Lawrence and Douglas County

Lawrence and Douglas county

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

January 28, 2013


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.”


bitters 5 years, 2 months ago

Competition is always good..I was taught that it only makes you better..Universities need some serious competition.

.Bernstein makes a number of claims..but none that are valid..How many students at K.U. drop out? How many actually have learned the subject they were taught? And the accusation that they use 21st century technology to deliver a 20th century education is laughable..In the mid 20th century..a college degree actually meant something..Today..not so much..

And I think this is a great opportunity for those who don't have the time to schedule a class, don't have the money to pay for a class....and want someone other than a teaching assistant teaching a class of hundreds..

The fact that K.U. doesn't take them just one example of their arrogance..and ignorance...which doesn't get you far in the real world. But most universities aren't about the 'real' world..

parrothead8 5 years, 2 months ago

Bernstein's claims are plenty valid. KU has been tracking how many students drop out for years. Employment statistics for KU grads are available, too, and those would seem to indicate how well students are learning. He's asking why nobody has asked these questions about MOOCs...instead, everybody says, "Oh, look, how awesome. 50,000 people are signed up for this course." And if 10-15% are completing the course, that means that over 40,000 are dropping out. (KU's dropout rate is much, much, MUCH lower than that, by the way.)

You're completely missing the point about the technology. He didn't say anything about mid-20th century education not being valuable...he said that the MOOCs are using technology to essentially do the same thing teachers did in the 50s: lecture.

You have a problem with KU offering classes with "hundreds" of students, but MOOCs "rely almost solely on video lectures presented by one instructor to tens of thousands of students." How is that better?

And where does it say KU does not take them seriously? Rosen says it is "making higher education think" and calls this kind of course offering "an important principle for academics."

Bernstein acknowledges the problems in traditional education, and says that MOOCs haven't done much to address those problems either. One of those problems is a lack of deep reading and critical thinking skills. Judging by your analysis of this article, you could use some improvement in both of those areas.

dinglesmith 5 years, 2 months ago

In sincerely hope you are wrong. The 6 year graduation rate for KU is roughly 64%, not a statistic that KU is happy with. The 6 year graduation rate for University of Phoenix - the flagship of for-profit, online education - is less than 30%. Most online Universities are lower than that.

chootspa 5 years, 2 months ago

The University of Phoenix is also very terrible at educating face to face students in brick and mortar buildings. For-profits focus their attention on high pressure recruiting for federal aid eligible students and not on retaining those same students to help them succeed. Not the same animal at all.

Ron Holzwarth 5 years, 2 months ago

I don't remember where I read this, but it was along the lines of a resume that includes a degree from the University of Phoenix hits the trash can pretty quick. So everyone should research that very closely before enrolling there, because it's pretty expensive. Of course, they will assist you into getting mired in the student loan trap. And student loans are not cancelled just because you didn't graduate, of course.

Many years ago, I was tempted by offers from the University of Phoenix, and gave them my email address and my phone number. It sounded so tempting, because I'm so close to a degree. I lack 5 classes, 15 or 16 semester hours, and I've completed about 165 hours. So I thought I could get a degree pretty quick.

I looked over what was offered, and nothing looked acceptable at all. In the meantime, I've been to Phoenix a couple times, and in fact drove right past the University of Phoenix office tower once, since my parents and an aunt and uncle live in suburbs down there.

And now, after something like ten years, the University of Phoenix is still trying to get me to enroll, offers regularly show up in my spam folder. But, on the bright side, they haven't called me on the phone in years.

Steve Bunch 5 years, 2 months ago

While KU is still twiddling its thumbs about offering online degree and degree-completion programs, which would capture off-campus enrollments and "nontraditional" students, there's a good possibility that before too many more years degrees as we've known them will be obsolete. Here is a long but fascinating article on the subject: KU continues to circle the wagons instead of sending out scouts to see what lies on the horizon.

dinglesmith 5 years, 2 months ago

An interesting read, but it is an opinion piece with one major flaw. The author claims that the Internet has redefined industries that sell information. Universities don't sell information - they sell certification. The difference is subtle but important. This is not to say that Universities don't need to change, but what will really change is the textbook industry and providers of support materials for the education sector.

