The TechniCity MOOC: An Interview with Tom Sanchez

Last summer I wrote a brief post about access to scholarship in a MOOC co-taught by Tom Sanchez, Professor in Urban Affairs and Planning, shortly after the course’s initial offering. After TechniCity was offered again this past spring, I thought I would ask Tom more questions about the course.

Tom Sanchez
Tom Sanchez

The interview below took place via e-mail over a few weeks in late July and early August. Other than a couple of typos and linking text, no edits have been made. However, the order of the questions has been changed to make more thematic sense. Thanks to Tom for his patience with my questions.

First, tell us about the course and your goals in co-teaching it.

The course is about how technology is being used to improve cities through capturing and utilizing new sources of social, economic, and environmental information. Ideally this information will lead to better decision-making by individuals and their communities. Jennifer Evans-Cowley (at Ohio State University) and I both taught courses about cities and technology and while discussing online education at a conference, decided to combine efforts and teach a MOOC on the topic. Neither of us had taught a MOOC before, so it was also an experiment with the MOOC platform. Ohio State University is a Coursera member (Virginia Tech is not), so we co-taught the course on Coursera. We knew it would be a lot of work, so we decided to teach it together with the help of two doctoral students and an instructional technologist from Ohio State.

Can you give us some demographics of the course participants, and whether there were any changes in them from the first offering?

The first time we offered the course there were over 21,000 students signed up and the second time we had over 11,000. The locations of students were nearly the same both times with about 4% from Africa, 18% from Asia, 1% from Australia, 33% from Europe, 36% from North America, and 8% from South America. We only collected simple demographics like age, gender, and location. The average student age was 33 years old and most were male (65%). The students were from nearly 100 countries and nearly 60 percent of them living in cities with 500,000 or more people. These characteristics were similar for both course offerings.

How many students completed the course?

Like other MOOCs the participation rate was relatively high, but the completion rates were low. In the first class we had 343 complete the course and about 185 in the second class. Large numbers of students view most of the course videos and other materials as well as engage in online discussion, but assignments and projects tend to reduce the numbers of students actually completing the course.

Do you know if there were any course participants from Virginia Tech?

This past Spring we had students taking the MOOC for credit at Ohio State (about 25) and Virginia Tech (about 12). We created a separate Google+ Community for these students to engage with each other and discuss course topics and projects. The instructors spent more individual time with students taking the class for credit and provided direct comments on projects/assignments.

What support (technical, administrative, or otherwise) did you have here at Virginia Tech for co-teaching the course, and were there any areas where you could have used more support?

I received support from Anne Moore, Gardner Campbell, and Jennifer Sparrow (InnovationSpace). Unfortunately none of them are still at VT. Anne and Gardner provided resources for me to buyout a course to concentrate on developing the MOOC. Jennifer and InnovationSpace provided much needed help with video production. The technical help from Ohio State (Tom Evans) was invaluable because no one at VT was working with Coursera. It would have been impossible otherwise. If you’re going to build a MOOC you’ll need to know about video and I’m not sure if most universities are ready to help large numbers of faculty with this.

What is your sense of the interest from Virginia Tech faculty in teaching a MOOC?

A colleague in UAP, Jocelyn Widmer, has extensive experience teaching online and has expressed interest in MOOCs. Other than that I haven’t heard much discussion.

Has co-teaching the course affected your teaching at Virginia Tech?

The course has changed my outlook on teaching. It was much more work than I anticipated, and I learned quite a bit in the process. I think our course is well-suited to the online format, but may not work for other types of courses. And not all students care for distance learning, online courses in particular. I believe online courses will improve over time as we adapt technologies to different learning styles. The key is learning how to learn, regardless of the platform.

The TechniCity e-book (PDF) is a nice resource to make available. Was it intended mostly for prospective students?

The e-book is a good way for us to show prospective students what the course is about. I think it is also a good way for us to document what we’ve accomplished. Because the course is about rapidly changing technology it will be interesting to build a record of topics and activities. Assembling the e-book is a good way to reflect on course structure.

You have an article in press about the course- does it include the results of the post-course student survey?

Yes, we include summaries of the pre-, mid-, and post-course surveys in the article (forthcoming in the International Journal of E-Planning Research). These were valuable sources of information as we made changes to the course. The post-course surveys help us to gauge interest in particular topics, activities, and overall structure. One of the challenges is that because the course is free, if students don’t like it they can just stop participating with no penalty. We have a survey for those who un-enroll but the response rate isn’t too high. These are the people we’d really like to get more information from to improve the course because those who finish it tend to be the ones who liked it.


Last year we communicated briefly about the difficulty of ensuring that the course materials were openly available to everyone, which can be a problem for peer-reviewed articles in an international environment. What was your experience this time around?

We mainly relied on open and accessible materials available on the web. In our course, many of the case studies and recent research has not been published in peer-reviewed form yet, with the best resources already available for free on the internet. With so much free information available, we have plenty to cover our topics.

Do you think MOOCs have influenced the need for openly available information?

I’m not sure, but so far I haven’t seen any evidence of it. Many of the MOOCs that I’m familiar with are relying on video/lecture, assignments, and discussion, rather than “reading” materials from books, journals, etc. So much is already available online so in many cases there seems to be plenty of options.

Course ownership has been a faculty concern with some MOOCs. Who owns TechniCity?

Jennifer Evans-Cowley and I consider the course materials to be openly accessible even though Coursera isn’t necessarily open (unless you sign up for a course). We haven’t run into a situation yet where we had to tell someone we couldn’t share information from or about the course. That I know of we have not had any situations where Coursera restricted us from doing so either. The question of “ownership” hasn’t come up.

MOOCs are often cast as a disruptive innovation that could threaten higher education– what is your take?

In my opinion MOOCs are just another form of online education. Perhaps the disruptive aspects are the scale and cost. The issue with new models of education is that both the instructor AND the learner need to understand the process and expectations. I think we should actually be teaching more classes about learning, knowledge, and discovery – but unfortunately you don’t see those words used on job descriptions so we don’t make them priorities. The only threat to higher education is higher education itself. In many cases these are very slow moving institutions that are more than happy to keep doing things the old way. I think the university business model is in dire need of change.

Looking at the syllabus, open data seems to play a large role in this course—how would you summarize the challenges and opportunities for cities in providing it?

The challenge is to organize the huge amount of data generated by and within cities, and make it available in meaningful and useful ways for residents, businesses, and entrepreneurs. I think cities can provide the data and have the crowd come up with innovative ways to use it. This is especially exciting when it enhances transparency and accountability. An example is the City of Baltimore (see: The site makes data available as well as analytical tools, maps, and other visualizations. There are some great research opportunities as well.

Do you think students were well prepared for interaction with data, or do you see a need for more training in the use and manipulation of data?

I think this is a particular need in the field of planning, especially with the rise of “big data” and associated analytics. Planning programs tend to require quantitative methods, but usually in the form of statistics and not really “data science”. Many students coming to planning have design interests so data analysis isn’t of particular interest. There will continue to be more and more demand for data experts.

Do you plan to teach the course again next year?

Yes, we’ll be teaching it again, probably in the Spring. This will give us another opportunity to improve the course using feedback we received from students so far.

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About Philip Young

Philip Young is Scholarly Communication Librarian at Virginia Tech where he supports outreach about open access, copyright/open licensing, open data, ORCID, and metrics/altmetrics.
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