Prof. Hornstein Delivers Popular Course To Thousands Online

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At the end of the day, when Donald T. Hornstein, the Aubrey L. Brooks Professor of Law at UNC School of Law, packs up his work to bring home, it includes his laundry. His office in Van Hecke-Wettach Hall doubles as a video recording studio where he tapes his lectures for the massive open online course – MOOC – he is preparing to teach on environmental law. Light-reflecting umbrellas loiter in the corner, PowerPoint slide printouts are taped to the wall above and behind his computer monitor, and a week’s worth of shirts and ties, including a tux and bow tie, hang on hangers on a hook on the back of his office door.

“I might record a few lectures in one session,” he said, “but I have to put on a different shirt for each lecture so the students don’t think I slept in my clothes.”

And when he wants to splice in new material to a lecture he’s already recorded, he first must change into the shirt and tie he wore when he recorded it originally.

All part of the learning curve as UNC enters the world of MOOCs. An abbreviated version of Hornstein’s very successful “Introduction to Environmental Law and Policy” course for undergraduates is one of five MOOCs UNC has contracted to deliver to Coursera, one of the largest online education providers. The courses are free and will provide supplemental content only; students will receive no course credit for taking them.

In February, a Provost’s Task Force selected professors to teach the MOOCs. Of the hundreds of professors already teaching MOOCs elsewhere, Hornstein is only the second American law professor to date.

“Online education has its strengths and weaknesses,” Hornstein said, “but UNC wants to stay ahead of the curve.”

Hornstein’s six-week MOOC will begin airing Sept. 16, offering four 10-minute lectures (he calls them “chunkettes”) per week. Almost 17,000 students, many from outside the U.S., have signed up already, weeks before it starts. He’ll include multiple-choice quizzes so students can test their mastery of the material, and he can poll students at any time during the lecture to get feedback on how well the class understands a particular point.

Students work at their own pace and can participate in an online discussion forum. Hornstein has hired some UNC students who have taken his for-credit course to monitor the forums to correct inaccurate contributions and flag teachable moments where Hornstein should weigh in. He’ll also hold office hours via Skype. A group of students in Hong Kong, for instance, can gather around a computer during their lunch hour, and he’ll Skype with them from home at midnight. 

On an August morning, rock music pumping up the football team practice oozed through his closed windows, and doors slammed in a nearby stairwell, more points on the MOOC learning curve. Hornstein has taken to recording from 5 to 8 in the morning, when the building is generally quiet.

“I can always get up earlier than football players,” he said.

Coursera owns the platform and is authorized to repeat the MOOC for an “initial period” — still the subject of contract negotiations.  But Hornstein owns the intellectual property rights to the content he creates, so it can’t be edited without the professor’s approval, and if the material goes out of date, he can pull it.

“I can’t teach something that is no longer true,” Hornstein said. “My reputation depends on the content being correct.”

Hornstein does not see MOOCs as replacing education at a residential school. But in teaching his MOOC, he is learning instructional techniques to make his in-person teaching better.  He has taken MOOCs from renowned professors himself because he always is interested in learning something new.

More than two dozen universities have partnered with Coursera since the platform launched in 2012.

“Partnering with Coursera represents one more way we can make Carolina and the high-quality teaching of our faculty accessible to online learners,” Thorp said at the time UNC announced its participation. “This is the next logical step to expanding our online presence.”

-September 5, 2013

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