UT Austin and SMOCs: One university’s effort to personalize large lecture courses

Last summer we shared video interviews from the University of California at Davis describing their efforts to personalize the most impersonal of learning experiences – the large lecture introductory course.[1] The organizing idea there is to apply active learning principles such as the flipped classroom, leveraging adaptive courseware from the Online Learning Initiative (OLI) out of Carnegie Mellon University. More specifically, the lecture was redesigned to bring students “out of the back row”, and the lab sections were flipped using OLI. Many efforts to personalize learning experiences end up increasing the amount of asynchronous pre-classroom time spent with courseware of some sort.

At the University of Texas at Austin, the College of Liberal Arts is taking a different approach and focusing on the synchronous class time. The core of the course redesigns since 2013 centers on live lecture sessions created in a studio setting, with a small audience of students, streaming live to very large classes that can exceed 1,000 students each. They have named the approach Synchronous Massive Online Courses, or SMOCs. To get a sense of the problem UT Austin is trying to solve and why they have chosen the SMOC approach, watch this episode.

(Video source: https://youtu.be/WOFxl09KZhE)

Originally envisioned as an alternative to MOOCs with heavy media coverage in 2013 and initial plans at enrolling non-UT students for revenue, SMOCs have been developed in-house by university faculty and staff. Since then, the SMOC concept has evolved to focus more on course redesign primarily for UT students. This is the context that we’ll look at – how SMOCs and derivative course materials change the learning experience for lower-division UT students. In future episodes we’ll explore a more-detailed look at the SMOC design as well as the explore what we know about learning outcomes.

Goldie Blumenstyk from the Chronicle of Higher Education wrote about the current implementation of these courses in the summer, noting:

Most of the 1,500 undergraduates who take the course each semester watch the lectures online, but 24 are chosen to attend in person in the studio classroom on the two days a week that it meets.

The course’s professors, James W. Pennebaker and Samuel D. Gosling, work to make it entertaining. Mr. Pennebaker says they present “like it’s a TV show” — think The Daily Show, fake remote newscasts and all.

The professors keep students involved with humor and high production values along with daily in-class quizzes, small-group exercises that connect students with one another online, and, often, writing assignments based on something that came up during the class. “We’re trying to really push engagement,” says Mr. Pennebaker.

We’ll explore this approach in several episodes and see what we can learn.

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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: One university’s effort to personalize large lecture courses

  1. Pingback: UT Austin and SMOCs: What these synchronous courses look like and cost -e-Literate

  2. Pingback: UT Austin and SMOCs: What do we know about whether they work? -e-Literate

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