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The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, where I’m a professor, is among the world’s oldest, largest, and best business schools, with 11 academic departments, 20 research centers, 230 standing faculty, and an endowment nearing $1 billion. With all those resource, it has produced 92,000 living alumni.

Now consider this: Over the past eight months, in two sessions of a course, I myself taught more than 140,000 people from 150 countries. In other words, I reached more students than all of my colleagues, combined, ever. To be fair, it was one non-credit course, whereas those alumni spent two to four years with us and earned a degree. Nevertheless, I was able to touch so many lives with little more than a webcam and a laptop. Welcome to the world of the massively open online course (MOOC).

If you’re interested in higher education, you’ve probably heard spectacular reports and wild predictions about MOOCs. Pundits, entrepreneurs, university administrators, graduate students, journalists, and politicians have all weighed in on the perils and promise of this new platform for teaching and learning. About the only ones who haven’t written much are the ones in the best position to describe what MOOCs really are: the faculty teaching them.

The first session of my course on gamification, the application of digital game design techniques to business, had some of the highest rates of engagement and completion of any offering on the Coursera MOOC platform. It generated more than 2 million video views and nearly 20,000 forum posts. How could I possibly grade so many students? I couldn’t. So I didn’t. Some assignments were multiple-choice tests that could be machine-graded, and for those involving writing and creativity, students evaluated each other. For these so-called peer assessments, the Coursera system automatically sends each student’s submission to five other randomly selected students. Those students get a grading rubric to score the assignments, and the option to include freeform comments as well. In my first session, a student critiqued another student’s work an astounding 187,000 times.

What’s more, I’m still getting emails, tweets, letters and other responses from participants telling me how much they loved the course. Some of these are from students excited to learn about a new field that few universities offer courses on, but many others are from entrepreneurs and corporate managers telling me how they are applying what I taught in their businesses. This was easily the most successful teaching experience of my life.

So, what’s the secret to an effective MOOC?

First, forget what you’ve probably read: MOOCs’ aren’t just “online lectures.” My course has a series of short pre-recorded video segments featuring me behind a desk discussing key topics, woven around slides, live diagrams, practitioner interviews, video clips, and thought questions posed to the students, along with discussion forums, social media exchanges, and real-time “video office hours” that I participate in. Around the same time I taught my MOOC, a Penn colleague was teaching modern poetry by filming live student seminars, and a fellow Wharton professor was teaching product design through the format of a TV cooking show. None of us used the classical long-form lecture format. (By the way, none of us do in the classroom either.) And that’s just three MOOCs out of several hundred offered or under development.

On the student side, once you get beyond those who signed up for the course with no real commitment to complete it, MOOC participants are self-selected and self-motivated. So far, no one takes a MOOC because they have to; they do it because they want to. These are students who know they are experimenting, want to explore the subject matter, and know they are getting at least what they paid for, because they paid nothing. They aren’t taking the course to fulfill a requirement or to plug a hole in their schedule. Their native interest level is therefore higher than in a traditional course.

That causes problems in the long run, as more MOOCs offer credit or valuable credentials. Not every student has the confidence, drive, and resources to join a MOOC. Many people register for MOOCs – which are generally free today – without a real commitment or the time available to complete them.  And let’s face it: watching videos at home isn’t the same experience as going to a classroom. For these and other reasons, a small percentage of those who sign up for MOOCs complete all the requirements to “pass” the course. The typical numbers are three to five percent. For my course it was around ten percent, which I’m proud of, but we still have a long way to go.  Very soon we’ll have to confront what happens when a system optimized for self-starters collides with the realities of higher education as a gateway to jobs and other opportunities.

Even with self-motivated students, teaching a MOOC poses challenges. I can see when students are nodding off in one of my classes at Wharton, or check their comprehension by asking a question. I can’t do that in a MOOC. That forces me to focus relentlessly on student engagement. There are some sixty video segments in my course, most of them less than 10 minutes long. I worked hard to make every one self-contained and appealing, yet also tied to the larger narrative. It took hundreds of hours to put the course together, but it was worth it.

