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Professors John Puckett and Michael Johanek will discuss the history of American education reform with students in GSE's first Massive Open Online Course (MOOC).

Credit: Tiffany Pham

If you’ve ever wanted to learn about the history of education reform in the United States — and wanted to do it for absolutely free and on your own schedule — you have the chance starting today.

Penn Graduate School of Education professors John Puckett and Michael Johanek are co-teaching the first Massive Open Online Course, or MOOC, to come out of the school.

The eight-week course, titled “American Education Reform: History, Policy, Practice” will survey the progress of American education from the colonial period to the modern day. The class is developed from an existing upper-level education course of the same name taught by Puckett.

MOOCs gained popularity several years ago as a way for an unlimited number of students to gain access to non-credit bearing courses taught by elite university professors.

Coursera, the system in which Penn-sponsored MOOCs live, allows the user two enrollment options. To get a certificate of completion, students pay $49 and are required to complete all class quizzes and do two additional peer-graded assignments. Otherwise, students can simply follow the course syllabus and watch the lectures for free.

Puckett and Johanek developed the class over the course of a year with $43,000 in funding from Open Learning, Penn’s initiative to create MOOCs out of the Provost’s office.

Director of Penn GSE Films Amitanshu Das collaborated with the professors to bring 50 episodes worth of script from page to screen. In a room converted from conference room to TV set each day, Puckett and Johanek tag-team lecture in five to eight minute segments — each of the eight modules contains several segments.

“MOOCs are not new in the way that education television is not new,” Das said. What set this course apart are the documentary-style videos and a collection of over 16,000 historical and illustrative images that are mixed in at specific points in the lectures.

“I love images, and I love maps,” Puckett said, “My notion of always the best way to teach and understand is to have at your ready command a ton of images.”

Das said they focused on creating high production value for each segment. “We wanted the students and the audience to enjoy the time and to like John and Mike,” Das said. “Their personalities should come through the screen.”

Filming for entire days over a three-week period, the team had to compete with obstacles ranging from construction noise from down the street to learning to deliver their lines well.

1979 Wharton graduate Sheldon Simon, along with his wife Ruth Moorman, donated money toward the creation of the course, which allowed them bring on Devin DeSilvis to manage the amount of copyright information for the images used.

DeSilvis said many MOOCs focus only on the instructor, making students feel like they are being talked at, but that the sheer amount of images in this MOOC “helps the quality so much and makes you want to stay involved and keep watching,” she said.

For several GSE students, the MOOC is a class within a class. Over three semesters, GSE students in the seminar gathered images and developed the curriculum by creating quizzes and questions to accompany the lectures.

This semester, the seminar dedicated to the MOOC is focused mainly on facilitating the course. Teams of students will take turns monitoring the discussion boards. “You’re taking a MOOC class, and at the same time you’re taking an education reform class,” said Qingzi Gong, a GSE student in this semester’s MOOC-seminar.

Gong said that as exciting as it is to see a year’s work culminate on Jan. 26, she’s a bit nervous for the start of the course. “We view this course based on our own thinking and now the target audience gives you their real responses,” she said.

Lack of engagement with the professor or the course feeling “too robotic” is an issue for MOOC users in general, Johanek said. The team is working on ways to address this through social media like hosting “live office hours” with the professors and engaging students’ question via Twitter. The course will use #AmEdRef to keep track of course-related conversations.

“If a very small percentage of students complete the class, it doesn’t necessarily indicate the success of the class,” said Kai Evenson, another MOOC-development seminar student. “It’s how the students are engaging.”

Puckett said that the systems for image cataloging he and his team created for the MOOC development could potentially be profitable for Penn. Other institutions that might want to have a similar course could use this program and it could be updated periodically, he said.

Johanek added that a course like this has the potential to open up conversations about education and reform to a global audience interested in looking at comparing reform across cultures. “You have an opportunity with these tools to bring some of those folks together,” he said.

As of Sunday, 3,805 students are enrolled with 119 different countries represented — some other MOOCs draw upwards of 100,000 students. For Puckett and Johanek, the success of the course is more about reaching people than completion rates.

“I call it a success if you get someone who logs in to look at a single video, and that’s all the person wants to use it for,” Puckett said.

Updated 10:15 a.m.: A previous version of this article said that the hashtag was #AmEdMOOC. The class recently changed the hashtag to #AmEdRef.

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