Haohsiang Liao is a Senior Lecturer of Chinese in MIT Global Languages, and directs Chinese language studies. His Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), Chinese Language in Culture, Level 1, launches in August on edX, a MOOC platform founded by Harvard University and MIT in 2012. Interested students can pre-register here. The class starts August 18.

What is the importance of the online classes offered through edX?

Liao: I received an email from a teacher from a village in Pakistan who said that she and her 20 students look forward to the class, which they plan to take in their church in order to use the Internet there, since Internet is otherwise unavailable. That’s an example of how important this is. What we are accomplishing on edX is directly tied to the mission of MIT: not just to generate knowledge—but also to be able to disseminate it. I’ve had the opportunity to travel to a number of different countries over the last few years. Not every learner has access to high-quality education. But to take advantage of these classes, all you need, no matter where and who you are, is internet access! edX is one of the leading platforms for online education. It was founded eight years ago by MIT and Harvard, and today has over 145 institutions contributing from around the world offering over 3,000 free courses covering a vast range of fields. Those courses attract learners from over 190 countries across the globe, with 100 million enrollments to date.

What was the process like to create an edX MOOC?

Liao: Two years ago, together with Professor Jing Wang, I received an MITx Express Exploration Grant, which encourages faculty to explore creating a MOOC. At MIT, MOOC development is directed and supported by the Office of Digital Learning. It’s quite an involved process to produce a MOOC: MITx has standards that the course must adhere to, and they offer resources and personnel to help guide you through the process. For anyone considering this, you must realize that there are several crucial aspects. First there’s funding. While it is free for the learners, it is pretty costly for the producers. Chinese Language in Culture, Level 1 is supported by the MITx Express Exploration Grant and I’ve also received a two-year grant from Taiwan’s Ministry of Education that will help support the development of future MOOCs. Making a MOOC also requires help with the technology, such as learning what the edX platform can do, and what it can’t do. Creating the materials, including videos and audio files, takes work; it may take up to three months just to create a one-minute video, so you need a team in order to make this happen. And of course, you need a pedagogical vision. A key part of MOOC education as a course developer is to have confidence in the materials you put online. Are they sufficient for students to learn on their own? How much material can be covered? Chinese Language in Culture, Level 1, is not equivalent to Chinese I at MIT. It’s probably equivalent to about 1/3 of Chinese I, since it’s shorter than an MIT class (only about 6-8 weeks as opposed to MIT’s 14-week classes).

The MOOCs don’t include any synchronous virtual class meetings, so students are really studying on their own. How do you make that work? 

Liao: First of all, it’s important to help students find a rhythm to study. They are working their way through the materials alone. We can help advise them with recommended study procedures. It is also critical that learning is followed by doing. That is, we present grammar points, for example, in a video. And then each grammar item is followed immediately by exercises for the students to practice. An important question for a teacher is figuring out how you make sure your learners are learning. Without synchronous meetings, how do you monitor their progress? The ability to assess learners is key. Whatever you present needs to be followed immediately with assessment. There are some built-in assessment tools on the platform, though more would be welcome, especially in terms of assessing speaking and writing skills in foreign language learning. Even though we do not have regular class meetings with students, we offer a variety of social engagement online, such as discussion forums, weekly webinars, and social media.

What has been the response to your class so far?

Liao: Chinese Language in Culture, Level 1 is the first Chinese language MOOC offered on the edX platform by a North American university, as well as the first foreign language MOOC on MITx—MIT on edX—open to the public. I am creating levels 2 and 3 to launch next year. I’m so excited to be part of creating high-quality Chinese language education that can be made available to learners across the globe—open and free for all users. Already, in the span of just a few weeks, students from 70 different countries have registered for my class.