UT Austin and SMOCs: What do we know about whether they work?

In episode 1, we looked at an effort by the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Texas at Austin to develop SMOCs – Synchronous Massive Online Courses – where the core of the redesign centers on the synchronous online experience for large lecture courses (1000+ students in some cases) courses.[1] In episode 2, we took a deeper look at how SMOCs work as well as a discussion of high-level course design costs. In this concluding episode, we ask the question of whether SMOCs work, in terms of improved learning outcomes and / or learning experiences.

(Video source: https://youtu.be/yoIppZ97Ko4)


As you’ll see we heard several anecdotes and descriptions of improved learning outcomes, but we at e-Literate we unable to obtain any supporting evidence for these claims. This doesn’t mean that SMOCs don’t work as advertised, but it does mean that we have little to back up their claims.

The one report shared during our visit is a 2013 paper that analyzed a previous incarnation of the Intro to Psychology course using a custom-developed application called TOWER (Texas Online World of Educational Research) which provides quizzing for each lecture session with adaptive content (some questions are based on incorrect answers from previous quizzes and different students get different question sets). The paper, however, was for a face-to-face course and not for the synchronous online incarnation that is the subject of our interviews. There are significant differences in course design, and there have been thousands of students taking the course in the past 3+ years since the paper and introduction of SMOCs. But no public data.

The claims of SMOC proponents are enticing – improved student engagement, better access to faculty, and perhaps most significantly a reduction of the achievement gap between upper and lower socioeconomic backgrounds of students. I would like to believe that UT Austin staff have compelling internal data supporting the claims based on the past three years of SMOCs and just have not had time or motivation to publicly release the data. But that would be idle speculation on my part. If any data is subsequently released, we will be happy to share in a new post at e-Literate.

Nevertheless, this episode does present some positive impressions from faculty who have taught SMOCs, from staff who support them, and from one student’s experience. We hope you enjoy the video.

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  1. Disclosure: Our e-Literate TV series of video case studies and explainer videos is funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. []

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About Phil Hill

Phil is a consultant and industry analyst covering the educational technology market primarily for higher education. He has written for e-Literate since Aug 2011. For a more complete biography, view his profile page.
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2 Responses to UT Austin and SMOCs: What do we know about whether they work?

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