AMA with Your Professor: An Experiment in Scaling Innovations

Concurrent Session 1

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

AMAs (Ask Me Anything) are fairly commonplace events in the business world. How can higher-education institutions translate this concept and practice for their unique purposes? In this presentation, we will share how we planned, revised and implemented AMAs in our university context.  

 

Additional Authors

I work as a Senior Research Assistant and eLearning support staff in two innovative online programs, the iMBA, and iMSA, at the Gies College of Business of Illinois at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. My work focuses on the training and development of community assistants in the Coursera platform. I lead several MOOC mentors' forums. My research interests include exploring expatriates' adjustment experiences and also the role of social networks in MOOCs. I work as a live session coordinator. I look forward to connecting with you all at the OLC platforms.

Extended Abstract

Context

Our college has created two innovative online degree programs: first, an online Master of Business Administration (iMBA) program that entails the use of two learning platforms, the Coursera Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) platform and the Blackboard Learning Management System platform; secondly, an online Master of Science in Accountancy (iMSA) program that utilizes a single Coursera platform to host both the degree courses and non-degree MOOC courses.  Our learners earn degree program credentials, iMBA or iMSA, on the aforementioned platforms, as well as core and elective Coursera specialization certificates via the open-access MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses); hence the name, stackable degree programs. In January 2017, the iMBA won an award in the 2016 Reimagine Education international competition.   

 

Problem

To scale our online programs, our college has invested in infrastructure building, partnership with a MOOC provider, acquisition of cutting-edge technology and tools, expanded our administrative, digital learning and program support staff, and several other major elements of online education development.  

In January 2016, the first iMBA cohort enrolled in their first course; in spring 2018, we are expecting a fourth cohort enrollment of about 800 students. The first course currently has an active learner enrollment of nearly 180,000 learners in the public open sessions; with other course enrollments playing catch-up.

Our College’s communications office markets the programs and our program offices work collaboratively with other college units on student advising and recruitment. Our student engagement and completion numbers indicate rather high degree course retention and completion rates.

However, besides offering course access to global learners through our MOOCs, we also want to offer them opportunities to engage with their instructors and earn degree credentials through our programs. This is in keeping with our mission as a land-grant public university: to offer a range of accessible and affordable educational opportunities to everyone. To this end, our eLearning Unit is exploring a series of social media ventures to diffuse our educational innovations more broadly besides the traditional webinars and virtual tours. We see the AMA as a disruptive innovation in communications strategies. Underlying the AMA are the concepts of folk production, wisdom of the crowd and participatory culture (Jenkins, Ito & boyd, 2016).

 

Approach

AMA (Ask Me Anything) is an emerging phenomenon in the world of e-learning in the higher education context. AMAs allegedly began in 1992 (Madrigal, 2014) with a book (Klein, 1992) called Ask Me Anything: A Sex Therapist Answers the Most Important Questions for the 90's. Slashdot (Madrigal, 2014) experimented with crowdsourced interviews in 1999. A few universities (2015) treaded into AMA territory with the use of Reddit AMAs. The AMA with Your Professor project was initiated by the first author as a grassroots effort to accomplish the abovementioned goals and to inject a fresh approach to learner recruitment and engagement.

Despite the success of forum-style AMAs on the Reddit and Quora platforms, we adapted these formats to suit our programmatic purposes: we designed AMAs as live events managed on different social media platforms and focused on the affordances of synchronous video for real-time interaction. A main goal of our AMA initiative is to harness the power of social media to showcase a professor serving as a “celebrity” to answer crowdsourced learner questions in a casual environment. Learners get the chance to interview their instructors (“professor”) in real time.

In the original AMA format in Reddit and now Quora’s Writing Sessions, questions are crowdsourced, then up- or downvoted by users. The most highly rated questions get answered within the Reddit AMA hour or Quora writing session. In our case, questions were collected in advance via an openly shared Google document on our Coursera course specializations’ social media pages. Each course has its own social media account to offer another avenue for learners to connect with one another.

