Carnegie Mellon University designs first engineering MOOC

The importance of implementing technologically enhanced learning came to the forefront at Carnegie Mellon University’s College of Engineering in late 2014, and it seemed to be the right time for the college’s first MOOC.

Overwhelmed by the prospect of creating the course on his own, Venkat Viswanathan, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, turned to online education provider Acatar to help realize the project.

“The team at Acatar helped me reimagine my content into a voice that would work for online delivery,” says Viswanathan.

Acatar provides a cutting-edge learning environment, high-quality video production services, and extensive professional development through a customized workshop and one-on-one coaching.
Acatar’s partnership with Viswanathan started with a course translation workshop in February 2015. The workshop teaches basic principles of effective online and blended courses, and what effective online course design looks like. “We are not the subject matter experts, but we do know pedagogy and technology,” says Galen Davis, director of instructional design for Acatar. “We like to take care of a lot of those details for our faculty partners.”

During the course translation phase, Acatar’s team helped make Viswanathan’s content engaging for an online audience. “We planned modules that would have intro hooks to explain why the following content would be important,” says Viswanathan.

When it is time to actually film the course videos, faculty have a “DIY” option where Acatar sends them video equipment, microphones, lighting and any other desired supplies to film everything on their own time at their institution. Or the faculty member can go to Acatar’s studio in Pittsburgh for a personalized filming experience with the Acatar team. Viswanathan found the editing phase of the experience particularly valuable.

“Acatar has a fantastic team of specialists who learned extremely quickly how engineering courses need to be presented,” he says. “They put in a lot of hours to make sure I could focus on what I do best, which is constructing content.”

The need for a partner who understands online learning pedagogy is critical at universities where content is going online for the first time. “Our instructional design team knows how to position subject matter to make it easier for students to learn and more efficient for faculty to teach,” says Marie Norman, senior director of educational excellence.

There are one-on-one consultations between Acatar and faculty at every stage. “We consult on course design, organization, student engagement. We even consult on slide design and scripts for videos,” says Norman.

The efforts put into the MOOC, titled Statistical Thermodynamics: Molecules to Machines, paid off. The course launched on April 20, 2015, and ran for seven weeks. Twenty percent of the audience watched all of the content, which is double the national average for MOOCs. “The MOOC will run next year, and I plan to use all of the videos for my flipped class in the fall, Advanced Thermodynamics,” says Viswanathan.

Acatar’s approach is to be simultaneously flexible and structured, says Norman. “We want to meet faculty where they are and accommodate any classroom method or preference.”

This method is appreciated by faculty. “The team at Acatar is wonderful to work with,” says Viswanathan. “They are very understanding of instructors’ needs.”

In 2015, Acatar was acquired by The Learning House, Inc., a leading cloud-based technology provider that enable universities to thrive in today’s dynamic education landscape, primarily by helping to create, manage and grow high-quality online degree programs. “Acatar was a natural fit for us because the philosophy of Learning House has always been that the universities we work with are partners in collaboration, in the same way that Acatar operates,” says Todd Zipper, president and CEO of Learning House.


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