CHEM181x Word Cloud

From the Campus to MOOC: Reflections of a Student Assistant


McGillX offered its first Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on the edX platform in January 2014 and has now offered two MOOCs, started a third and has one more more in the pipe.  Serving as a student assistant for CHEM181x: Food for Thought, I was myself a learner in a new environment. To be honest, I had never heard of a MOOC until I was offered the position in November 2013. In joining the McGillX team, my role would be to both assist in the course development and serve as one of two discussion moderators.

CHEM181x Word Cloud
Word cloud generated from CHEM181x January 2014 discussion forum by McGillX

Having served as a student assistant for the on-campus offering of CHEM181, I had experience with the subject matter and with addressing students’ questions. In a class as large as CHEM181 we, the student assistants, tried to make use of the myCourses discussion forum to address student questions. I was aware of the sometimes daunting task of offering written directions and explanations. As one might expect, the majority of questions we received were related to the exam’s content. In response, we stressed the points that were essential to the exam.

CHEM181x had over 30,000 students registered in the course, with only two student assistants. Despite the scale of the CHEM181x, I expected a small volume of student questions, given that CHEM181x is a non-credit course. At the time of the course release, the entire McGillX team was at their computers waiting and watching the discussion forum. In the first hour, the discussion flooded with hundreds of discussion posts by students introducing themselves from all parts of the world. One of many lessons we would learn was how to better leverage the edX platform to encourage student interaction, getting students to attempt to address their own questions as well as those of others; we realized this was essential to managing the volume of discussion posts.

To my surprise, students’ questions stretched the bounds of my knowledge of the course content, requiring that I research the literature in order to address their questions. What’s more, the students assisted in the process of finding answers, posting articles and offering their understanding with respect to their own, and each other’s, questions. Because the course is not for credit, the students are involved for one primary reason, they want to learn—something that is often lost in the panic of studying for exams and trying to maintain a high GPA while completing one’s degree.

CHEMN181x GMO Discussion
Snapshot of some of the GMO discussion.

On the discussion forum I started to recognize students’ usernames, helping me to better understand the origin of their questions. With one student, I found myself in a debate about Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). We went back and forth for several weeks, each of us taking time to research before returning to the argument. After the first week, I noticed that we had a crowd of spectators from the McGillX team and other students in CHEM181x. If I may say so myself, I’m pretty certain most were on my side.

My experience as a student assistant taught me many things. Above all, I came to acknowledge that we all come from different backgrounds, and thus are inclined to different interpretations of information provided to us, giving a new meaning to the saying “there is no such thing as a stupid question.” This semester, the on-campus offering of CHEM181 has been put online, with the new course structure and content included. In a similar fashion to the offering on edX students will interact with the materials online using the myCourses platform.  I am eager to see how students’ participation in McGill’s CHEM181 will compare with CHEM181x.

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