From MOOC to MOIC — Launching an Instructional Odyssey. First Stop: Sri Lanka

One of the most rewarding experiences in my career to date came in 2011, when I created one of Stanford’s first massive open online courses (MOOCs). I was overwhelmed by the engagement and gratitude of tens of thousands of students worldwide. Students continue to contact me on a regular basis with stories of how my free online course, Databases, has transformed their lives and careers.

When it came time to plan my 2016–17 sabbatical, I knew I wanted to have a similar direct impact on lots of people. But I didn’t want to create another MOOC, nor did I want to travel around giving research presentations to graduate students and faculty. The inspiration came when I delivered a basic talk to about a thousand local students in southern India, many of whom it turned out had taken my MOOC. Meeting these students in person, and realizing how valuable and inspiring an in-person rather than on-line experience can be — both for them and for me — set me on my path: I would travel the world delivering free tutorials and short courses in places where there are students anxious to learn, but a lack of experienced instructors in my areas of expertise. I like to say I’m pioneering the Massive Open In-Person Course, or MOIC.

Our family has traveled extensively for many years and I’ve always been the planner, so organizing and executing a year of teaching in far-flung locales felt more exciting than daunting to me. In later blogs I’ll describe how I made connections and set up the destinations, how my endeavor is being financed, and the many facets of preparation. In this blog I’ll give some observations from my first stop, Sri Lanka, and I’ll let you know how to follow my odyssey on social media if you’re interested.

My most popular teaching topic by far is Big Data, where I offer anything from a two-hour overview to a hands-on course of a week or longer. I’ve also been trained by Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (known colloquially as The d.school) to conduct one-day workshops in Design Thinking and Collaborative Problem Solving. Finally, I’ve always enjoyed meeting with groups of women students when I travel, so I’m offering informal Women in Tech roundtables. My host in Sri Lanka chose to squeeze in all three options, some repeated in two locations, so I got a chance to give everything a try with multiple audiences.

On the whole Sri Lanka seems to have been a big success — the feedback I’ve received post-visit has been positive and heartfelt. One thing I contended with in Sri Lanka, and I’ll undoubtedly encounter elsewhere too, is a feeling of distance from the students. During the Big Data sessions with 50–100 participants it was hard to tell whether they were listening or daydreaming, understanding or lost, having fun or waiting for the break (though when I assigned problems for them to work on, with Stanford swag for the first few who solved them, the students dug right in and many finished quickly). I was assured over and over that the students were listening, understanding, and having fun, and that a gulf between students and professors is the cultural norm in Sri Lanka. Finally one morning I explained that interactive sessions and getting to know students is part of what I’m after, and I offered to buy lunch for the first eight who signed up, as long as they promised to chat with me. There was a stampede to sign up for lunch and after that everything changed.

Big Data students in Colombo. Males considerably outnumbered females among the 80 or so students, but these three enthusiastic women sat in front!

I figured that the Design Thinking workshops would be especially challenging culturally, since participants are forced to work creatively and collaboratively and without detailed instructions. I was pleasantly surprised when the first workshop was a textbook success: The students were animated and engaged, and they took readily to unconventional activities like sticky-notes on their bodies and interviewing strangers about personal habits. They were proud of their design solutions and shared readily how they could apply what they learned during the workshop to their everyday lives. That particular group was about half young working professionals and half students, all from the main city of Colombo. When I repeated the workshop in a more remote location with an all-student group and lesser English skills, drawing them into the process and activities was decidedly more difficult.

This Design Thinking workshop in Colombo was a big success, but the session in Kandy was more challenging.

My roundtable discussion with undergraduate women tech students was met with absolute silence, until I started calling on them individually. Eventually a few opened up with personal stories or concerns, but many never spoke at all. Two things struck me in particular: First, those women who did speak up invariably mentioned what their fathers expected of their careers. Not mothers, siblings, teachers, or anyone else; fathers. Second, they claimed there weren’t many gender-related issues in the classroom, but when I moved on to the Big Data short-course, males outnumbered females at least 3-to-1, and the males were far more vocal. Maybe the women don’t consider that an issue?

The second-biggest challenge, after that of connecting personally with the students, was a mismatch between the host’s expectations and mine. The host organized my stay as a formal workshop, rather than the simple university-hosted visit I had been envisioning. And not a low-key workshop either: she acquired industrial and professional-society sponsors, recruited 30+ student helpers including several photographers, made custom T-shirts, a huge banner and several smaller ones, laptop stickers, and a countdown website. Here too I was facing unexpected cultural norms: Apparently such workshops are typical in Sri Lanka, and some of the participants (luckily not all of them) clearly cared more about the accoutrements than the content itself. It’s something to be aware of as I finalize planning for other locations.

Group photo after a short Big Data session in Kandy.

Not surprisingly there were a number of logistical challenges during my teaching: a projector that wouldn’t focus, electricity going out multiple times in a single session, internet only marginally working during sessions that required it (eventually we set up a hotspot on a student’s phone), room configuration not as expected, and students arriving two hours late because they were informed of an unexpected “compulsory lecture” at their university. All of these obstacles are probably par for the course in a developing country, and it’s certain I will see many more as the year progresses. I tend to get frustrated when things don’t go as planned, so this year will be a learning experience for me as well as for the students!

Website and Social Media

I created a website for my endeavor: Professor Widom’s Instructional Odyssey. It includes details of the course offerings, information for hosts, the current schedule with a world map, sponsors, and a nascent page of participant comments.

Like this one, all blogs will be posted on the Medium blogging site here. My intention is to write roughly one blog per location, so at most 2–3 per month. I’ve also launched an Instagram feed here; I’ll limit posts to at most one photo per teaching day.

You can revisit the Medium and Instagram links to look for new blogs and posts, or if you’re a user on either site just hit Follow. If you’d like to be notified by email when I post a new blog (but not for every Instagram post), send email to widom@stanford.edu and I’ll add you to the notification list.