What are the benefits of creating an open online course? Can teaching online actually benefit your on-campus courses and career? Brian Caffo, professor of Biostatistics at Johns Hopkins University and one of three instructors of the popular Data Science Specialization on Coursera, recently shared some of his answers to these questions. When we asked him to elaborate, he shared 7 key benefits he’s seen from teaching 15+ courses on Coursera—from expanding his network, to sparking innovation, to winning a prestigious NIH grant.
#1: INCREASE ACCESS TO EDUCATION
My first online course was taught through Coursera in 2012, and it was certainly an interesting experience to go from teaching hundreds of students on campus to 30,000 enrollments online! I’m excited about continuing to teach online mostly because of how it nicely dovetails with a mission of increasing access to our educational materials.
Many people simply don’t have the right set of life circumstances to take for credit on campus classes from research 1 universities. Platforms like Coursera are useful for teaching important content that serves a public good. I think general statistical literacy falls into that category and hope that I’m contributing to increasing it. Similarly, the school of public health has several classes that teach important topics in public health on Coursera, like Health for All Through Primary Healthcare.
#2: COLLABORATE WITH COLLEAGUES
My school, the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University, was an early adopter of open education with participation in OpenCourseware as well as iTunes U. I originally learned about Coursera in a conversation with the director of our Center for Teaching and Learning with Technology. I was really excited and, after describing the possibilities, my colleagues Jeff Leek and Roger Peng were similarly enthused. About 3 months later, we launched some courses that we had been teaching on campus, which sowed the seeds for our much larger Data Science Specialization.
#3: TRANSFORM ON CAMPUS TEACHING
I now flip my on campus classes, even highly technical or mathematical ones, because my on-campus students uniformly prefer it. That is, I have the students watch videos at home and do the homework in the classroom together with me. My advanced linear models course one and two are examples of this approach. I anticipated some students liking this model and others not. However, the response has been 100% in favor of the flipped model. In fact, the only negative comments I get is when I fall behind on making videos. Now, whenever I teach a class, I make a Coursera class as well. I figured if I’ve gone through the trouble to make video materials, why not put it online for everyone?
#4: ENABLE SELF-PACED LEARNING
I’ve often thought that self pacing through content is truly helpful for students. I tend to believe that with time and effort, most people can successfully learn whatever they want. However, students that fall behind in onsite lectures are typically left behind. Online courses and equivalent approaches, like active learning platforms, allow self pacing to prevent this very nicely. This even helps in flipped onsite courses, since, even though there’s a fixed time via the semester format, students don’t fall behind during lectures. The two most often raised benefits for having videos is the ability to rewatch parts that are difficult for the student and the ability to speed through parts that are easy or obvious.
#5: LEARN AND INNOVATE AS YOU GO
Over time I’ve filled gaps in knowledge of how to teach more effectively online. For instance, early on I made the mistake of having long lectures. Video content should really only be 5 to 10 minutes. I also learned to not put a ton of content on background slides. It’s better to find more engaging ways to present content and focus on visuals with the spoken lecture. Even more fun has been the opportunity to innovate. I think our “choose your own adventure” style capstone in the Executive Data Science Specialization (led by Jeff Leek, Sean Kross and Jessica Crowell) is a great example. As is our intelligent tutoring system SWIRL (led by Nick Carchedi and Sean Kross).
#6: BUILD YOUR REPUTATION
From a professional standpoint, teaching online can definitely help with visibility. I’m the leader for an NIH Big Data To Knowledge (BD2K) grant. This grant is fairly prestigious and there’s no way I would have received it without the success of the Data Science Specialization. In this role I’ve gotten to be like an executive producer. This grant funded the Genomic Data Science Specialization (led by Jeff Leek) and some new neuroimaging classes like Martin Lindquist and Tor Wager’s two courses in functional magnetic resonance imaging and Ciprian Crainiceanu, John Muschelli and Elizabeth Sweeney’s Neurohacking in R. These are all more technically specific subjects than general data science, so don’t attract the same size of audience, but they are crucial for training modern researchers and have made a real impact on research.
#7: ENHANCE YOUR RESEARCH
Platforms like Coursera are also useful for research on education in the fields being taught. For example, Roger Peng and Jeff Leek, my colleagues in the Data Science Specialization, have used their Coursera courses for research to better understand the teaching and practice of statistics. This article considers students’ ability to eyeball significance from scatterplots and examines whether or not this can be trained.
At JHU we’re continuing to learn and innovate and we’d love to share what we’re learning with you. You can keep track of other educational endeavors from the JHU Data Science Lab here
Are you a Coursera partner with insights you would like to share on our blog about your teaching experience? Please share your ideas with us here!1