Educators eye MOOCs

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UNT, TWU evaluate possible use of massive open online courses

Free online classes open to any person with Internet access — known as massive open online courses or MOOCs — are an emerging trend in higher education that local universities are following closely for potential uses and implications.

This spring, Texas Woman’s University will have a faculty committee to explore how MOOCs could be used at the university, and the University of North Texas had a similar committee meet last fall and this spring.

“We’re just not sure, is the bottom line,” said Robert Placido, associate provost for technology and chief information officer at TWU. “The committee will explore MOOCs and the possibility of them being used to serve the community, provide remedial courses and provide basic course information.”

Through online class providers such as Coursera, users can browse a variety of university classes that are taught by professors at such prestigious institutions as Stanford University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology and cover subject matters ranging from music to economics to history.

There are virtual lectures, assignments and for some, a certificate at the end for those who complete the course.

However, a new study from the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education shows that user engagement in the courses falls off dramatically after one to two weeks, with an average course completion rate of 4 percent.

To Patrick Pluscht, associate vice provost for learning enhancement and the director of the Center for Learning Enhancement, Assessment and Redesign for UNT, the data shows people take MOOCs for a different reason than they would take a traditional college course.

“Look at some of the outcomes for the MOOCs — the completion rate is horribly low,” he said. “But students are not going to MOOCs for the same reason they go and attend a credit course on a college campus ... many people are curious about them and never intend to complete it.”

Without having a real tie-in financially and with no one to hold a user accountable, it’s easy to lose interest, Placido said. The way he sees MOOCs fitting in at TWU is different than what’s currently offered. By tailoring the classes to potential students or using it to experiment with different teaching methods, they could add value to a traditional university.

“If you could attract 20,000 people to a course, what a potential research base,” he said. “If you weren’t sure how to structure content in a course, you could modify it 10 different ways and see where the greatest learning is. You could really understand how learning is happening quickly, so there’s research implications.”

The committee this spring will explore this and other options, after receiving back several faculty surveys about MOOCs this fall. Most faculty had heard of MOOCs but didn’t know how they were financed or if they would be successful.

At UNT, the committee evaluated different courses, financing methods and determined there isn’t a place for MOOCs at the university at this time. Pluscht said it costs roughly $100,000 to produce a MOOC, and that is a risky investment of taxpayer and student money for an unsure outcome.

“We couldn’t answer the question of why we would do it,” he said.

The real questions that came from the committee is how UNT can improve online courses and programs for current students, he said.

“It’s had a very interesting dynamic shift in the higher education landscaping, but the far-reaching impact of it will probably be more localized,” Pluscht said. “How do we do online experiences better?”

JENNA DUNCAN can be reached at 940-566-6889 and via Twitter at @JennaFDuncan.


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