Steve Bunch 5 years, 2 months ago

Yes, certification is all that's left for universities, but that may mean a certificate for a course or a series of courses rather than a degree, depending on what employers come to value. Higher education has become a commodity. I can foresee a time when elite "professors" (i.e., people who are acknowledged leaders in their fields but who may not be affiliated with a university) teach their own courses and trade on their names and reputations. What employer wouldn't be impressed by an applicant who had a certificate from, say, Stephen Hawking? And if Hawking enrolls 1,000,000 students in his course for a buck apiece and certifies the few thousand who complete it, isn't he ahead of the game? It's a high-tech throwback to the academy of Socrates.

Ron Holzwarth 5 years, 2 months ago

I know a man that did exactly that, before he retired at a very young age. He was very talented in teaching computer programming skills. One of his customers was IBM, he taught the IBM engineers. Sorry, I can't name any others, that's the only one I was told of. I'm quite sure he never finished college, he would not have had time, but he did go for a while.

He did well, and he came over to my place for a visit with another friend, of course he had to show off his (used) Rolls Royce that he bought at age 26. He thought it was a wonderful deal, because it wasn't very old (5 years?) and didn't have very many miles (24,000?), but he had NO idea what the maintenance costs are on a Rolls Royce. Plus, he thought they were reliable, and he was very much mistaken on that point, at least on the particular one he bought. He got rid of it after a couple years.

But, he earned enough money teaching, just as you described, to buy a very nice Rolls Royce when he was only 26. So, it's possible today, but you really need to know what you're talking about, and you also need to have a target base for customers. Tough calls, indeed.

voevoda 5 years, 2 months ago

In MOOCs, students aren't being taught. Instead, they are getting an opportunity to sit in on lectures. If they can learn from the lectures, fine. Otherwise, they get no help. They don't get any interaction with the professor or even with a teaching assistant. They don't get any assignments graded. They don't discuss the material with anyone who is expert. For most learners, only listening to a lecture doesn't result in understanding the material. They remember this or that point, often taken out of context, but they don't develop full understanding or expertise or skills.

In other words, people who can teach themselves everything they need to know from books can probably do the same from MOOCS. But those people who can't teach themselves aren't going to learn any more from MOOCS than they would from browsing the internet or watching the Discovery Channel.

voevoda 5 years, 2 months ago

I don't buty your argument, bitters. It seems to consist of denigrating university courses, rather than proving the value of MOOCS.

Could there be on-line discussion? Yes, of course. But if the answers are coming from others among the 100,000 people who are also taking the MOOC, how would those answers be more reliable than you can already get on With the "quality" rated by other people reading the answers, rather than people who really are expert?

While many on-line courses are taught be people who have very limited expertise--basically, TAs earning extra money or people who dropped out of graduate school--and so are some community college courses, the faculty of major universities (including, emphatically, KU) really do have more expertise than they "have only learned out of a book." That's the appeal of courses sponsored by Ivy League institutions--people assume that there is guaranteed quality control. They could assume the same about KU.

When KU offers an on-line credit course, the professor's lectures may be videotaped, but the students get a chance to consult with the professor on-line or via telephone, submit written work and get feedback on it. There is assigned reading as well, along with tests to make sure that students have done it. That is a much superior learning experience--if the students choose to take advantage of it. The problem is this--quite often, students don't take advantage of the learning features of on-line credit courses, and as a result, they don't learn much from them. Because the course is not conducted in person, it's much harder for the instructor to monitor how well the students are learning.

If all you want to do is entertain yourself in a more intellectual manner than watching TV, bitters, then MOOCS are fine for you. If you want only limited information about a specific topic, and you can find a MOOC on it, then it's probably fine. But if you want to become an expert yourself, bitters, MOOCS won't do it.

chootspa 5 years, 2 months ago

But have you attended a MOOC? Different thing.

chootspa 5 years, 2 months ago

Pretty much this. They're not interested in any non-traditional students, no matter what the delivery method.

