Interview: Ed Dixon Discusses Coursera’s First Language MOOC

Sign up to take Ed Dixon’s German MOOC in Coursera! The start date has been revised to October 6th, 2014.

Courtney Fell: The FLTmag is excited to be here today with Dr. Ed Dixon from the University of Pennsylvania. Ed thanking you so much for agreeing to do this interview.

Ed Dixon: My pleasure, thank you.

Courtney Fell: Ed is the Director of Technology at the Penn Language Center, and Lecturer of German at Penn and his areas of interest include faculty and professional training with technology and distance and online language learning and teaching. The FLTmag was at the CALICO conference last month and your presentation was on the top of our list. I believe the title of the presentation was “The First Language Learning Course through Coursera,” is that right?

Ed Dixon: Yes.

Courtney Fell: Awesome. And are you still planned or scheduled to be the first course language course in Coursera?

Ed Dixon: Yes on Oct. 6.

Courtney Fell: Great, we’re excited to talk with you before this rolls out. So, we have some questions today and I just wanted you to give us an idea of what first drew you to teaching languages.

Ed Dixon: Well, I started studying languages in high school (German), and then I was in college and I started out as an English major, but I had such a great German teacher, that I changed my major to German.

Courtney Fell: And then from there, you started teaching as a TA?

Ed Dixon: Then I went on to graduate school and was a TA at Penn State, and then through that program, I ended up going to Germany for three years on an exchange program. I was supposed to be there one year, but I ended up staying for three years. And then I came back to the U.S. and I did a PhD at Penn and I was also a TA here.

Courtney Fell: So how long have you been at Penn then?

Ed Dixon: Well let’s see, I got my doctorate in ‘94, and then returned to University of Penn in 2002 after working at Swarthmore, CUA, Georgetown and George Washington University

Courtney Fell: Ok, great. So you’ve been teaching German online since 2010, and I’m sure you’ve kind of refined the process some, what does your current German course look like online? You mentioned you are teaching over the summer. Is it mostly synchronous activities with the students? What are the tools that you are using in your current online course?

Ed Dixon: Ok, it’s both synchronous and asynchronous. The synchronous part, takes place in a virtual classroom, and we use Adobe Connect for that. There’s a lot of interaction that goes on. The students interact with me, they interact with each other.  The asynchronous part of the course is  done primarily in Canvas. There are quizzes that the students take, reading comprehension exercises, voiced threaded discussions and written essays. We also have a private Facebook room and all of this is done in German.

Courtney Fell: I wanted to ask you this question and I put it at the end of the interview. But this is a big question for language teachers in online environments. What is your opinion on Google Translator and the students’ use of Google Translator, where they are translating more than just one word at a time, more than just a verb. So how do you breach this problem in your classrooms? Or is it a problem?

Ed Dixon: Well, I have found that four years ago when I first started teaching the class online, I recognized that a student was using a translator because for one thing it was too good and yet it wasn’t perfect. And so I approached him about it and he indicated that he was using a translator, but he thought that was okay because it was an online class. So I made it clear to him that, that was not the case and I want the students to be able to create with the language and use their own language to express themselves.

Courtney Fell: Yeah, I’ve had situations where they are taking online tests, and I’m sitting there correcting their essays and I’m not sure if I am correcting Google Translator’s work, or my students’ work. You know?

Ed Dixon: Exactly.

Courtney Fell: So I want them to use the resources that are out there, but if it’s then going to take the time of the teacher as well, I don’t know.

Ed Dixon: I think most teachers can recognize whether a student is using a translator or whether they’re creating.

Courtney Fell: I wanted to start talking about MOOCs, Massive Open Online Courses. Penn, it sounds like, offers more Coursera courses than any other single university. Is that correct?

Ed Dixon: Yes, that probably is correct. We were one of the first adopters of Coursera

Courtney Fell: So, how did the conversation to start your German MOOC come about?

