MOOCs and SMOCs contribute to UT’s online learning initiative

David Engleman

In accordance with President William Powers Jr.’s plan for online teaching technologies, UT professors are experimenting with the world’s first synchronous massive online course (SMOC).

After Powers published a report in August outlining his vision for technology, UT created its first massive open online courses (MOOCs) and the SMOC. Recently, the University participated in the development of new technological enhancements that range from MyEdu and Blackboard to the UT System’s membership in edX. 

Powers’ proposal included five guiding principles for technology-enhanced education. Those principles were to ensure faculty control the curriculum, to support and reward faculty, to create a model that is financially sustainable, to share content and to continue to innovate for the benefit of students. 

The SMOC, which is an introductory psychology course co-taught by professors James Pennebaker and Samuel Gosling, costs less than a regular course on campus at $550, and is available to anyone with a computer. 

Pennebaker said he thinks the SMOC could be a viable model for technology-enhanced education that would fulfill Powers’ goals of innovating for the benefit of students. He also said the financial model of SMOCs is highly sustainable.

Gosling said the SMOC allows more students to participate than would fit in a lecture hall and once the startup costs are covered, UT could profit as the first university offering this new model of instructional technology.

“In terms of the psychology of teaching, I think the real key is trying to retain what works in an in-person class,” Gosling said. 

UT spokesman Gary Susswein said that “flipped” classrooms in which students learn online and apply their knowledge in class are a major way the University is helping its students learn more. Susswein said the SMOC is expected to generate revenue on campus.

“Students can use … streaming technology to learn material outside of the classroom and then engage directly with the professor and have an intellectual give-and-take [in class],” Susswein said.

Studio art freshman Anna Escamilla, who is taking the SMOC this semester, said the online course is both convenient and frustrating. Escamilla said that while she enjoys the casual nature of taking a class from home, there are some drawbacks.

“I personally like to learn not just by listening to a lecture or watching an educational video, but by being in the physical presence of my professor,” Escamilla said. 

Diana Pop, international relations and global studies sophomore, said in her classes the online tools used by the University have made online work more convenient, including collaborating with classmates on platforms like Canvas and Hoot.Me. 

While these technologies were encouraged by Powers in his report, he said the transition will not entirely replace traditional classroom instruction.

“Face-to-face interactions among students and professors can never be fully replicated in cyberspace,” Powers said.