By Nicole Fauteux
A relatively few individuals choose the
excitement of a motorcycle over the comfort of a four-wheel vehicle. Even fewer
educators volunteer to step outside the comfort of the lecture hall to lead massive
open online courses, also known as MOOCs. John D.B. Featherstone M.Sc., Ph.D., Dean
of the University of California, San Francisco, School of Dentistry (UCSF SOD),
has done both, and his recent journey into the world of global online education
has altered his perspective on teaching in the traditional classroom.
Since MOOCs were first offered just a few years
ago, millions of students have been able to access college courses for free
through the Internet, prompting established colleges and universities to go on
high alert. While most of these sit anxiously on the sidelines, a few have embraced
the new educational paradigm wholeheartedly. UCSF has charted a middle course,
providing technical support to encourage its faculty to explore the new medium.
In 2012, the UCSF Teaching and Learning Center, which oversees clinical
simulation and other educational technologies, hired two individuals to assist faculty
in the creation of MOOCs. The university launched its first courses on the
Coursera platform at the start of 2013.
Even with this dedicated technical assistance
and the help of others on the dental school staff, Dr. Featherstone says
creating his MOOC required vast quantities of time. Slides produced throughout
the years needed to be updated and rendered stylistically consistent, and
permissions needed to be gathered to use other people’s data and illustrations online.
Revising his lectures to reach those with and without prior knowledge of
dentistry also proved challenging. In the weeks just before the course started
last August, Dr. Featherstone reports that he and his team were working day and
Reflecting on the experience, he says, “When
you’ve been lecturing for as many years as I have, you think you’ve got it down.
I revise all my lectures every year, and it probably takes an hour to revise an
hour of lecture. To be doing ten times that much was just beyond what I had
even dreamed would be the time commitment.”
And yet, all that time and effort appears to have
paid off. More than 6,000 students registered for Dr. Featherstone’s course on
Caries Management by Risk Assessment (CAMBRA). About two thirds of the students
indicated they were dental professionals or students of dentistry.
One of Dr. Featherstone’s goals for the course
was to spread the word about CAMBRA among the other health professions. Only 6%
of the course registrants identified themselves as non-dental health
professionals, but given the volume of registrants, the course likely reached 200–300
people in this particular audience, far more than a traditional CE course would
While Dr. Featherstone will always retain the
distinction of being the first dental educator to create a MOOC, he credits Dr.
Dorothy Perry, the UCSF SOD’s Associate Dean for Education and Student Affairs,
with encouraging him to take on the challenge.
“She persuaded me to do this,” Dr. Featherstone
recalls. Together they reasoned that “we could probably learn something to put
into practice with our own teaching. I don’t think either of us really realized
how big a statement that was.”
MOOCs break down lectures into short segments,
punctuated with multiple choice questions and activities that allow students to
test their understanding of the content presented. At the suggestion of a
colleague at the UCSF School of Medicine who had previously created a MOOC, Dr.
Featherstone also introduced patient cases early on rather than frontloading
the course with all of the pertinent scientific information. He credits this
approach with producing a high degree of student engagement.
“I was amazed by the posted comments,” says Dr.
Featherstone. “I was expecting folks would say the course was boring, but
people were asking and answering questions. People were participating.”
The MOOC experience has prompted Dr.
Featherstone to consider breaking up his face-to-face lectures and introducing discussion
periods and online components in his campus-based courses to allow for more
“I personally don’t think there’s any
substitute for person-to-person contact,” he says, “but our students now are a
different generation. They’ve grown up with technology in their hands—literally.
We have to be open minded that these people are learning in a different fashion
and that every individual learns in a different fashion. I think it’s all part
of doing better education.”
Last fall, Dr. Featherstone tried transferring
the patient scenarios he employed in the MOOC to a CE course he taught on
“I asked the people in the course, what would
you have done with these patients? How would you assess? Would you know what
their caries risk is? Would you know what therapy to use? And immediately they
said, whoa! This is what we’re here for.”
By this April, UCSF will have created 10 unique
MOOCs on a variety of health topics and offered them through Coursera. The site
is currently registering students for Dr. Featherstone’s CAMBRA MOOC, which
will be offered again starting March 31, 2014.
For more information on
MOOCs and on CAMBRA, see the July and November 2013 issues of Charting Progress. You can also register
for and attend Dr. Featherstone’s course at no charge. Visit https://www.coursera.org/course/cariesmanagement to learn more.