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All the world’s at lectures

München, 05/09/2014

LMU’s first four Massive Open Online Courses – including ones in Biology and Business Studies – went online last year, and were very well received worldwide. The new round of courses is now underway.

Photo: Haak/NakatTwo clicks (hit “Go to Class”, then “Video Lectures”) bring Professor Donald Dingwell, Professor of Mineralogy and Petrology at LMU Munich, into your study or living room – via video – to explain what fascinates him most about volcanoes: “They are messengers from the deep. They carry an enormous amount of information from the depths of our Earth to the surface ...”

Dingwell‘s virtual course, entitled “Vulcanology – a Material Science”, is divided into 10-minute segments, is abundantly illustrated, and is designed to be comprehensible to anyone, anywhere in the world, who has a grasp of basic science, can access the internet and is interested in his intriguing topic. The course was one of a set of four Massive Open Online Courses made available in 2013 by academics at LMU – the first German university to adopt the “MOOC” format. Other leading international universities are also making lecture courses accessible to students all over the world via the internet, free of charge and with no prior assessment of participants’ level of knowledge. Online tests enable students to monitor their progress, and online discussion forums permit them to improve their comprehension of the material with the help of their fellow-students. Those who successfully complete their course receive a certificate of participation. The LMU courses, which will be repeated and, in one case extended in 2014, are made being provided on the Coursera platform, which was designed by computer scientists at Stanford University.

The vital statistics for the first four courses can be summarized as follows: more than 200,000 registrants in all, and an overall completion rate of 15% – considerably higher than the Coursera average (5%). “This is an extraordinarily good result – and was quite a surprise for us,” says Professor Martin Wirsing, Vice-President for Teaching and Studies, while emphasizing that things are still at the experimental phase. “The higher-education landscape will undoubtedly change. Digital technologies will give rise to new forms of collaborative teaching and learning. We believe that it makes sense for us to become involved in this process at an early stage and to gain experience in how to handle it.” MOOCs can also enhance LMU’s global visibility still further. Thus, the first round of courses attracted participants in around 200 countries – with the USA accounting for 24% of the total, followed by India, the UK, Brazil, Germany and Canada.

How to run a successful pizzeria
Of course, the MOOC format means that, for the lecturers, the audience remains faceless. Professor Tobias Kretschmer, Chairman of LMU’s Institute for Strategy, Technology and Organization, gave the MOOC on “Competitive Strategy”. Like his fellow-pioneers, he had to adapt to addressing his thoughts to an impassive camera instead of a sea of faces in a lecture-hall. That takes time, but “one learns to listen to oneself, and one becomes more self-critical,” he says. Most of the courses were produced by a team from afk-tv, a Munich-based public broadcaster specializing in educational programming, with the assistance of LMU’s “Virtual University” Division. – And like the other LMU lecturers involved, Kretschmer was supported by a teaching assistant, who wrote scripts, directed recording sessions and moderated the discussion forum. “Competitive Strategy” attracted 95,000 registrants, who contributed up to 1000 posts per day to the discussion forum.

Programmed cell death explained, on Martinique
The MOOC on “Programmed Cell Death” given by biologist and LMU Vice-President Professor Barbara Conradt also drew registrants from around the world. – As she points out in retrospect: “Compared to speaking directly to 100 students, delivering a lecture to an audience of over 20,000 is a task of a very different order.” She learned a lot, she says, both in terms of content and approach. All in all, the amount of preparation required for MOOCs was significantly greater than anticipated, but so too was the response. “Many young bioscientists expressed interest in coming to Munich to do a Bachelor’s, Master’s or PhD thesis.” But feedback also came from other disciplines. Conradt was also fascinated by the fact that “participants in 130 countries” enrolled in her course, including individuals on the Caribbean island of Martinique and in the kingdom of Bhutan in the Himalayas.

Together with his colleague Hannes Leitgeb, Professor of Logic and Linguistic Philosophy at LMU, Professor Stephan Hartmann (who holds the Chair in the Theory of Science) presented an “Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy”. “Students attending a live lecture may discuss it with their neighbors in the same row or with their friends afterwards,” he remarks, “but in MOOC forums one can exchange views with hundreds of others.”

New courses in 2014
How academic online courses are likely to develop – like much else in the field of digital technologies – is difficult to predict. But Professor Martin Wirsing does not believe that MOOCs will replace on-site teaching. Nevertheless, with the upcoming generation of digital natives, approaches to and modes of learning will change as new digital tools come on the market. Universities in the US have begun to provide more focused MOOCs (Small Private Online Courses, or SPOCs), which combine on-site teaching with e-learning, and the privately funded platform Udacity now offers an online mentoring service (for which fees are payable).

This year too, several – free – courses from LMU are open for registration. Re-runs of “Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy” and “Competitive Strategy” have been accessible since April, and the latter will be supplemented by “Advanced Competitive Strategy” in June. Professor Dingwell’s new vulcanology course, this time including experiments, begins in July. Further MOOCs in other disciplines are planned. ajb