Perry Mehrling on MOOCs and Blended Learning

Professor Perry Mehrling has been teaching at Barnard for more than 25 years. A core part of his offering for the last 15 years has been his popular lecture class on the Economics of Money and Banking.

With the support of the University and New York City’s Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET), where he serves as Director of Education Programs, Mehrling developed his lecture class into two seven-week MOOCs that premiered on Coursera in 2013.

The Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning (CCNMTL) provided design and course production support for these MOOCs throughout 2013 and continue to consult with Professor Mehrling and his team. We had the chance to visit with Mehrling in August as he was in the midst of teaching a summertime MOOC, preparing to teach a MOOC this fall, and reflecting, deeply, on the new benefits of MOOCs for preparing blended learning experiences – and for improving his own teaching, even this far into his professional career.

I. Teaching the World

Professor Mehrling has always approached classroom teaching as an interactive process with his students. On his Coursera page he writes, “from the beginning, I have used the course to challenge myself to make sense of the rapidly evolving monetary and financial system outside my window.” Recent years, he writes, have seen “a remarkable evolution in the institutions that comprise the modern monetary system. The financial crisis of 2007-2009 is a wakeup call that we need a similar evolution in the analytical apparatus and theories that we use to understand that system.” Many of his students at Columbia go on to work in financial institutions in New York and around the world – but who takes his MOOCs, and what are they seeking to learn?

II. Translating” the On-Campus to Online

Preparing an online course is something Professor Mehrling took on with gusto. Here he chronicles what’s involved in building curricula and learning experiences for thousands of students taking his course online. These challenges include developing problem sets that work online, multiple-choice tests, weekly quizzes, selecting readings, and establishing and monitoring discussion sections.

III. Building a “High-Content Environment”

Professor Mehrling describes the process and workflow he has designed to build a “high-content environment” online. He reflects upon the gifts and rewards he provides and receives from his students as they sharpen his teaching and teach each other during discussions.

IV. Student Engagement

By now thousands of students have finished Professor Mehrling's MOOCs – a fraction of the tens of thousands who registered but still many more than he has taught at Columbia over his long career. He reflects on the ways in which students online can engage with him and his material – from auditing to drilling deep – and how they help him and each other. Teaching MOOCs, he says, may be more like authentic liberal arts teaching than teaching in the classroom – because there are no college credits offered in the MOOCs, people in the class want to be there purely to learn.

V. The MOOC as a Teaching Laboratory

Thanks to the sponsorship of INET and the support of the University, Mehrling has now built in effect a teaching laboratory – learning how to use video resources and other materials to flip his Barnard class, and how to draw relevant lessons for his on-campus teaching from the online experience.

VI. The Intellectual Enterprise

Professor Mehrling began thinking about producing his MOOCs as a way of creating an interactive textbook, and now may create an actual textbook to accompany the MOOCs he has produced. As an economics professor, Mehrling describes the return on investment of both kinds of publishing. He concludes with some thoughts on the nature of what he calls the intellectual enterprise as a whole.