taught in a dense style—there were no sum-ups or previews like I do when I teach face-to-face—because when the students are watching videos, they can rewind. In a MOOC, it is important to use students’ time wisely.”

Owens’ interactions with his students were also very different in the MOOC. For starters, it is impossible to get to know thousands of students. And the students he did have the opportunity to meet treated him like a rock star: “They students would come up to me at conferences and want to take a picture with me, and then they’d go tweet about it!” The students also told him that, “the opportunity to learn these skills were literally a life-changing experience.”

Lecture style and student interaction only scratch the surface of the differences between a MOOC and a face-to-face course. When talking about the MOOC, Owens made it perfectly clear that he does not consider MOOCs to be equivalent or even comparable to the types of face-to-face courses offered at institutions like UC Davis. “The MOOC was not designed to replace a university course,” Owens repeated, “it was not designed to be offered for credit.” To those who are interested in offering MOOCs for credit, the message is: you’ll need to design them differently.

While UC Davis was supportive of Owens’ project, the time he spent developing and teaching the MOOC were designated as “teaching for another institution for pay.” He did the work on his own time, in addition to his regular commitments at UC Davis. Clearly the MOOC took incredible time and effort on Owens’ part, but when asked if he would do it again, he says, “Absolutely.”

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