‘Deep dive’ in popular fields is aim of next generation of MOOCs

Vanderbilt teams up with University of Maryland to offer trans-institutional sequence of massive open online courses

Enabling students taking massive open online courses to dive deeper into learning and develop mastery in a particular subject are the aims of a new generation of MOOCs called “Specializations” launched today by the online learning platform Coursera.

Vanderbilt University and the University of Maryland have teamed up to offer the first trans-institutional Specialization with a sequence of coordinated MOOCs titled “Mobile Cloud Computing with Android” that focuses on connecting handheld devices with cloud services. The Maryland portion of the sequence begins Jan. 21.

“Our faculty have been at the forefront in exploring how to best leverage online platforms to use what we’ve learned, and what we teach, at Vanderbilt to innovate education worldwide,” Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos said. “With this new approach, we’re witnessing true transformation in education, and I am thrilled that Vanderbilt is helping to lead the way.”

Doug Schmidt, professor of computer science and computer engineering and co-leader of the new specialization, taught one of Vanderbilt’s first MOOCs in the spring of 2013.

“Teaching a MOOC by myself was exhilarating, but the knowledge and skills needed to master a topic like concurrent and networked software development are far more complex than any one instructor could ever hope to cover in a single course,” Schmidt said. “That’s why I’ve teamed up with Professor Adam Porter from the University of Maryland and Assistant Professor Jules White from Vanderbilt to offer the first trans-institutional sequence of MOOCs on the Coursera platform. These MOOCs build upon and codify decades of research and development we’ve conducted together and separately at our respective institutions and bring the collaboration we’ve successfully experienced in our research to our teaching for the first time.”

Coursera will be launching an initial set of nine Specializations over the next few months. Two of the Specializations — Vanderbilt and Maryland’s “Programming Mobile Cloud Computing Applications with Android” and “How to Understand and Compose Arguments” from Duke University — have just begun and are open to enrollment. Additional Specializations are in development from Berklee College of Music, Commonwealth Education Trust, University of Geneva, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, Johns Hopkins University, Leiden University and Rice University.

“We are delighted at the interest from our university partners in offering these Specializations, which provide coherent programs of study in which students everywhere can acquire a substantial set of skills and, in some cases, demonstrate their applicability in a unique capstone project,” said Daphne Koller, Coursera’s co-founder and co-CEO. “This new program will also give universities new opportunities to collaborate on content and explore novel approaches to teaching.”

Many Specializations, including the Vanderbilt-Maryland MOOC sequence, will culminate with a capstone project that allows students to apply what they’ve learned to relevant, real-world scenarios. Students completing the series will receive a Specialization certificate verifying their completion of a top-notch academic program.

“Our MOOC sequence is particularly relevant to researchers and developers of mobile software in industry and academia,” Jules White said. “It connects experienced software professionals and cutting-edge advances in mobile cloud computing with motivated learners who possess diverse backgrounds, skills and interests.”

The Vanderbilt-Maryland Specialization was first announced in September 2013 and has since been expanded to include four sequenced courses. The first MOOC in the sequence—the Univer­sity of Maryland’s course “Pro­gramming Mobile Applications for Android Handheld Systems”—will focus on design and implementation of user-facing applications. The first Vander­bilt course—“Programming Mobile Services for Android Handheld Systems”—will focus on middleware systems pro­gramming topics, such as synchronous and asynchronous concur­rency models, background service pro­cessing, structured data management, and local inter-process communication and networking. The next Vanderbilt MOOC in the se­quence—“Programming Cloud Services for Android Handheld Systems”—will focus on inte­grating mobile devices with compu­ting clouds. The final course in the sequence will be a joint cap­stone project of­fered to stu­dents who successfully master the material in the earlier MOOCs.

“Deliberatively designed MOOC sequences, like the Vanderbilt-Maryland specialization, represent a tremendous shift in the higher education landscape,” said Douglas Fisher, director of the Vanderbilt Institute for Digital Learning. “Faculty from across multiple universities are collaborating together, not simply to create single courses, but to create larger curricular level constructs that are available the world over. Vanderbilt, Maryland and Coursera have taken an important nascent step towards pedagogically sound, crowd-sourced curricula — it’s really amazing!”

In addition to Schmidt and White’s courses, additional Vanderbilt courses are being offered this spring on Coursera. Instructor of Nursing Jamie Pope’s popular “Nutrition, Health, and Lifestyle: Issues and Insights,” course began Jan. 20. A new course, “Student Thinking at the Core,” aimed at teachers and taught by Barbara Stengel and Marcy Singer Gabella from the Department of Teaching and Learning at Peabody College, kicks off Feb. 20.

At the time of launch, more than 150,000 students have enrolled in the Vanderbilt-Maryland sequence. Approximately 1,600 of the 31,000 students who initially enrolled in Schmidt’s first stand-alone MOOC completed it. This completion rate of five to 10 percent is average at this point for MOOCs, but still far surpasses the number of students taught in similar courses on campus. “For perspective, it would take me 20 years to teach the same number of students at Vanderbilt that I taught in one semester via the Coursera MOOC platform,” Schmidt said.

Register for the MOOCs in the Vanderbilt-Maryland Specialization on the Coursera website.  Visit the Vanderbilt section on the Coursera website to learn more about and register for Vanderbilt’s other MOOCs.

Visit the Vanderbilt Institute for Digital Learning website to learn more about the university’s digital learning initiatives.