UMass lecturer launches first Massive Open Online Course

Last modified: Wednesday, November 25, 2015

AMHERST — Large classes aren’t unusual at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. But a new one launched this week sets a record.

“Building a Basic Website,” taught by a leader of the school’s online journalism program, counts 1,000 students on its roster from around the country — and around the globe.

The enormous reach of the course is no accident. Taught by Brian McDermott, co-director of online journalism, the class is the first Massive Open Online Course at the flagship campus.

The free, non-credit course is organized as a series of video lectures available to anyone with an Internet connection, and assignments and discussion sessions students access through a secure web page.

In offering the course, UMass has joined a controversial new trend in academia. MOOCs, as they are known, have been hailed in some quarters as the future of higher education and decried in others as a threat to the type of in-depth classroom interaction that has long defined the college experience.

John Hird, senior associate dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at UMass is unfazed by the controversy. He sees the massive new course as a natural extension of the university’s mission of public education.

“The bottom line for us is how we can enhance student learning,” he said. “Rather than the sage-on-a-stage lecture, we’re trying to provide information for different styles of learning. MOOCs are a subset of all the things we can use.”

McDermott says the new MOOC is “very much an experiment,” and one well worth pursuing.

“I definitely don’t think everything can be taught this way,” he said. “It’s one more tool in the modern educational field.”

Over the past two years, elite U.S. universities such as Harvard, MIT and Stanford have created online courses based mainly on Internet lectures that have enrolled thousands — even tens of thousands — of students, worldwide. Most MOOCs, like the one at UMass, are free and offer certificates of completion rather than college credits. But administrators say that could change as the model takes hold.

A handful of spin-off companies such as Stanford’s Coursera and the joint Harvard/MIT nonprofit edX, are busy creating MOOCs using well-known professor and subjects and offering them to public and private colleges around the globe.

Some 15 new participaing colleges signed on to edX since the start of the year, bringing the total number of participating schools to 27, according to a report in the Boston Globe Wednesday. Among them are Berklee College of Music and Boston University, as well as schools in Asia and Europe.

Despite such growing interest, MOOCS have met with a mixed reception in academia — including at local higher educational institutions. Critics cite poor student completion rates for massive online courses, which some studies have shown are as low as 3 percent. Others have raised concerns that MOOCs will result in fewer faculty positions and one-size-fits-all teaching.

Last month, the faculty at Amherst College rejected a proposal to join edX by a vote of 64 percent.

Gayle Barton, the college’s chief information officer for Information Technology, says that decision does not mean Amherst will ignore MOOCs altogether.

“The fact that 36 percent voted in favor, I though that was pretty good,” she said. “This is a new idea that’s evolving very rapidly. We will continue to explore teaching with technology, which is something we’ve done for a very long time.”

Officials at Mount Holyoke College are also cautiously exploring MOOCs, including the idea of getting students involved in creating large-scale online classes.

“There are people who don’t want us to leap in,” said Alex Wirth-Cauchon, Mount Holyoke’s director of Research and Instructional Support. “We’re trying to position ourselves to take advantage of the piece of this that’s most relevant to us.”

Smith College does not offer MOOCs, nor are there plans to do so, according to college Media Relations Director Kristen Cole.

McDermott, a former photojournalist and experienced Website designer who has been a leccturer at UMass since 2009, began pitching the idea of a MOOC last fall.

The subject of web design seemed a good fit for pushing the boundaries of online teaching. “I thought this was something that would work on a massive platform,” said McDermott, 33, who registers on the affable, indie end of the college instructor scale.

How does the course work?

Each of McDermott’s 12 lessons are organized around videotaped mini-lectures, as well as links to readings and other resources. Students complete assignments they find on a secure web page and also participate in online discussions with the instructor and their classmates. The class is useful for journalism students but is designed for a general audience, the description states.

McDermott’s video sessions are a far cry from standard behind-the-podium lectures. The first one, for example, explores specific examples of well-designed websites, using colorful graphics and titles. The online lesson also offers a video interview with Lilly Pereira, a working graphic designer in Easthampton.

McDermott, who has been given a production budget but no additional staff for his course, worked with information specialists at UMass to create automated grading programs for some of his assignments. “We do want to have clear ways to measure progress,” he said.

Approximately 23 percent of the online class is comprised of UMass students, faculty or staff, and 14 percent are alumni, said McDermott, who did much of the outreach for the course via online social networks. Students range in age from their 20s to their 80s and come from other U.S. colleges and also other countries, including India, China and Greece.

While setting up the MOOC required at least as much work as a traditional course, McDermott said so far, he hasn’t been overwhelmed by emails or other communications with his many students.

“I feel really good about the course,” he said, in an interview Tuesday, the day after the new MOOC launched. “As a teacher, it’s been really exciting to think about different ways of producing content.”

Max Page, a professor of architecture and history at UMass and a member of the faculty Senate, expressed surprise that the rollout of the flagship school’s first MOOC has occurred without fanfare.

“We were pretty early on in offering regular online courses,” he said. “I don’t know if people know a lot about this one.”

Although Page said he likes the notion of expanding access to higher education through online courses, he does not consider MOOCs the best way to attract students to the university.

“UMass Amherst should be emphasizing the value of a residential experience,” Page said. “Somewhere people go to interact with human beings.”

Hird stressed that MOOCs are a complementary part of a UMass education — not a replacement for traditional or even other online courses.

“There’s a lot of hyperbole about MOOCs,” he said. “We don’t see this as some kind of future of learning, but as a way to inspire innovation.”

Hird said enrollment in McDermott’s class was purposely capped at 1,000 to help keep the “experiment” under control and allow for more careful evaluation.

“Brian has done a great job and we have a lot of confidence in him,” he added. “Once we achieve success with this, I’m expecting there will be a lot more interest by other faculty.”

For a course description and lessons, go to:


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