Promoting Liberal Arts in a Career-Oriented MOOC Environment

Concurrent Session 3

Brief Abstract

How does a liberal arts institution launch successful courses within a MOOC environment focused on corporate skills? We discuss creation of two Specializations launched on Coursera, showcasing a project-based data sequence and groundbreaking MOOCs in Creative Writing. We offer suggestions for further development of MOOCs emphasizing liberal arts skills.

Extended Abstract

How does an institution devoutly committed to liberal arts develop successful courses for a MOOC environment focused on business, tech, and data? In this presentation, we discuss the inception, development, launch, and progression of a course sequence (called a "Specialization") in Creative Writing, including our own metrics for success with the project. We offer suggestions for the development of other MOOCs and how to make them stand out in a crowded field that is intently focused on business and technology courses. We also contrast this with our other Specialization, data analysis, and discuss how Wesleyan uses the juxtaposition of these two content areas on the Coursera platform as a showcase for liberal arts. 

Three years ago, Wesleyan began offering several MOOCs in partnership with Coursera, signing on as the first deeply liberal-arts university on the platform. In the years since, over 1.6 million learners have enrolled in 21 Wesleyan classes across a diverse curriculum including film, classics, math, economics, and psychology. Most recently, Wesleyan has emphasized its place as a leader in liberal education for massive audiences by building two Specializations (or sequence of courses), first launching Data Analysis and Interpretation in the fall of 2015 and following with Creative Writing in Spring of 2016.

While MOOC platforms are rife with data courses, Wesleyan's took a project-based approach drawn from pedagogy used in our on-ground data science classrooms. That is, we created courses that encourage students how to think about data while also imparting the skills to actually assess it. This prioritized the needs of individuals who need to learn data analysis as a supplement for their chosen careers, rather than catering to the saturated market of students intending to pursue a career explicilty in data science. As such, our courses are built so that a new student can enter with absolutely no prior knowledge of data, statistics, or programming. Over the five courses, they are first given the tools to consider how to ask good questions. Only after this do the deeper elements of the data analysis process emerge. 

Conversely, creative writing was an area brand new to either major MOOC platform, and almost entirely foreign to the thousands-of-learners model at all. Drawing on our dedicated Shapiro Center for Creative Writing and a reputation for excellence through an annual Writer’s Conference, we created a unique design philosophy to bring this intensely personal – and intensely subjective – discipline to a wide audience. Unlike most other Specializations, our courses are not linear. Reflecting the fact that the writing process differs among individuals, the courses (Plot, Character, Style, and Setting and Description) can be taken in any sequence before students enroll in the capstone project and ultimately write a short work of narrative. Furthermore, by addressing the writing process as a sum of consituent parts and developing our content accordingly, we are able to capitalize on the Coursera environment to offer courses in quite a different way than we do for our undergraduate curriculum. 

Throughout this presentation, we will share our design philosophies, goals, learner feedback, and ongoing support of these two significant projects, as well as their place in the newly-created Center for Pedagogical Innovation that Wesleyan has formed. We will share our anticipated future projects that have emerged from the running of these two specializations, including both pedagogical developments in our on-ground classes as well as upcoming MOOC development that aims to further enhance our position as a leading liberal arts institution.