David Klamet 5 years, 2 months ago

Finally technology has provided something that will really revolutionize education. It's not perfect, but information and education will become free. Getting a degree or certification will once again become affordable.

With MOOC and other sources, people will find it is about people and the tech is tool to get them together.

I'm sure it will change and continue to evolve. It is not perfect, but it will get better. I don't know how it will end up, but I don't see how the dinosaur that current educational system has become (not just college, but elementary and secondary education, too) can continue as it is. Finally educators will have to compete and consumers can choose the best product out there.

clubber1 5 years, 2 months ago

Other than a few college credits I earned while in the Military, I completed my entire degree online. While it was a challenge to be disciplined enough to work and study from home, it also saved me the commute time and offered flexibility if I had to go out of town or work late. I had a fantastic experience and I would recommend it to those working adults who have the discipline to do the work and have it in on time.

My children all need to take at least 1 on-line course in order to graduate. There are also K-12 schools that offer high school diplomas via internet classes.

When I received my degree I was concerned that it didn't have the same value as a traditional degree, however now that most major universities offer courses and degree programs on-line, I feel that I was just ahead of most in recognizing the value.

notaubermime 5 years, 2 months ago

So, despite all of the research showing how smaller class sizes increase learning, people are gravitating towards these mega classes. Sad. You get what you pay for.

There are very strong advantages to online courses. They have the ability to overcome long distances and are flexible for difficult schedules, but turning them into degree or certification factories is taking this technology in the wrong direction. The greater the interaction, the greater the understanding one gains.

chootspa 5 years, 2 months ago

Then they were not MOOCs. The M stands for massive.

notaubermime 5 years, 2 months ago

Congratulations? I don't see what you are getting at.

Steve Bunch 5 years, 2 months ago

Here's more on the developing trend of higher education as commodity: a special introductory offer.

I suspect we'll also begin seeing buy-one-get-one-free college courses.

Cant_have_it_both_ways 5 years, 2 months ago

If you think Universities care about you, just go to the placement office after you graduate and chat with them.

Reuben Turner 5 years, 2 months ago

well i be.... ku could at least offer discounted credit for those who have finished some course through MOOC and come to ku to make it official.

chootspa 5 years, 2 months ago

Really? I attended a lot of classes with people that hadn't bothered to comb their hair or change out of PJ pants. I don't think it was part of the grading rubric that they do so.

arylwren 5 years, 2 months ago

I just recently completed a MOOC course from the MIT branch of edX. We had graded tests and assignments and everyone that completed the course with a passing grade receives a "Certificate of Completion" with a verification code.

It was definitely an interesting experience. I learn best by listening to a lecture rather than reading, so I was already fairly well suited for this type of education. This course allowed me to watch all the lectures on my own time and not miss out on anything due to illness, work, travel, etc. I was able to learn from great professor and interact with TAs as well as professionals and students from all over the world. The forums were dominated by those not teaching the class and were extremely valuable. The top contributors were quickly recognized and brought the right type and amount of sarcasm and moderating that educators should be able to give but often can't for fear of being rude or "too harsh". The community was made of people that WANTED to be there--not people that had to in order to complete a degree.

A lot of students did drop the course. Some people just wanted to audit it. Others realized it was too difficult or no longer had the time every week to dedicate to lectures and problem sets. The course claimed it was upholding the rigor of a traditional MIT class. How many applicants does MIT reject every semester? There is no pre-requisite for enrolling in a class. They tell you what you SHOULD know before taking it, but there is no system that bars you from it because you don't have a passing grade from high school algebra. So a lot of people enroll that are not academically fit for the course, and as a result, drop or don't receive a passing grade.

As a KU grad, I'm disappointed that they are not pursuing or even really thinking about doing anything like this. There were several KU classes that I wanted to take but time, money and push to complete a degree in 4 (or less) kept me from taking them. It would be nice to take intro-level courses from some of KU's best professors with other people that actually were interested in the subject instead of dealing with the distractions from the I-don't-care-about-this-subject-I'm-just-required-to-take-this-class students.

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