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Seminar – Rethinking Online Learning: Melding the Best of Teaching, Television and Testing

Today I attended the Rethinking Online Learning: Melding the Best of Teaching, Television and Testing seminar presented by Professor Gosling (Department of Psychology, University of Texas, Austin, USA) as part of the Innovations in Teaching and Learning series of seminars presented by Melbourne University.

Professor Gosling’s seminar was based on the work he’s doing with a colleague from University of Texas in the way of rethinking online learning, particularly a synchronous broadcast delivered to a large number of students. In the description for the seminar, Professor Gosling described his work in the following way:

We teach a Synchronous Massive Online Course (or SMOC), broadcasts live to about 2000 students. With daily quizzes and a television show format, we find that absentee rates are low, test performance high, study habits greatly improved, with large drops in achievement gaps between rich and poor students. The synchronous broadcast model offers a number benefits including facilitating interactive elements and addressing concerns about cheating. Many challenges remain but our experiences (and data) suggest that large online classes taught using this format have great potential.

The seminar

In his seminar Professor Gosling’s spoke about the design, development and delivery of a Synchronous Massive Online Course (or SMOC) for the Introduction to Psychology course at University of Texas. The SMOC was a response to what he called the Big Old Class (BOC) where there was high student attrition and low achievement. Built on Canvas (the learning management system (LMS) by Instructure), Gosling and his colleague were able to broadcast their lecture (in a chat show format with segments such daily news items, lab experiments and interviews with experts) from a studio at the University to a live student audience and students tuned in online. Within the Canvas LMS, students were also able to form mentor-based study groups (known as pods), complete surveys, access online textbooks and resources and complete daily tests (known as benchmarking). Benchmarking featured questions individualised to the student and contained feedback with support that enabled the student to undertake self-regulated learning. Professor Gosling advocated daily benchmarking as a method of providing students with feedback and measurement on their performance in contrast to more traditional mid-term examinations where performance was often measured  too late (which often made it more difficult for the student to do something about it).

The format and production of the SMOC was similar to  live television.
The format and production of the SMOC was similar to live television.

Problems and issues

The only problem or issue with the television show format that was mentioned by Professor Gosling was the cost of production, particularly the team (analagous to live television production) required to coordinate and sequence the broadcast the show.

Although Professor Gosling didn’t mention cheating and collusion as a problem or issue for the course, it isn’t something that’s specific to this course format. It just becomes a little more complex when student behaviour is somewhat obfuscated by online delivery (Professor Gosling did go on to talk about his approach to managing cheating and collusion between his students).


Professor Gosling went on to tell us that the course had a success with its increase in student retention rates and grades. He attributed the success to the television show format, the intensive benchmarking with feedback (which encouraged self-regulated learning), the student mentoring and facilitated discussions (via the study-group pods). The course was also a success as far as gathering data about student behaviour (online) that could be used for further research and continued course enhancement. Although not mentioned by Professor Gosling, this data could also serve as a potential revenue stream. Based on the success of the course, Professor Gosling told us this model was being strongly considered for adoption by other faculties at his university.

Feedback based on results from benchmarking played an important role in encouraging students to undertake their own self regulated study.
Feedback based on results from benchmarking played an important role in encouraging students to undertake their own self regulated study.

Managing cheating and collusion

Professor Gosling and his team managed cheating and collusion between students throughout the daily benchmarking by consigning someone to write some software that monitored and compared in real-time the order of each question that was completed by each student and the amount of time it took each of them them to complete the question. The software then identified patterns of completion and was able to determine the likelihood of collusion between students during benchmarking. Professor Gosling and his team then decided if they were going to send the suspicious student an email warning them their behaviour was being closely monitored.


There’s no denying the the flexible and fun nature of the online television show style broadcast would have been contributing a factor to the increase in student performance, but I can’t help but think the  mentored study groups and the rather rigorous and regimented daily benchmarking would have also been a major contributing factor to the increase in student performance particularly when the benchmarking provided feedback that helped students undertake their own self-regulated learning). Besides, a fair, reasonable and diverse assessment strategy would probably measure student performance and provide them with feedback and support their self-regulated learning anyway.

From what Professor Gosling told us, the SMOC has been a success, but I can’t also help but think the broadcast model is somewhat traditional and doesn’t consider constructivist and connectivist approaches to course design that incorporate the network (as a learning environment with peers) and the large number tools available to enable students to become authors and contribute to course content.

There’s certainly a place for student generated, curated, moderated and broadcast content (with the teacher and other students as well in response to content) particularly with a premise of a television show format. Unfortunately, the broadcast (without feedback or input from students) method of guiding, monitoring and directing students could be considered a fairly regular and popular instructional strategy for those yearning to repetitively deliver learning at scale.

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