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A MOOC sees its greatest impact in the classroom at MIT

Flipping a classroom enhances student and faculty experience.
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American warship Japanese woodblock print, circa 1854
American warship Japanese woodblock print, circa 1854
Image courtesy of the Nagasaki Prefecture.

This fall, MIT Professor Shigeru Miyagawa flipped his classroom as he taught two versions of Visualizing Japan to two distinctive audiences at the same time. He co-taught the massive online open course (MOOC) VJx on edX, as well as the residential version of the course, 21F.027, to students at MIT. The students in the residential class were assigned the MOOC video lectures and quizzes to complement their classroom work.

Visualizing Japan is about the modernization of Japan starting with the opening of the country when Commodore Matthew Perry of the U.S. arrived in 1853. This is the first-ever edX MOOC that was jointly produced by MITx and HarvardX. The instructors for the MOOC are Miyagawa; John W. Dower, an MIT emeritus professor of Japanese history; Andy Gordon of Harvard University; and Gennifer Weisenfeld of Duke University. The online course had a completion rate of 13 percent — double the normal for a MOOC — and 97.5 percent of the learners said that they were satisfied to extremely satisfied with the course.

But the bigger story is about what happened in the classroom at MIT. For both the students in class and for Miyagawa it became clear early on that something was very different. On the first day of the module, “Black Ships and Samurai,” Miyagawa was set to give the lecture he had prepared with a PowerPoint presentation. Shortly into the lecture he asked the class, “What happened in 1868?” He was expecting a couple of students to raise their hands, but everyone seemed to know that this was the beginning of Meiji Restoration that put Japan on the road to modernization.

Miyagawa abandoned his lecture and pressed on with more questions. He was pleasantly surprised that most of the students were not only able to answer the questions, but also willing to engage him and the other students in discussion. “When I finished the class without showing even a single slide from my PowerPoint, I could only ask, what happened?” he remarks.

In the classroom, the MOOC material became a new form of textbook. The students found the video lectures easy to follow. They could watch each bite-sized two- to seven-minute video in its entirety and retain the information. The finger exercises following the video further reinforced their learning.

Instead of teaching the information covered in the assignment, Miyagawa was able to delve deeper into the subject matter. Plus, students learned from each other. Students used the knowledge to raise further issues, such as about modernity and cosmopolitanism. By eliciting knowledge in a variety of forms, students reinforced their learning.

The students noticed. One student commented, “This class is much different than a typical lecture-style classroom, as the classroom setting is instead used as a form of class discussion.” Another student thought that although the MOOC attracted 9,000 learners, “it was in the classroom that the VJx MOOC saw its greatest impact.”

Most of the classes were flipped, although there were a few traditional lecture classes to introduce new material. A student comparing the classroom with the MOOC experience calculated that in the lecture classes, the professor spoke 80 percent of the time, while in the flipped classes, he spoke less than 50 percent of the time. The difference wasn't just quantitative; the flipped class increased student participation and led to a qualitatively richer and more fun educational experience.

“I don’t think I can ever go back to a pure lecture-style teaching,” says Miyagawa.

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