Ed Dixon: Well, when I first heard about it, I wasn’t really sure whether the platform would be amenable to teaching languages. But the more I thought about it, and after having 3-4 years of online teaching experience, I had definite ideas in my head of what a language MOOC would look like in Coursera. So, that’s basically how it got started, based on my own experiences. I talked to a couple of people about it, who do the vetting, and who approve these courses and they encouraged me to put in a proposal. So that was the basic steps.

Courtney Fell: So does Penn accept proposals, and then they get passed around there and then get vetted through Penn?

Ed Dixon: Yes, right. There is a committee that meets and evaluates the proposals. They also have several meetings throughout the year, where they invite teachers to come and talk about MOOCs with professors and faculty who have already done it, to give ideas and suggestions. So I went to several of these meetings.

Courtney Fell: Great. Yeah it’s good to know what you’re getting into, and what problems people have encountered. Did you encounter any resistance to teaching languages online through MOOCs?

Ed Dixon: I think there are some reservations, but in general I think people look at it as an experiment. And I think as long as we can look at it as an experiment, I think people are a little bit more at ease about what the MOOC is going to do. It’s hard to make any kind of predictions right now, of what students are going to learn and how much they are going to learn in this language MOOC but I do have certain goals set for what I want the students to be able to do. But we are really not going to know that, until we’ve launched the course. So I’m not making any promises, but I do expect, that there will be some good outcomes.

Courtney Fell: So is that one reason that you were interested in creating your German MOOC? You wanted to see how this experiment would go?

Ed Dixon: Well yes, I mean in terms of the language learning, that’s where the experiment comes in. What I’m also really interested in was the fact that people from around the world will be interacting with each other in another language which I think was the first reason for wanting to do this course. I wanted to have people from around the world be able to interact with each other in the language, talk about themselves, and lead to perhaps a better understanding of cultural differences, not only the differences between their culture and Germany, but also between the different cultures of people who are participating in the course.

Courtney Fell: Exciting. So how is the MOOC going to look and feel? What are the kinds of activities you will be doing? What does the environment look like?

Ed Dixon: Students will be doing something  every day. That makes it a little different than most Coursera courses, or most MOOCs because in general, they get one presentation and then they’re on their own for the rest of the week. In our course, the students will have everyday an assignment or a task. There will be a video presentation that introduces the structure and introduces the themes and the vocabulary for that week. Then, the students get a lot of modeling, they will be getting essays from us, a number of different profiles that will model the topics that we introduce. They’ll also get exercises to do that will test their understanding of the structures and of the vocabulary.

Courtney Fell: Autocorrected exercises?

Ed Dixon: There will be automated corrections.

Courtney Fell: Yes.

Ed Dixon: After they go through this process of being introduced to this topic and working with the vocabulary and with the structures, they will then be producing their own texts. After they produce their written texts, they will then be using  VoiceThreads to practice their pronunciation, and to also present themselves. They will also be getting each week, a number of profiles of German celebrities that introduce different ways that Germans live in society today. There will also be polling to survey their social and cultural attitudes. Then we will also be introducing the students to different cities in Germany. So in the end, students will learn about cities, different lifestyles in Germany, and expressing themselves within the context of themes ranging from family life to likes and dislikes to eating habits and vacation. There should  be quite a bit going on.

Courtney Fell: So it will be a six week course, is that correct?

Ed Dixon: It’s a six week course.

Courtney Fell: Do students need to be at a certain level of proficiency in German or is it an intro level course?

Ed Dixon: We’re designing it as an intro course but we’re also inviting people who are native speakers to join in. We are also inviting students who have a higher level of proficiency to join and encouraging them to participate. We are hoping that beginning students will then be able to have authentic examples of language usage and interactions from native speakers.

Courtney Fell: Are you going to conduct an intake survey when the students initially sign up for the course, just kind of gaging where they are, what their age is, sex, past experience with German? That sort of a thing?