The biggest thing I learned is that MOOC students want to feel like they are interacting with a real person. As off-putting as it is for me to talk to a webcam rather than a row of faces, it’s even worse for students to contemplate being taught by a robot or a tape recorder. That’s the quickest way for them to drop out or tune out. So I tried to make the students feel like I was talking to them as a real person, not an august expert on stage. And I threw in elements to make the course feel alive, like a challenge to find a hidden message amid shifting objects in the bookcases behind me in the video. Students responded to these with gusto on the discussion forums. It didn’t hurt the bits of fun did double-duty as illustrations of the game design principles I was teaching about.

There is a popular misconception that MOOCs are taught by “rock star faculty.” As appealing as I find that statement personally, it’s simply wrong. The best teachers aren’t necessarily the most famous public intellectuals or the most distinguished researchers, and elite universities emphasize the latter. A professor who can give a spellbinding lecture may not be best-suited to construct an engaging MOOC, or willing to put in the kind of effort involved.  And most important, rock stars act like, well, rock stars. That’s the worst possible attitude going into a MOOC.

Dirty little secret No. 1: I recorded and edited my MOOC entirely myself, with inexpensive home studio gear purchased on Amazon. Some MOOC instructors staff up an army of instructional designers, videographers, and technicians, but I think that’s a mistake. The DIY approach ensures that the course as delivered reflects my vision. And the fact that, while the video and audio quality is quite good, my course would never be mistaken for a Hollywood production, is actually more of a feature than a bug: It humanizes the experience for the students. Not to mention that it makes it easier to change or replace elements of the course in subsequent sessions, or to throw the whole thing out and start over. After all, the MOOC landscape is changing at breakneck speed. In three years the typical MOOC will be completely different than today, so why invest in cathedral-like courses now?

Dirty little secret No. 2: I’d never taught an online course before I did my MOOC. And that was a big reason for its success. I didn’t take anything for granted or do anything familiar; I had to feel my way based on what I thought would work best in this format. In contrast, the Coursera offering that failed most spectacularly, and had to be shut down only days after launching, was a course by an instructor with deep experience teaching online. I feel badly for her, but failures are as important to advancing the state of MOOC pedagogy as successes, if not more so.

Not to say my course didn’t have its glitches. Many students the first time out were confused by Coursera’s deadline structures for assignments… and, truth be told, so was I. A number of students submitted an assignment late because the Coursera system, for some reason, showed the deadline as Sunday night CST (Central Standard Time). For students in China, CST means China Standard Time, and Sunday night there was Monday where the deadline was recorded. And don’t get me started on the weekend all of Coursera disappeared from the Internet when the hacker collective Anonymous took down its domain name registrar for completely unrelated reasons.

The only thing I could do in these difficult situation was to be present, communicating as actively and with as much good humor as I could manage. Again, students are much more willing to be tolerant of human beings doing their best than of slick automated systems. On the positive side, both I and Coursera learned from our experiences. I’m sure we’ll find new mistakes to make, but we should be able to avoid making the same ones the next time.

For faculty, MOOCs are a license to innovate and experiment at scale. Lecture halls, semester schedules, and university requirements can limit the range of possibilities in a traditional course, even those offered online through distance learning. MOOCs change all that by decoupling courses in time and from institutional boundaries. What we’ve seen so far is only the beginning. They aren’t right for every situation, and they’re still primitive in many ways. Discussion and collaboration tools, personalized learning based on analytics, and reliable assessments just some of the key elements of MOOCs that are barely at the alpha test stage. Those who rhapsodize about MOOCs slashing college tuition costs don’t appreciate how early we are in the process, or that new platforms have limitations as well as benefits.

Ultimately, instructors will use MOOCs to push on the definition of a “course.” We’ll see greater variation in lengths, subject matter, learning objectives, and course structures than on campus. In that environment, profs like me will have to compete against MOOC taught by those who aren’t employed by universities. Bring it on. If there’s one thing the world needs, it’s more great teaching and more great learning.

[Image Credit: schwa242 on Flickr]