PLAYBACK: Universities Move Quickly to Embrace MOOCs, Course Credit is More Complicated


7.23.12 | The online higher education world underwent a massive shift last week with the announcement that a dozen major research universities have teamed up with Coursera, a new company that partners with universities to provide free massive open online courses (MOOCs) to an unlimited number of students.

What remains to be seen is the effect this high-level participation will have on higher education itself—including whether students enrolled in online courses will eventually receive accreditation that satisfies the needs of employers and their own educational needs without driving up the costs of MOOCs to the point where they, too, become financially out of reach.

The newest partners in the venture include: California Institute of Technology; Duke University; the Georgia Institute of Technology; Johns Hopkins University; Rice University; University of California, San Francisco; University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign; University of Washington; University of Virginia; University of Edinburgh in Scotland, University of Toronto; and École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, a technical university in Switzerland. Those universities join Michigan, Princeton, Stanford and the University of Pennsylvania in making available more than 100 courses.

Universities Race to Join
Founded by two Stanford University computer scientists, Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng, Cousera already had registered more than 680,000 students from 190 countries for 43 courses. Following Tuesday’s announcement, Cousera quickly signed up about 50,000 new student enrollments, including 14,000 registrations for University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign courses.

“The most popular is a course on developing applications for smartphones, followed by a computer science class on parallel programming. Other subjects include organic chemistry and planet Earth,” writes Chicago Tribune reporter Jodi S. Cohen.

Coursera course offerings

A sampling of courses offered by Coursera

In a New York Times news analysis, Richard Pérez-Peña writes that “at universities that have not yet seized a piece of this action, the response ranges from curiosity to fear of losing a crucial competition. When University of Virginia trustees ousted their president last month — a decision they later reversed — one reason cited was concern about being left behind online.” (It won’t be; the Washington Post has more on that university’s foray into digital education, which includes partnering with Coursera.)

Or, as Kevin Carey, director of education policy at the New America Foundation, said, “There’s panic. Whether it’s senseless panic is unclear.”

While there’s been some speculation that MOOCs will eventually lead to the demise of the traditional university model, Scott E. Page, a University of Michigan professor who taught Coursera’s model thinking course, offers this practical assessment in a separate Times story: “There’s talk about how online education’s going to wipe out universities, but a lot of what we do on campus is help people transition from 18 to 22, and that is a complicated thing,” he said, adding that the courses would be most helpful to “people 22 to 102, international students and smart retired people.” 

Why Prior-Learning Assessment Matters
Inside Higher Ed reporter Steve Kolowich clarifies news reports that University of Washington is aiming to offer credit for its MOOCs, noting instead that it plans to offer “enhanced” paid versions of its Coursera courses with additional instruction and assessment that will be make the courses “more conventional.” The only way students could redeem their completion certificates for degree credit would be to enroll as tuition-paying students, said David P. Szatmary, the University of Washington provost.

“Apart from residing online and on the Coursera platform, these ‘enhanced’ and potentially credit-bearing courses will hardly qualify as MOOCs,” writes Kolowich, later adding, “So far the only way students might redeem their success in MOOCs for formal college credit is by seeking validation through prior-learning assessment apparatuses.”

Follow that link to Paul Fain’s story on a pathway to college credit using prior-learning assessment—“a less-hyped potential ‘disruption’ to traditional higher education.” Fain offers a good analysis of how the process could work. In short, a student develops a learning portfolio, either in connection with or another service, that demonstrates skill attainment via work experience, training, independent study, volunteering, and certificate of online course completion. 

Monetization of MOOCs
For all its popularity, Coursera, which has so far received more than $22 million in investment, mainly from Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and investors, has not yet developed a solid revenue model. The company is looking at a number of options, including matching students with potential employers or charging students a fee for a certificate.

Under a Freedom of Information Act request, The Chronicle of Higher Education obtained the agreement between Coursera and the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Coursera has acknowledged that the arrangement is similar to those with the other partners, according to The Chronicle.

“The contract reveals that even Coursera isn’t yet sure how it will bring in revenue,” writes Jeffrey R. Young. He continues:

A section at the end of the agreement, titled “Possible Company Monetization Strategies,” lists eight potential business models, including having companies sponsor courses. That means students taking a free course from Stanford University may eventually be barraged by banner ads or promotional messages. But the universities have the opportunity to veto any revenue-generating idea on a course-by-course basis, so very little is set in stone.

Young also spoke with KQED News about the growth of MOOCs and how the courses actually work.

Many Participants, Many Answers
Shifting gears a bit, Anant Agarwal, the director of M.I.T.’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and the first president of edX—the Harvard-M.I.T. partnership that will offer free online courses with a certificate of completion—talks with The New York Times about high demand for MOOCs, why most students don’t complete the courses, and how students are helping each other both in person and online. On that last point, here’s how Agarwal describes the peer-to-peer community that has developed:

We had four teaching assistants, and my initial plan was that they would spend a lot of time on the discussion forum, answering questions. One night in the early days, I was on the forum at 2 a.m. when I saw a student ask a question, and I was typing my answer when I discovered that another student had typed an answer before I could. It was in the right direction, but not quite there, so I thought I could modify it, but then some other student jumped in with the right answer. It was fascinating to see how quickly students were helping each other. All we had to do was go in and say that it was a good answer. I actually instructed the T.A.’s not to answer so quickly, to let students work for an hour or two, and by and large they find the answers.

The discussion forum has many interesting features, like karma points. If someone posts a question, and another student votes it up, which is like “liking” the question, the student who posted it gets karma points. Or if a staff member checks an answer as correct, the student gets a big bonus of points. If you get a large number of karma points, you get some of the privileges of an instructor, like closing down a discussion when people have come to the right answer.

Continue reading the interview here.

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