Open online courses reach thousands

Published Jun 12, 2018

Threat or opportunity for Sweden’s universities? When the first MOOCs, open online courses, started at KTH two years ago, opinion was divided.
“Today we emphasise the opportunities. We have reached more than 28,000 course participants from 150 countries and we see MOOCs as a tool in KTH’s necessary digital transformation,” says Linda Barman, project manager of KTH MOOC.

KTH’s first open online course was launched in April 2016. The ground-breaking course, about manned space flight, was led by Christer Fuglesang and was the start of a three-year strategic initiative. The original aim was to run at least ten MOOCs (massive open online courses) over the next three years.

“But by the end of this year we’ll have offered 16 different MOOCs, or at least 22 different courses, if you count courses we have run more than once,” says Linda Barman who came on board as project manager one year in.

Linda Barman explains that to begin with, the strongest drivers were boosting the visibility of the university’s research and ‘putting KTH on the world map’, as well as KTH doing its bit for lifelong learning across broader society. The aims have gradually expanded. Today KTH’s MOOC team is increasingly working to develop support for the university’s digitalisation of teaching and learning.

“The tools, methods and ways of working that we have drawn up are important as support for KTH’s focus on e-learning,” says Linda Barman. “The members of the MOOC team and the 50–60 teachers who were involved in developing the courses have built up a huge amount of expertise on how we at KTH can get even better at exploiting digital technology for teaching purposes.”

Powerful teaching method

Two lecturers who have developed their own online courses are Johan Jansson, Assistant Professor in Scientific Computing, and Linda Rose, Associate Professor in the Division of Ergonomics. Both have excellent experiences and think MOOCs complement traditional teaching well.

“I see this as the future. It is a very powerful teaching method that can make some learning more efficient,” says Johan Jansson, who has developed a basic course in finite element modelling, which is a numerical method, and an advanced course in computational fluid dynamics on a supercomputer.

Johan Jansson says that he has long been interested in modern teaching methods and that he was attracted by the opportunities offered by the MOOC format to link practical programming with abstract theory. His courses interweave video lectures with the student carrying out programming tasks directly in a browser.

“The format is in line with the educational focus at KTH where we are increasingly moving away from the traditional form of teaching in 90-minute lectures. Here students can prepare on their own before the meeting with the teacher. When it’s then time for the face-to-face meeting, you get more of an open seminar with extremely high quality discussions.”

Many MOOCs are adapted for research students and students who have already progressed in their studies. However, there are also examples of courses geared towards industry and the business community. Linda Rose’s three online courses in applying a specific method, RAMP, to prevent work-related injuries are in this category.

“As I see it, MOOCs offer two major advantages,” says Linda Rose. “They are free, and they are a route out to a much wider audience. In traditional teaching at KTH we might train 30 students but here we can reach the whole world.”

Measuring success

One of Linda Rose’s three planned courses is available at the moment. The first started a month ago and she is positively surprised by the response.

“Without any actual marketing, about 500 course participants registered, from 80 countries.”

The question, however, is how to measure success in the MOOC world. Is success defined by the number of people who sign up or the number who complete the course? Johan Jansson is happy to say that about 550 of his 8,000 registered participants on the basic course successfully completed at least one task.

“This shows that they engaged with the material at a deeper level,” he says.

Of the 550, about 100 applied for a certificate and a third of those passed.

“But perhaps the most relevant figures for me if you compare it with traditional teaching, are that about 80 students from KTH registered and about 200 from the rest of Sweden. This means that we gained considerably larger exposure than on an equivalent standard course which admits 20 students.”

Business partnerships

In total more than 28,000 course participants have signed up to one of KTH’s MOOCs. On the other hand, not that many of them complete the course.

“It might be due to the fact that the participant’s main aim in taking a MOOC is not to learn everything but to find out about something specific that they need to know. We measure different key indicators for different courses and it is often other aspects, such as the development the teachers then bring to on-campus teaching or the partnerships we launched with business that are more important,” says Linda Barman.

Linda Barman does not see MOOCs posing a threat to traditional university teaching.

“A MOOC is a very short course, after all, and is only equivalent to a small module of a normal on-campus course. The universities, teachers and programmes will continue to play a major role on into the future. On the other hand, MOOCs have an importance as a complementary element, where people in the business community can gain deeper knowledge or where students can receive extra support on topics that we know are hard to get through.”

Linda Barman is convinced that KTH will want to be an important player when it comes to lifelong learning and that MOOCs have a part to play in this. However, she believes that in the future the meaning of the term MOOC will come to expand, covering a wider remit than it does at KTH today.

“We will probably be talking about digital course production, where some parts are used in on-campus teaching and others are made openly available.”

Text: Per-Ola Knutas

KTH’s MOOC initiative

  • Since the launch in 2016, by the end of 2018 KTH will have offered a total of 16 open online courses, MOOCs, on 22 occasions.
  • Externally KTH calls the initiative KTHx. The university’s range of MOOCs is linked to the international EdX platform where interested learners set up an account to participate in the courses, which are free and open to everyone.
  • In total more than 28,000 students, researchers and businesspeople have registered for the online courses, from 150 countries.
  • At the moment MOOCs do not provide higher education credits but some courses offer the option of certification for a fee of between SEK 250 and 2,500.
  • Besides Linda Rose’s and Johan Jansson’s courses, KTH’s provision includes MOOCs on cyber-physical networks and digital transformation. All of the current courses can be found here.
  • The MOOC team have created guides and support for digital course production, such as a workshop for teachers wanting to use video in the classroom.
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