An interview with Owen Youngman–MOOC pioneer

Owen Youngman

Owen Youngman

In Fall 2013, Northwestern University launched its first three MOOCs–the Massive Open Online Courses that have been reshaping long-standing ideas about what it means to learn and teach in higher education.

The very first MOOC at Northwestern was taught by Owen Youngman, the Knight Professor of Digital Media Strategy at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. We are delighted that Owen was able to join us on our blog to share his experiences and insights about teaching the MOOC.

Thank you so much for joining us today.  Could you tell us a little about your professional background and what you usually teach at Northwestern?
I was an editor and executive at the Chicago Tribune before coming to Northwestern, focusing largely on new product development, interactive initiatives, and cross-company project management.  I first began using online services in 1983 and almost immediately introduced the first personal computer to the newsroom, an Apple II on which I trained sports department clerks in VisiCalc so we could update batting averages and get them into the paper more quickly. I was the Tribune’s first director of interactive media, with business and editorial responsibility for the creation of Web sites including and; later I directed the creation and launch of RedEye, and still later directed the newspaper industry’s first social media strategy after drawing it up on my office whiteboard. At Northwestern, I generally teach graduate and undergraduate courses that focus on the impact of technological change on the journalism and media businesses, with a goal of helping our students to emerge from Medill equipped to lead the next round of change, whatever that might prove to be.

What motivated you to teach a MOOC?
My 30 years of direct experience online has shown me that the best way to understand not just a new technology or tool, but also its potential impact on people, culture, and business, is actually to get deeply and directly involved rather than rely on second-hand reports. When Northwestern announced its involvement with Coursera and Semester Online, I proposed adapting my on-campus course, “American Media through the Lens of Google,” for either platform; Jake Julia in the provost’s office thought it sounded like a MOOC, and so with the support of Medill Dean Brad Hamm I proceeded with what became “Understanding Media by Understanding Google,” in essence a “digital literacy” course designed to help enrollees to evaluate the intersection of their own habits and behavior with media enterprises and technology companies. My first subsequent act was to take a MOOC from Penn so that I could understand the student experience; that proved to be an invaluable part of understanding how I might approach this challenge.

Your MOOC was the very first course of its kind launched at Northwestern. What was the experience of teaching thousands of students like for you?  Was the course as you expected?  
Thanks to the assistance I got from across the University — the School of Continuing Studies, the Searle Center,  NUIT, the provost’s office, the Medill administration, and my team of on-campus students who helped me monitor the course for a couple of months — the class came off largely as I might have expected.  It was interesting to observe how the enrollees interacted with one another around this topic, how fervently they engaged with the ideas that were presented, and how motivated they were to excel on the quizzes and homework assignments, even though it was essentially a “pass-fail” course (score 70 out of 100 points and you earn a certificate; score fewer than 70, you don’t).

What was the most surprising thing you learned from teaching the MOOC?
Perhaps the most surprising thing was something that I learned from a post-course survey that I administered to the 1,196 students who “passed” (73% of them returned it): that contrary to my expectations as well as to early indications in online chatter, the students found that the homework grades they received from their peers were “mostly fair” (on a 5-point scale, the average response worked out to 4.47, with more than 700 respondents agreeing at the “4” or “5” level). Early on, I had seen peer grading — necessary at this scale of enrollment — as a potential business model issue for the MOOC companies, especially as they try to identify paths to revenue generation; this may indicate that, at least for those students who persevere and complete a course, it actually works.  There was a lot else to learn both from creating and teaching it, and I have written quite a bit about my observations and inferences in places like The Guardian, The Atlantic, and The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Would you teach this (or any other) MOOC again? What if anything would you change or do differently?
There’s plenty to do differently — provide a clear “frequently asked questions” list ahead of time; communicate expectations for each component even more clearly; in particular, work to identify Northwestern alums among the enrollees and provide them a tailored experience. So sure, if the University and Medill and I agree on how teaching it again can advance our joint and individual goals, it would be good to do it again and see how we can make MOOCs even more valuable both to the students and the institution.

Thank you! We look forward to hearing more about what you learn after teaching the MOOC for the second time!

About Searle Center for Advancing Learning & Teaching

This is the official blog for the Searle Center for Advancing Learning & Teaching at Northwestern University.
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