Questions are then sent to the AMA host or instructor in advance. The AMA host selects the questions s/he will answer during the session. This helps to eliminate a majority of trolls.

Since March 2017, our project team has designed and executed three AMAs. Our student marketing team broadcast event details to learners across all our course specialization social media pages. For our first AMA, we planned an asynchronous session with a professor answering some learner questions together with two of his teaching assistants. The AMA session was captured on video professionally by a member of our eLearning digital media team.

For our second AMA, we changed the technology and used the Facebook Live Video tool. Marketing and question collection procedures for the event remained the same. During the live event, our featured professor answered questions that had been sent ahead of time and questions from the live chat stream. Facebook stored the live event video and published it on the wall of our course specialization page. However, the video disappeared soon after the event transpired and Facebook was not able to retrieve the video despite our appeal.

Based on our previous trials, we planned our third AMA more meticulously and broadcast it live through Zoom Webinar technology, for which our college has licenses. Zoom Webinars gave us the opportunity to let interested learners register for the event ahead of time and follow up with them after the webinar. We also have Zoom recordings in a place which we can easily locate. Zoom webinar is a tool capable of accommodating up to 500 attendees and allows us to broadcast the live event on other social media platforms like Facebook or Youtube.

A fourth AMA is being planned and will be implemented after the CFP deadline ends. We will share how the fourth AMA transpired during our presentation.

Results

What we learned from our series of AMAs are expressed in the following questions that we will present to our audience for an engaged conversation.

Technology and tools:

  • How do we foster participatory culture using new media tools?  How do we eliminate fear and resistance towards the use of social media for educational purposes?

Many of our student course assistants and staff have not warmed up to the use of new media tools to diffuse innovation. Our project is spearheaded and implemented by one staff member, supported by a lead graduate assistant and one other staff member who are highly experienced in the use of Zoom technology. Without a substantial (tipping point) number of users in our community participating and spreading the news, however, our AMAs are currently not getting enough attention and hence participation from potential learners.

Moreover, certain social media tools seem to not work well with our student workers who are millenials, they see Twitter as a place for “older folks” and are friendship-driven (SingTeach.nie.edu.sg, 2014) when it comes to the adoption of social media tools.

 

Sustainability of method/process to diffuse innovation

  • How do we model a process that is more learner-centered?

  • How do we make this project a viable and sustainable practice?  

Cross-functional collaboration challenges:

  • How do we work across teams more efficiently?

The design and implementation of an AMA spans multiple stakeholders - program office teams, communications teams, social media teams, digital media teams, instructional design teams and graduate student teams.

 

Maximizing the affordances of AMA:

  • What makes a “hot” AMA? What are hot topics? Hot “edu-celebrity”? What is the best platform - should we try Reddit, Quora or Twitter?

  • What criteria should we use to decide on the selection of AMA hosts, platforms and event time?

We have thus far selected hosts based on the “interesting-ness” of the subject matter, willingness of the professors to participate and an assessment of which course specializations would appeal to the audience.

 

Other methods to scale innovation:

  • Besides the AMAs, what other cost-effective methods are available to diffuse educational innovations?

We were able to tweak and improve on the design of our AMAs after each post-event reflection and debrief. Facebook was the most accessible option but offered us less control over broadcasting and technical preferences. Zoom webinar affords us a more seamless integration with new media tools but requires extra steps for participant registration and navigation of a new web application. All formats afforded us the opportunity to share recordings of the full live event or small snippets on social media pages and within the Coursera platform. AMAs offer global MOOC learners real-time engagement that our degree students have with their professors on a weekly basis. They offer potential learners a casual setting to catch a glimpse of the value of our programs.     

We will actively engage our presentation audience by inviting them to participate in a Zoom webinar that integrates with Facebook/YouTube. We will share our questions and also crowdsource questions from attendees to simulate a mock AMA session.