Government and psychology SMOCs show promise as new teaching model


Sam Ortega

Psychology professors Sam Gosling and James Pennebaker are currently teaching one of UT's first Synchronous Massive Online Courses, or SMOCs.

Jennifer Ebbeler

In the fall of 2012, psychology professors James Pennebaker and Sam Gosling launched a bold teaching experiment: They moved their face-to-face, lecture-based Psychology 301 course from the classroom to the Internet. They live-streamed the course to an audience of approximately 900 enrolled students. Twenty-five to 30 students were invited to attend each taping, to play the part of the studio audience, but the majority of students took the semester-long course online. The pedagogical, logistical and technical challenges of such an undertaking are enormous, not least because it meant that UT had to ensure that there was sufficient bandwidth available on campus for such a large number of students to access the recordings simultaneously. To facilitate the delivery of the course, the Liberal Arts Instructional Technology Services (LAITS) worked with Pennebaker and Gosling to design and build an in-house platform called TOWER (Texas Online World of Educational Research). At present, the functionality of TOWER can be embedded in the CANVAS learning management system that UT-Austin has adopted and begun to implement across campus. The TOWER platform allows the instructor to capture data about how students use the available tools, navigate quizzes and interact with content, thus providing instructors with valuable insights into how students are learning the course content. In a very real way, it has taken a village of coders, graphic designers and a talented audio and video team, as well as two talented faculty, to produce this innovative learning experience for UT-Austin students.

This fall, Pennebaker and Gosling returned to the recording studio with renewed energy, an improved version of TOWER and an even more ambitious plans for their course. They have renamed it a SMOC, that is, a Synchronous Massive Online Course. Their plan is to offer it not only to UT-Austin students but to learners around the state, country and even world for the very reasonable price of $550 — substantially less than a 3-credit, campus-based UT-Austin course. This fall, the students are primarily UT-Austin students, approximately 750 of them, but with some aggressive marketing, that audience could expand to include current high school students, lifelong learners and others. Also this fall, the live streaming course experiment has expanded to include a second large-enrollment course, Government 310L, American Government. The course is led by the veteran teaching team of government professor Daron Shaw and associate government professor Eric McDaniel. It was capped at 700 students, but on the model of Psychology 301, could be scaled up to reach thousands of students at once.

In both Psychology 301 and Government 310L, the twice-weekly, 75-minute class sessions begin with a 10-minute online benchmark quiz that assesses students’ mastery of previous material. The quizzes are individualized and the TOWER platform makes it possible to have previously missed questions reappear in altered form on future quizzes. In the SMOC format, larger-stakes midterm exams have been entirely replaced by these short, formative assessments that require students to stay engaged with the course content on a class-to-class basis. As Pennebaker notes, “There is now compelling research evidence going back 25 years that students learn more and more effectively if they are tested frequently and learn from their mistakes.” The challenge, he continues, is managing the logistics of frequent assessment in a large-enrollment class. Moving the quizzes online, with the capacity to offer immediate feedback, has made it possible to apply this research to the pedagogy of a large class.

Following the benchmark quiz is a live, interactive lecture. Both teams of instructors sit at a desk with their laptops in front of them and discuss the course content, often with a significant amount of entertaining banter, video clips and demonstrations. For the student on the other end (full disclosure: I played the role of student for several weeks in Psychology 301), the experience is somewhat akin to watching an informative talk show. Guest experts visit the studio to speak about their research and there are repeat segments, such as “In the Laboratory” or “Psychology in the News.” The element of synchronicity comes into play when students are asked to take surveys, participate in polls and engage in group discussions. Additionally, over the course of the semester, functions have been added to TOWER that allow students to send in questions. For Pennebaker and Gosling, the fact that their lectures are live streaming is essential. “The live broadcast … allows the class to generate a shared sense of excitement about learning,” Gosling said.

The SMOC is still very much an evolving model of course delivery. With each iteration and expansion to new courses, instructors are learning more about what students need to learn effectively in this brave new online environment. They are experimenting with the interplay of synchronous and asynchronous learning and figuring out how best to engage students during a live streaming lecture. At the same time, as all of the current instructors report, it is a challenge to teach at a distance from students. “The biggest weakness with this is that we cannot read students’ faces,” McDaniel said. “While students have the opportunity to post questions in the chat room, few do … This medium requires the students to be much more active in asking questions.” 

Psychology 301 and Government 310L have been trailblazers in the world of synchronous course delivery. While we still have much to learn about the pedagogy of synchronous delivery, for what courses this mode is best suited and how we can produce high-quality courses at a reasonable cost, it is certain that the SMOC will play a role in the future of UT-Austin students. As McDaniel put it, “Students should still have the opportunity for traditional intro classes, [but] I believe that [the SMOC] can relieve the burden on professors to teach massive lecture courses and give students more freedom in how they take these courses. While there will be trial and error, I believe that its benefits far outweigh the costs.”

Ebbeler is an associate classics professor from Claremont, Calif. Follow Ebbeler on Twitter @jenebbeler.