Topics: Emerging Media, Online Education

February 13, 2013

Ball State University is poised to launch three free massive, open, online courses in a matter of weeks, with registration already hitting or surpassing target enrollments.

The university announced last fall that it was developing its first MOOC, as the popular large online courses are known, with an eye toward attracting at least 1,000 students. That class, a look at gender roles in society as reflected through comic books, received considerable national exposure when Marvel Comics legend Stan Lee narrated a promotional video. The course passed its enrollment goal weeks ahead of its April 2 launch date and is continuing to register students.

Ball State subsequently added two other free massive online classes: a critical survey of film noir and a precalculus algebra course. The film noir class was capped at 500 students to accommodate a software tool for the course and quickly hit capacity. The algebra class was added just recently, has about 100 students enrolled and is still accepting registrations.

Class descriptions and signup information can be found at, the website for Canvas Network, a Utah-based company that handles a variety of MOOC-related operations for Ball State, Brown and several other universities.

Collectively, the three MOOCs represent an experiment that Ball State believes will ultimately pay dividends for students in its more conventional online classes and in on-campus blended classes, which combine in-person and Internet-based instruction.

“I think one of the biggest payoffs for us is big data,” says Jennifer Bott, assistant provost for learning initiatives. “When you move into classes with 500 or 700 or 1,000 students, you can quickly collect information on how different teaching approaches work that otherwise would take years to collect in classes of 25 or 30 students.”

Among other things, Ball State is experimenting in its MOOCs with a variety of techniques to create engaging, interactive online learning environments.

In the gender course, for example, instructor Christina Blanch will interview several comic book authors using video conferencing and green screen technology to showcase them and their work. Students will have opportunities to ask questions, too.

“For the film noir course, we’re actually going to be doing location shooting at the Paramount Theatre in Anderson, Ind.,” says Richard L. Edwards, director of Ball State’s Integrated Learning Institute (iLearn). “That means we’re going to be teaching the history of film noir from a classic movie palace.”

The class also will use a software tool that will allow them to engage in collaborative film annotation. Students will be able to make comments about a film noir and attach them to a copy of the movie, which will then go into a searchable database for other students to see.

Edwards, a nationally known expert on film noir who co-hosts a popular podcast on the subject, is teaching the online class, which will begin March 11.

The algebra class — which begins May 13 — will use a variety of animated graphics created especially for the course, Edwards noted.

“All of these techniques are part of the experiment, and part of the reason these classes were chosen,” Edwards says. “There was a strategy, and we said yes to projects that were going to be appealing to students and teach us something.”

One particularly intriguing lesson, Edwards says, involves the optimal size for online classes.

“We have typically capped the size of our online courses in the 20s to 30s,” he says. “But as online education becomes more prominent, there’s a really interesting research question to ask: What’s the proper size for a high quality class? It will absolutely change from discipline to discipline and teacher to teacher, but is the class cap 25? Or 250? Or 2,500?

“Getting into MOOCs allows us to understand the challenges and opportunities of large scale classes and start to gain some expertise in what occurs when you have hundreds of students, not just dozens of students,” says Edwards.

Once the first three classes are completed this spring, Ball State will pause to evaluate its experience before deciding what to do next.

“I think it really depends on the outcome of these efforts,” says Bott. “If we see great success, if we see students who are engaged with their courses to completion, if we get valuable experience, perhaps we will do more.”

Meanwhile, with students enrolling in the classes from across the United States and every continent except Antarctica, Edwards and Bott figure Ball State will — at the very least — gain some valuable exposure from the experiment.

“I actually think it’s a great way to introduce individuals to our campus, to the quality of our instruction, to the innovation of our ideas,” says Edwards. “People can, in a sense, sample us and see if this is a place they want to go. I think it, very much, is something that promotes the quality of our academic experience.”