Last year, Mechanical Engineering Professor Paul Nissenson did something that no one had ever done before in Cal Poly Pomona history.
He created the university’s first MOOC.
MOOCs, also known as massive online open courses, use web-based technologies to bring university-level instruction to people across the globe free of charge.
Nissenson’s course, which teaches computer programming using the Visual Basic for Applications language in Microsoft Excel, proved to be a hit last year and drew about 2,000 enrollees.
This year, he and his colleague, Mechanical Engineering Professor Todd Coburn, are going much, much bigger, with a goal of enrolling 10,000 students, and he’s trying to do it at no cost to the university.
“MOOCs on a budget is our thing,” Nissenson says. “We’re doing this for a fraction of the cost of what big name schools are doing it for.”
One way he’s keeping costs low is by using content he’s already created, some from a hybrid course he taught, and some from last year’s MOOC. He’s also hired student assistants to help him produce content and moderate the discussion board, rather than outsourcing those to outside vendors, which can be costly.
“We’re just making all this stuff in house using student assistants,” he says. “I don’t know if anyone else has done it like that.”
Even then, the class is expected to cost the university roughly $10,000. To offset that expense, Nissenson plans to try something new this year— selling supplementary course materials, like a quick-reference guide or PowerPoint slides. He says he’ll break even if 5 percent of the students purchase the materials.
Nissenson says the unforeseen challenges he faced in last year’s class have made him better prepared to run a scaled-up version this year.
“I didn’t appreciate what it meant to have 2,000 people in a class,” he says. “So if 3 percent are having issues with how something is worded, that means you’re going to get 60 emails.”
He also hopes to use the class as a form of outreach to high school students.
“If you look at the people who enroll in MOOCs, it’s usually 75 percent-plus professional people who are taking the course to enhance themselves for a job. In our last MOOC, only about 10 percent were from high schools in California. If we can boost that, they might be more likely to come here.”
The online nature of MOOCs has led some critics to deride them as cold and impersonal, but Nissenson says his experience has been very different.
“It gives me this nice warm, fuzzy feeling to help people from all over the world,” he says. “I don’t think I would’ve done this again if I hadn’t gotten really nice feedback the first time. I received so many heart-felt emails from people who were genuinely happy for taking the course and learning a new skill — I never would have interacted with these people, I never would have come close to touching their lives in a meaningful way without the MOOC.”
Registration for “Introduction to Excel VBA Programming” is open to everyone and continues through April 4. The course begins March 30.
For more information, and to register, visit https://openeducation.blackboard.com/mooc-catalog/courseDetails/view?course_id=_219_1