Teaching a Course of 25,000 Students: Charmaine Williams’ Experiment with MOOCs


Williams2Imagine taking a university course with close to 25,000 students from all across the world, with enrolment stretching from Brazil to Switzerland and all the way back to Canada. For those of us who thought first year courses in Convocation Hall were large, Professor Charmaine Williams has taught a class twenty times the size of those taught in that building.

Williams was one of the University of Toronto’s first professors to teach what is called a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), which aims for unlimited participation through open learning on the web. Her course focused on the social context of mental health and illness. MOOCs provide interactive forums in which teaching assistants, professors, and students can engage with each other through long distance education. At first Williams was a skeptic, but she has come to embrace online forms of learning.

The California company Coursera, has become one of the world’s largest providers of MOOCs, and Williams’ course was the first non-technical Coursera MOOC emerging out of Canada. And whereas, globally, most of the courses previously focused on technology, Williams was interested on changing that pattern, and finding a way for a MOOC to focus on social sciences.

Williams was also a trailblazer for another reason. She noted that when it came to MOOCs, “there were hardly any women doing it, and also few women of colour doing it.”

According to Williams, her course involved approximately two hours of video instruction per week, along with readings and participation in discussion forums. All of the readings had to be open source, as students were enrolled in Williams’ class from all around the world, and did not have the kind of source access that students at the University of Toronto benefit from. The course lasted for six weeks, and was first taught in 2013.

Looking back, Williams “was actually surprised by how well it worked” for students, who helped each other and engaged with their classmates from across the globe. Williams was skeptical about the possibility of having a classroom environment with 25,000 students while still ensuring that there was adequate interaction with those enrolled in the course. Nonetheless, Williams notes that she “gained a lot of respect for how people can work together online.” Students formed subgroups based on their location, and people came together with others diagnosed with mental illness or those with relatives facing similar challenges. There were even mental health professionals involved in the course.

Another pleasant surprise for Williams was how well students did in helping each other in engaging with the technology and navigating their way through the course together. This both surprised and impressed Williams as an educator. The first time she taught the class, Williams was able to tailor future lessons to the needs of students, as she recorded her teaching videos class by class to best help her students and be responsive to where students’ interest were, even with such a large class.
Williams did, however, find it challenging to teach students without being able to see them visually; she saw it as essentially “like teaching without a safety net.” However, she found that communicating directly with many of her students online, while demanding, helped to replace the visual and verbal feedback she would otherwise receive in a classroom.

Throughout the course, students were assessed through multiple choice tests, as well as assignments that were marked by their peers. Each student had to mark assignments handed in by five other students, and Williams was surprised that most of her students were rather difficult markers. Her concerns about across the board A grades turned out to be unwarranted. Students even reported their peers for plagiarizing.

The materials that Williams developed and used for her MOOC have since been used for online independent studies for students and community work, and a revised edition is now being used to do a fourth level psychology course based at the University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus in January of 2016. Williams herself does not foresee a scenario in which she would teach another MOOC in the near future, although she taught the course a second time, with 18,000 students, in 2014. But that, according to Williams, is “small potatoes.” Most MOCCs are several times larger.