Making MOOCs


Professor Jules Van Lier and his team reduced 24 double lectures from a third-year Bachelor’s course on wastewater purification to around 40 YouTube knowledge videos of 8–10 minutes in length.

The first two Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) were completed late last year, and the sequel is undergoing intensive preparation. The pioneers look back. “To meet the deadlines, we even made recordings at midnight.”

When Professor Jules van Lier was asked in January if he would like to create a MOOC, he had no idea what that was. He did have experience with open courseware – his lectures have been online for years – but that was just a matter of ‘sending’. The demands for the MOOC ‘Introduction to Water Treatment’ were higher. “We wanted to create a professional course”, recounts Van Lier. “We wanted to do it right, or not at all.”

Van Lier and his team reduced 24 double lectures from a third-year Bachelor’s course on wastewater purification to around 40 YouTube knowledge videos of 8–10 minutes in length. This involved writing out the condensed lectures verbatim and indicating where the director should move to a PowerPoint slide, an animation clip or a close up.
This took about 20 hours for each video, according to Van Lier’s estimate.

A lot of time, as Arno Smets also experienced. Last year, he developed his own MOOC entitled ‘Solar Energy’. “Whereas colleagues at MIT and Harvard take 18 months to prepare, we had four months: day and night, seven days a week”, recalls Smets. “To meet the deadlines, we even made recordings at midnight.”

The professors had to do more than simply make the lecture videos. Van Lier also prepared questions to follow each video, as well as a digital text-book containing questions and an automatic verification of the answers. Participants also had homework. To help them, Van Lier and his team made tutorial videos, in which a student assistant showed how an assignment could be tackled. Course participants were very pleased with these videos. Exam questions were needed as well, along with an online forum in which students could hold discussions with each other.

Both Van Lier and Smets underestimated such a forum. Students wanted information and asked for feedback. “The first week we received 200 messages per hour”, Smets tells us. “It was like trying to empty the ocean with a thimble.” On the first day the server was down for a while, due to the many downloads. The creators of the MOOCs received complaints about the fact that they did not answer any questions. “That would be impossible if a thousand people started chattering”, notes Van Lier. “It was our own inexperience. You just hope that another student helps out, and in fact that did happen.” That was great to see, found Smets. “If students give a wrong explanation, other students correct them. There is so much mutual interaction that the learning process is largely owned by the students themselves.”

True contact with students does not occur while the MOOC is online. Smets saw his students for the first time when he asked them to make YouTube videos of their own solar-cell systems. “It was primarily students from countries outside the West who made the videos. It’s then that you realise the impact of such a MOOC: we now have the largest collection of videos and photos of installations. They come from Iran, Africa…” Van Lier also received a treasure trove of information when he asked students in the forum to describe how water purification took place where they lived.


Assistent professor Mark Voskuijl recording the MOOC introduction to aeronautical engineering which started on 3 March.

Top talent
Teaching a MOOC is completely different from teaching a group. “Everything is pre-digested; every word has been thought through”, explains Van Lier. “There’s no interaction, and you’re not fed with questions. But based on experience you know roughly what students will find difficult”. Course materials can be explained differently using animations. “In the classroom, I can spend 1,000 words on something. That’s no longer necessary”, says Smets. In fact he and Van Lier are both planning to incorporate the MOOCs in their campus-based teaching. Since February, Van Lier has been presenting his MOOC to his on-campus students as a SPOC (Specific Personal Online Course).

They view the MOOC online and thus have fewer lectures. Classes are now intended to discuss questions and assign-ments. As Smets explains, “The most important advantage is that they are spending more time on they materials than they might think, because the homework consists of following lectures.” “There’s more time to go deeper into the material.” Apart from a way of saving time, Van Lier also sees this as an impulse for regular on-campus education.

In addition, the MOOC is a marketing instrument for attracting and selecting high-level talent. For example, the two best participants in the solar MOOC received the opportunity to conduct a week of research in a lab at TU Delft, and the ten best participants in the water MOOC can now take the online Master’s course Fundamentals of Water Treatment free of charge, in the hope that they will also take other paid courses online.

Another important element in the creation of the MOOC was idealism: making knowledge accessible to
everyone. In the opinion of Van Lier, “The world will progress a step further if we all have the same basic level.” Smets says that he was lucky to be able to attend university. “Not everyone has the opportunity. If I can inspire just one person to go further, I will have accomplished enough.”

Smets’ MOOC, which cost TU Delft about € 100,000, drew 56,000 interested viewers, 21,000 of whom ultimately started the course and just under 3000 of whom earned the certificate. “If you consider that, in recent years, an average of fifty students pass the exam at TU Delft, this means that I just did sixty years of work in one go”, observes Smets, grinning from ear to ear.

He does not agree with critics who think that MOOCs will replace classrooms. “The objective is not to replace, but to complement. You could apply the same argument to Facebook, but that hasn’t replaced our social lives, has it? It gives you added possibilities.”

Minister Bussemaker would like to provide universities with more space to use online education. With supervision and good testing, MOOCs can be incorporated into regular education. There are solutions for identifying fraud on the part of participants in online education, such as tests on campus for university students who are taking an MIT course, explains Timo Kos, Director of Education and Student Affairs. Students are not yet able to earn any credits with MOOCs, however.

One year after their pioneering work at TU Delft, Van Lier and Smets look back with satisfaction. Whether the MOOC phenomenon is a hype or a revolution in education, Smets does not know. “During the closing reception, Executive Board President Dirk Jan van den Berg said that it should be seen as a voyage of discovery: we are doing new things. When we look back fifteen years from now, it might be nothing, but it could also be the first step in a huge educational revolution.”


In April, TU Delft will start two new MOOCs: ‘An Introduction to Credit Risk Management’ by Dr. Pasquale Cirillo and ‘Next Generation Infrastructures’ by Prof. Margot Weijnen.
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