KU not spooked by MOOCs: Officials say they’re watching free online course trend, but not acting yet

From the makeshift office set up in the living room of her Lawrence home, Beth McKeon learns about growing a small business from a professor at the University of Virginia, and trains her brain to use the scientific method with the help of another professor at the University of California-Irvine.

She’s doing all that this month, from home, for free. And she’s doing it through the magic of MOOCs.

MOOCs, massive open online courses, rocketed into the higher-education headlines in early 2012 and have stayed since. In these online courses, university professors, some of whom teach at some of the country’s most prestigious institutions, teach electronically to students all over the world who sometimes number 100,000 or more in a single course.

And students get all that for free, though that doesn’t mean there’s no money involved; for-profit companies offering the courses have drawn millions from venture capitalists. Aside from a few scattered experiments, though, MOOC students cannot earn college credit.

Universities around the country, including heavyweights Harvard, MIT, Stanford and others, have signed on to jump on the MOOC train.

But don’t look for Kansas University to grab the next ticket, at least not anytime soon.

KU officials say it’s still unclear how the MOOC phenomenon will affect the broader landscape of higher education, and they remain in wait-and-watch mode. But they acknowledge the trend provides some serious food for thought.

“It’s making higher education think about some things that we need to think about,” said Sara Rosen, KU’s senior vice provost for academic affairs.

‘The Wild West’

Bruce Bertsch of Lawrence enrolled in his first MOOC in May 2012, a few months after the acronym first appeared in the mainstream vernacular.

Bertsch, who works an information-technology job in Kansas City, Mo., wanted to pick up some extra job-related skills. He said he had explored some continuing-education services offered by KU and was underwhelmed.

But when he saw in a TV report that he could take courses on software engineering or statistics from universities such as Stanford, California-Berkeley and Princeton for free, he jumped in.

“All things being equal, I’d rather use the local institution,” said Bertsch, who attended classes at KU and other universities but never graduated. “But all things aren’t equal.”

Bertsch has completed two MOOCs and is currently enrolled in three others, all through the company Coursera. (Coursera and Udacity, both for-profit companies, are among those leading the MOOC charge, along with edX, a nonprofit led by Harvard, MIT and Cal-Berkeley.)

Most of the courses he’s taken last about 10 weeks, and they’re all directly related to his job, he said. Some institutions award certificates for completion; others don’t.

Bertsch said each of the courses has given him new skills, and he plans to mention them on his resumé.

“It’s hard to quantify that, but it helped,” Bertsch said.

Why are universities and faculty members willing to give away this kind of knowledge for free?

They may simply believe firmly that access to information should be open to as many people as possible, Rosen said.

“That’s an important principle for a lot of academics,” Rosen said.

Doug Ward, an associate professor of journalism who studies and writes about the use of technology in education, has some other theories: Universities may want to expose their courses to potential students, desire a share of the media attention devoted to MOOCs alongside the Harvards and Stanfords of the world or simply fear being left behind by a new trend.

A few universities have begun offering discounted credits for students who’ve completed MOOCs or charging extra for additional certification.

Beth McKeon, who lives and works in Lawrence providing private instruction for students with learning disabilities and operating an online kids calendar, ran into one such offer for one of the three MOOCs she began this month.

The Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, based at the University of Texas, offered a completion certificate for a $30 payment in the MOOC about infographics that she’s taking. McKeon decided it wasn’t worth it.

She’s taking that course mostly for fun, she said. She’s also taking a Coursera course on growing a small business, for more practical reasons, and another Coursera course called “Science from Superheroes to Global Warming” along with a student she teaches.

She has a bachelor’s degree from Southern Methodist University in Dallas and a master’s from Columbia University in New York.

But these MOOCs, she says, are more self-directed endeavors than a typical college course.

“You’re not paying for it. You’re not getting a grade,” McKeon said. “All the things we relied on in college sort of aren’t there.”

She has faith she’ll stick with the courses she started, but she expects many others will drift off.

Dan Bernstein, a professor of psychology and director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at KU, said figures he’d seen had shown that only about 10 to 15 percent of students completed many MOOCs. This is one of several reasons he’s skeptical that they are quite the revolutionary force some have cracked them up to be.

“No one so far is asking those hard questions of the MOOCs,” Bernstein said. “They’re just saying, ‘Gee, if 150,000 people showed up, it might be worth something.'”

People have been entranced by the big numbers and “designer-label” names, Bernstein said, but upon closer look there are a lot of questions.

Much recent criticism of higher education, such as in the wave-making 2011 book “Academically Adrift,” has questioned whether colleges and universities are really prompting students to learn on a deep level and develop meaningful skills.

But, Bernstein says, MOOCs do little to address either of those concerns. Measuring how much students have learned is difficult on such a large scale, and many aren’t finishing.

And research, he said, suggests that the best way for students to learn meaningfully is for them to be directly engaged with their instructors, asking and answering questions and not just sitting back and listening to lectures. But many MOOCs, he said, rely almost solely on video lectures presented by one instructor to tens of thousands of students.

“So the MOOCs are using 21st century technology to deliver mid-20th century education,” Bernstein said. “It’s kind of ironic.”

Hundreds of different courses are available, but no MOOC providers currently offer anything close to a full degree program. And KU officials said they could not imagine they ever would. Bernstein even said he’s skeptical that MOOCs will even remain free for much longer, as companies move to monetize their product.

McKeon said the lack of a structured program actually made the MOOC experience a bit more thrilling.

“At this point, it’s just the Wild West out there,” she said.

But she said she was a bit disappointed that the courses didn’t present information more creatively.

“To have access to that information and to these experts is amazing, so I appreciate that enormously,” McKeon said. “But I don’t know if they thought as far outside of the box as they could, given the format.”

Waiting and learning

So, do the MOOCs have anything to offer higher education beyond big names and attention-grabbing numbers?

Bertsch said he can’t imagine that an institution like KU, trying to enroll as many students as possible, would be thrilled that elite schools are putting their courses online for free.

“If I were running a traditional institution, it would scare me to death,” Bertsch said.

KU officials say they are far from scared; online classes have already been around for decades, Bernstein said, and the university is working to expand in that area.

But they do say MOOCs raise some important issues that they’ll need to reckon with.

Rosen said a major lesson for her was the importance of expanding access to higher education, specifically, access for groups beyond 18-year-olds coming out of high school.

“I think a lot of us are watching it carefully, thinking about how we can create different programs that will allow different groups of potential students to enter into higher education,” Rosen said.

That doesn’t mean KU plans to offer any MOOCs, though, she said. It has no plans for that right now.

Ward said he has proposed that KU instructors could use MOOCs as part of a for-credit class, assigning students to view online lectures and then meet in person to discuss questions and doubts.

“It’s almost like a book, in a way,” Ward said.

Rosen said she would encourage creative moves like that.

And innovation in class instruction is definitely a focus for the university, she said. Leaders are encouraging instructors to pursue “flipped” classes that involve online and in-person components, and they’re also determining where KU can expand its for-credit online options.

“It’s an area of focus for us right now,” Rosen said. “We’ll see in the coming year or two.”