Ed Dixon: Yes, we are planning that and will be sending a survey later. The landing page is now up and running at and students can enroll.

Courtney Fell: And it’s so interesting to track certain students, where they are, which students are more motivated or complete the course, based on that initially intake.

Ed Dixon: Exactly, I think it’s really important to engage them before the course starts.

Courtney Fell: Yes and see what they want out of the course, because everyone complains about “completion rates” and MOOCs, but if I were to take it, which I’m planning on hopping in and playing along, but I don’t know any German, you know I don’t know how long I would make it.

Ed Dixon: Well, it’s kind of interesting though, because I was just reading an article today about research on MOOCs.  They asked the students, how important  it was for them to complete the course and the majority felt that it was not that important. So, now after reading this article, I’m starting to re-evaluate what is really important about the course. The certificate is definitely one part of it but what they learn from the course and each other is equally important.  Getting the students to learn about each other and their cultures is a very significant part of the course. Don’t get me wrong, I want the students to complete the course and as many of them to get a certificate as possible.  I would also like them to evaluate their learning in a kind of portfolio assessment.

Courtney Fell: Are you going to have that sort of self assessment built in throughout? Or is it just going to be a final portfolio?

Ed Dixon: I think it’s also important that self-evaluation be built into the course throughout. We will be providing them with feedback, so that they can self-correct. There will be a lot of self-correction and self-learning but we will be guiding their learning process.

Courtney Fell: So it sounds like, and this is the approach I think should be taken in MOOCs in general, but it sounds like you are going to embrace any kind of learner that happens to fall into your environment, is that right?

Ed Dixon: Yes, that’s correct.

Courtney Fell: Yeah. Exactly, that’s the reality of it, right? It sounds like you are also going to be able to cater to ones of course who are a little bit behind, and then I guess the ones that are more advanced, will still be able to benefit from all of the other input and self-reflection.

Ed Dixon: Right, because if we’re going to be talking about the topic of nutrition, this can be talked about at different levels. So, there might be somebody at the intermediate level talking to someone that is more advanced, or with a native speaker. So, the students at all language levels will have the opportunity to use the language to express themselves.

Courtney Fell: Yeah. I very authentic use of…

Ed Dixon: I think the expressive part of the course will motivate people to use the language.

Courtney Fell: You were talking about them talking with each other, you mentioned VoiceThread, are there also going to be discussion forums?

Ed Dixon: Well it’s going to be discussion forums, and so there will be VoiceThreads. We’re not going to be able to provide this type of environment that we’re having right now, that is synchronous, but it will be asynchronous interaction.

Courtney Fell: Do you have a way of dealing with students who just kind of pop in and out? I guess if they’re missing a couple days here and there, if they go on a trip, you know, because you mentioned that they’re going to be activities, possibly everyday, small sets of activities, which I think that is a great idea, to keep them motivated and to cover a lot of ground, and also to keep them more immersed in the language. But do you have any kind of plan for these students who hop out and then hop back in?

Ed Dixon: Well, that happens in the face-to-face lessons.

Courtney Fell: Sure.

Ed Dixon: And it also happens in an online classroom. So, what I try to do is accommodate the students, by allowing them to catch up.  I’m going to allow the students to work as much as possible at their own pace. I think in order for them to learn at their own pace, you have to be a little more flexible.

Courtney Fell: Yeah. This may not apply to a language MOOC, I can’t remember who said this, but they were using the idea of daily digests, weekly digests. The students that did kind of fall behind, or went on a vacation, contacted the instructor and were like, “We wanted to know what happened last week.” Of course they could still get in the course and catch up, but then they came up with the idea of the students creating, authoring a summary of what happened that day, and just contributing to a collaborative GoogleDoc.

Ed Dixon: That’s an interesting idea.

Courtney Fell: Yeah. I just wanted to share that with you.

Ed Dixon: Yeah. That’s a great idea. Where students can share their experiences of what they have been learning.

