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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

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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.”

Comments

arylwren 1 year, 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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My_Life 1 year, 2 months ago

The whole concept of on-line education is lacking. Part of the college experience is learning to be responsible and get out of bed, comb your hair, put on your hat, and get on your way. Actually learnng to physically make it to class is a part of the education. Admittedly, employment these days does not always require physical attendance, but learning discipline builds character. Even if you only have a robotically controlled likeness roving the office and attending meetings and using the pseudo-whizzer, you still have to be at the controls. I would personally never hire anyone with an on-line education. Me thinks the person editing the comments on LJW these days has an on-line education.

What a beautiful day this has been!!!!!!!!

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cletus26 1 year, 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.

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Cant_have_it_both_ways 1 year, 2 months ago

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

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Steve Bunch 1 year, 2 months ago

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

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/23/education/public-universities-to-offer-free-online-classes-for-credit.html?_r=1&

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

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notaubermime 1 year, 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.

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clubber1 1 year, 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.

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David Klamet 1 year, 2 months ago

www.khanacademy.org

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.

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irtnog2001 1 year, 2 months ago

I think the frustration with KU is they don't seem to be making an effort to provide comprehensive online education opportunities and appear to be behind most of the other Kansas colleges on this instead of leading.

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irtnog2001 1 year, 2 months ago

I have taken several online courses and they are quite flexible. In some the instructors require the students to discuss issues each week through an online forum. In others the instructor has their lectures taped and available for viewing online. In some there are scheduled labs that are conducted onsite. I have found them to be just as good and sometimes better than attending lectures onsite.

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voevoda 1 year, 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.

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Steve Bunch 1 year, 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: http://the-american-interest.com/article.cfm?piece=1352 KU continues to circle the wagons instead of sending out scouts to see what lies on the horizon.

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irtnog2001 1 year, 2 months ago

Online education is the future of education and KU needs to jump onboard.

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bitters 1 year, 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 them..in a class of hundreds..

The fact that K.U. doesn't take them seriously..is 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..

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