HKUST 25th Anniversary

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HKUST uses data from MOOC users to improve the learning experience

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 February, 2016, 12:46pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 February, 2016, 12:46pm

The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) was one of the first universities in Asia to offer a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), and it’s justifiably proud of that fact. The MOOC platform makes HKUST courses available to students all over the world via the internet. MOOCs enable students to learn from teachers, and interact with classmates, outside of the traditional classroom setting via lecture videos, online coursework and discussions.

Professor Pong Ting-chuen, Senior Advisor to the Executive Vice-President and Provost (Teaching Innovation and E-Learning), was inspired to launch HKUST’s own MOOCs when the first major MOOCs arrived in the US four years ago, he says. In 2012, MOOC provider Coursera was found by two professors from Stanford University in the US, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) and Harvard University launched the MOOC platform edX. MOOCs, which are often free, allow large numbers of student to study any one course. Over fifteen million students had registered for Coursera classes alone by the end of 2015.

HKUST launched its first MOOCs via Coursera in the spring of 2013. The results have been encouraging and over half a million students have registered for the MOOCs offered by HKUST since then, says Pong.  “The technology for running a MOOC has matured,” he notes. “When we offered online courses in the past, there wasn't much chance for interaction. You could watch a YouTube video or a TED Talk, but what you can learn from a video like that is limited. It's not like a course, because it's not structured.

“But four years ago, when institutions like Stanford and M.I.T. started to offer MOOCs, online tuition became much more than online video.  Online activities were introduced, like quizzes and discussion forums. These are very important, because kids like to interact by using social media like Facebook, and a MOOC platform provides that kind of interactions. Students are able to interact with the instructors and other students. It's become a structured learning environment, and that’s one of the things that has led to the success of MOOCs,” Pong says.  

Pong notes that HKUST MOOC lectures are not given in real time, and students have to wait for answers to their questions. “But the wait is not too long. Lecturers and tutors monitor the discussion forums, and so do other students. When a question is posted, it’s noticed by various parties, so an answer is usually very quick,” he says.

MOOCs let students learn at their own pace, Pong says. He also notes that teachers can also benefit, as the process allows them to share the teaching approaches with their peers: "Teachers are all different from each other. There is a diversity of culture, education, background, and age,” Pong explains.       

Pong points out that MOOCs record all the learning activities of the students as data. “All the mouse clicks are recorded. We can see when they stop or pause the video, and when they go back and watch something again, which may indicate that they didn’t understand it the first time,” he says. “Recording these activities allows the course provider to analyse how students learn.  In this way, the MOOC platform provides data for instructors to improve their teaching.”

“By looking at these analytics, we can work out how students learn about the topics,” Pong continues. “Teachers can use this data to improve their delivery. Sometimes it isn’t the fault of the students themselves if they fail to understand a concept. It may be because the instructor failed to deliver the information in the best way.  The MOOC platform provides the data for instructors to improve their teaching methods.”

Shy students feel more comfortable in an online setting, Pong says. In a traditional classroom, nine out of 10 students do not usually ask questions. Students may be shy, or they may lack confidence. But quieter students seem to be more comfortable asking questions online in the MOOC’s discussion forums, and they are also more inclined to answer questions posted by other students there.

Pong says there’s a kind of synergy to the discussion forums. Good questions generally attract responses from the most capable students, but those who post simple questions attract responses from their less knowledgeable peers. To help students improve, tutors join in and lead the questioners in the right direction, if necessary.

"MOOCs not only analyse how students learn, they analyse how they think. They enable instructors to improve their delivery, and more importantly, enhance the learning experience of their students,” says Pong.  “Students can learn at their own pace while participating in a MOOC. It’s totally different from the classroom setting, where one size fits all. MOOCs offer a kind of personalised learning.”

MOOCs were initially developed mostly for computer science courses like machine learning, and early programmes focused on science, technology, and information technology.  But more arts and humanities courses are now being offered.  “MOOCs have been very successful in the areas of science and technology, so they have gained a reputation for offering those disciplines. But courses in English language and English literature, and so on, are now available," says Pong, who is a professor of computer science and engineering.

“MOOCs now run courses which include music, art, and business-related subjects,” Pong says. He believes MOOCs will add more courses in social science and the humanities in the future. The students are from diverse background, too. Pong says that MOOC users range from university students to those studying in primary schools.    

MOOCs don’t always take place wholly online. Pong says that HKUST has also developed a ‘flipped class’ teaching mode. This means that instead of the teacher delivering the lecture in class, and then sending students home to study by themselves, students watch the lecture online at home, and then learn actively and collaboratively in the classroom. This is a form of “blended learning”, the term for courses which mix online and face-to-face learning.

HKUST recently launched an extended flipped learning programme which takes advantage of both MOOC and flipped learning. "Under this arrangement, students are offered to first finish a MOOC during the regular semesters,” Pong says. “They then return to the campus for intensive face-to-face course work for at least two weeks over the summer, before taking the examination. Course credits are given after they have passed the examination."

Pong says that MOOCs are becoming an important part of HKUST’s overall mission to educate and innovate.  As a leading education provider, it’s HKUST’s duty to foster innovations by mining all the data the MOOCs have to offer, he says.