Before they took their seats in front of the camera under the warm lights of a new studio, Sam Gosling reminded his co-host, James Pennebaker, the chairman of the psychology department at the University of Texas at Austin, to run down the hall and apply his makeup.
Introduction to Psychology was about to go live online as a synchronous massive online course, or “SMOC,” a new model of instruction the university is piloting this fall.
“The territory is so new here,” Gosling, a tenured professor, said the next morning. “Are we essentially televising a class or are we trying to make a kind of educational TV show?” The answer, he said, is probably somewhere in between, following a trend toward online courses intended to extend the reach of higher education beyond a university’s campus.
As the class began, about 800 UT-Austin students logged in to computers or mobile devices to participate. Roughly two dozen had been randomly chosen to be the studio audience, but most of the students were elsewhere. Some weren’t on campus at all. For the first time, students from outside UT-Austin were also able to sign up for the course, which was designed to accommodate up to 10,000 students.
The structure of the course invites a comparison to the massive open online courses, known as MOOCs, which are offered free — though usually not for credit — to anyone with an internet connection. UT-Austin will launch its first four MOOCs this semester.
But to take the SMOC, which is offered for credit, students who are not enrolled at the university must pay $550 and block off their Tuesday and Thursday evenings to participate in real time.
Gosling and Pennebaker, who have taught together for years, said their course has been steadily evolving.
“We’ve always been tinkering, experimenting, trying new things, trying to push the class forward,” Gosling said.
In addition to the high production value, the benefit of the SMOC as compared to some other online offerings, he said, is the level of interactivity students have with each other and with the instructors. During class, students move between presentations from the professors and online chat room discussions about the course material. The professors can view and respond to the discussions and other questions. Students are graded by online quizzes given before each class.
Marla Gilliland, a senior project manager at the university who oversees the production of the psychology course and another SMOC for the government department, said there were up to 30 staff members and student employees on call to assist with the production of the first class. She said that number was expected to be reduced as they became more accustomed to the new studio.
Though the initial classes have gone smoothly from a technological perspective, fewer than 30 students from outside the university have signed up for this first offering, far below the number expected.
“There have been so many moving parts to this,” Pennebaker said. “One part that was not moving was marketing.”
With additional promotion, the course could reach a wider audience, he said, which could be a financial boon to the university.
The professors also pointed out that this course, like other efforts to expand access to college courses, is still in an experimental stage.
“It’s clear that education is going in that direction, broadly speaking,” Gosling said. “It’s going to take a while before they figure out quite how to do that.
“We’ll take some wrong steps, of course,” he said, “but we want to find out what works and what doesn’t.”