Penn’s Rebecca Stein Will Engage Online Economics Students in the ‘Active Sport’ of Learning

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Media Contact:Katherine Unger Baillie | | 215-898-9194February 15, 2013

Many professors who embark on teaching a massive open online class, or MOOC, may be apprehensive about conveying their subject material to thousands. But that’s nothing new to Rebecca Stein, a senior lecturer in the University of Pennsylvania Department of Economics, who may teach 1,000 Penn undergraduates in a given year.

That’s not to say that she doesn’t anticipate surprises in the course that she is teaching through Coursera this spring, “Principles of Microeconomics.” Set to begin April 8, the offering has already enrolled 8,000 students. To Stein, however, much more important than scale will be the different kinds of interactions she’ll have with her students, who, instead of being in a large lecture hall, will be behind their own computers, scattered across the globe.

“Learning is a very active sport,” Stein said. “I think just passively looking at lectures doesn’t actively engage the students. In my course at Penn, my students work hard and I am trying to replicate that in this online course.”

Before the opportunity to partner with Coursera took shape, Stein was contemplating simply posting her previously recorded lectures online. But to “activate” the learning process, she carefully considered every element of the course, from how to present problem sets, how to make the best use of her teaching assistant, how to guide peer assessment and whether and how to engage with students on the online forums associated with the class.

“I am anxious and excited to see how it all goes,” she said.

The course is nine weeks long; each week will cover two distinct topics in several five- to eight-minute video lessons. At the end of many of the videos, Stein will suggest questions the students should pause to think about before continuing on to the next lesson.

In addition, students will have weekly assignments consisting of multiple-choice questions, which, according to Stein, are “not easy,” and short answers that will require students to draw and upload graphs relevant to the lesson they have just completed. The graphs will be evaluated through peer assessment.

“It is important for students to draw graphs,” she said. “It is good for them to face a blank piece of paper and have to create an economic model to reflect a given scenario.”

Stein will demonstrate this process with a weekly example where she will walk students through a timely, real-world application of what they have just learned.

“In the second week we learn about supply and demand,” Stein said. “An application I plan to use is the market for guar gum, an ingredient in ice cream.”

Stein explains that guar gum was a small market for many years, until the substance became used in hydraulic fracturing. Now the Indian farmers who once produced it for a relatively small food market are trying to grow as much as they can, while chemists work to develop a synthetic substitute for use in industry.

“You can see how all the supply-and-demand issues set up interesting problems for students to consider in analyzing this market,” she said.

Finally, there will be live video sessions, or “screenside chats,” where she hopes to be able to directly respond to questions that students submit as she goes.

To give all this talk of serious economic scenarios some levity, Stein also plans to integrate a popular feature of her course at Penn in the MOOC: a theme song for every class. For instance, students may begin a Comparative Advantage class by hearing Billy Currington’s song “Pretty Good at Drinking Beer,” or may prepare to learn about scarcity and choice with the tune “You Can’t Always Get What you Want” by the Rolling Stones.

Stein says her course is best suited for those who specifically want to learn about markets and the forces that act upon them.

“I think people who are interested in understanding ongoing discussions on the role of government, of taxation and of regulation will get a lot of my course,” she said.

Preparing to teach the course has been a learning experience for Stein as well.

“It’s certainly making me think again about my teaching in terms of the content, the format and the outcomes that I want. I am considering anew the inputs that go into this production called learning. That’s a wonderful opportunity.”