Courtney Fell: Yeah their favorites of the day, or something.

Ed Dixon: Yeah, I like that! I’m going to have to write that down. [laughs] Favorites of the day, Courtney can I use that?

Courtney Fell: Oh please! I don’t know what it would be in German. Let’s see here, you have kind of referred to this a little bit. What are the kind of affordances about the MOOC that you are most excited about? Is it this “crowdsourcing” of the students? The reality of it all? The authenticity of it all?

Ed Dixon: Yes,  it is a little bit like “crowdsourcing” and I think the sharing of world-wide experiences using a foreign language will set this course apart from most MOOCS on Coursera.  This MOOC is not so much content-oriented as it is people-oriented

Courtney Fell: Nice.

Ed Dixon: So that’s one reason why I became very excited about it. I was on a MOOC, this was a MOOC that was actually from Switzerland on Coursera and it was in German. I was interacting with people from around the world in German, and I was like, wow this is really cool. Students were talking mostly about the content, but at times, people started talking about themselves.

Courtney Fell: This would be long term, and not necessarily for the iteration of your MOOC, but people are obsessed with credit and certificates, especially with, well, online teaching. That’s what we originally started doing, was teaching for credit online. Do you have any ideas of how you would assess in the future, for a large German language course?

Ed Dixon: Well, we’re hoping we can interview students and do a sort of OPI type of interview, so that we can test their proficiency and see where they are at at the end of the course in terms of their speaking abilities. We’re not going to be able to interview everybody, but we’ll probably interview a good sample.

Courtney Fell: I was going to ask a question about differentiated instruction, and this I guess applies more to your online course. But you know, students will learning disabilities and students who require different kinds of input. The online environment seems like a really good environment to cater to these students in a way that the face to face classrooms cannot. Do you have any experience with this? Have you actively tried to cater to different styles of learning in your online courses, or even in your MOOC?

Ed Dixon: Well, are you addressing mostly disabilities?

Courtney Fell: Yeah.

Ed Dixon: Well, the MOOC can provide the hearing-impaired with subtitles to the videos.

Courtney Fell: Is that built into the Coursera system?

Ed Dixon: Well, I know that English can be built into the system. One thing that I noticed that people do, or that I have heard from other people in Coursera courses that may not be in English, is that they get together in small groups and provide subtitling themselves. I don’t know exactly how all of that works, but I expect that students will be helping each other. I have to really look more into this, as to be able to accommodate students who have some type of disability, and one of them I think are going to be listening disabilities.

Courtney Fell: Interesting. What do you tell people that are skeptical about learning languages online? [laughs]. We encounter a lot of resistance to this. “Wait how can you teach a language online?” Do you have kind of a spiel that you like to say to these people?

Ed Dixon: I don’t really have a spiel. I will say, well why don’t you stop in the course, and see what happens? What I do at at presentations is I try to point out what the students say about the course, rather than what I say about the course. I find that what students say about online learning is the best way to be convincing and show people there are different ways students can learn, that learning doesn’t simply just happen face-to-face, but can happen online.

Courtney Fell: Great. Well, when can we hop into your online course? When does the MOOC go live?

Ed Dixon: As I mentioned earlier, the landing page is now up and running at  and students can enroll.

Courtney Fell: Ok. Well, awesome. You will definitely have some participants from CU Boulder, and the FLTmag as well.

Ed Dixon: Great! Do you speak German?

Courtney Fell: No, I don’t speak any German. I’ll be a true intro student in your course.

Ed Dixon: You can really give me some valuable feedback, Courtney.

Courtney Fell: Awesome. Sounds good.

Ed Dixon: Yeah, we’ll be in touch.

Courtney Fell: Ok, great. Thank you so much for doing this interview today for FLTmag and we wish you the best of luck in preparing for your MOOC!

Ed Dixon: Thank you Courtney.

Courtney Fell: Awesome.

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