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Colonial MOOC Poses Tech Challenges

In February, William & Mary announced its plans to offer a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) in collaboration with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (CWF). This new course will leverage the historical resources of the two institutions to create a learning platform for 21st century students. W&M Information Technology is playing an essential role in helping W&M and CWF navigate the process of creating their first MOOC.

Because MOOC classes exist and are offered online, there is a large technology-based portion of the project. IT staff members Gene Roche, Director of University e-Learning Initiatives/Academic Information Services; Rachel Kleinsorge, LMS Applications Specialist; and John Drummond, Academic Engineering Manager/e-Learning Manager, are offering up their specialized knowledge and technology background as members of the MOOC planning committee. The three are advising project leaders on the technical aspects of the project. It is an important responsibility because although the final product will be a history class, creating a MOOC is ultimately a technology project.

One of the biggest challenges of the project so far, and surely to be continued, is that a MOOC has never been created before in Williamsburg. Drummond described the experience as, “Like we’re going on a trip in a car, and we’re building the road in front of the car so we have something to drive on.”

Drummond said the work at this stage is not focused on minor details, but instead concerned with large-scale problem solving. Much of this is about logistics, or exactly how things will be done. Challenges involve everything from timing the filming of the course to securing instructional support for when it goes live. Another fundamental step in planning logistics is selecting a platform for the course to exist on, and the committee must consider which platform will best serve the needs of the course in the immediate and extended future. IT is guiding the project leaders in selecting the best one for this specific situation.

Given that this is an entirely new venture for the two institutions, the planning committee is also reaching out for outside guidance. Other institutions that have implemented MOOCs can provide important knowledge on challenges, successes, and how other partnerships have worked. A MOOC created by the University of Virginia and Monticello was listed as another collaborative effort to learn from.

Roche, who leads W&M's e-Learning initiatives, recognized the significance of the project as a part of new experiments with online learning. He said, "No one quite knows how e-Learning in general and MOOCs specifically are going to change higher education, but we need to be ready to respond to whatever challenges they bring. Through this initiative, we'll gain some first-hand knowledge about how these courses work and about how we can use that knowledge to help students learn—both in Williamsburg and around the world."

The MOOC remains in the goal-level, planning stage for now, and IT holds an important seat at the table in the discussion and decision-making regarding the project. The breadth of the task means that planning is a collaborative effort. Leaders from many different organizations and perspectives are offering input on financial, instructional, legal, and technological challenges. Given the very specialized and technical nature of the IT work and tasks involved, W&M IT is providing essential support in the design process, and will offer insight on the complicated IT processes that will require planning and expertise to work well in the MOOC. The MOOC is moving W&M and CWF into uncharted territory, and IT is helping lead the way.