The MOOC experiment

University reflects on successes, challenges of online learning

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Larry Sabato (above) taught a MOOC titled “The Kennedy Half Century” last October.

Marshall Bronfin | Cavalier Daily

The past year-and-a-half has seen the University dive headfirst into the once-foreign frontier of online education, notably through its offering of more than a dozen massive open online courses, or MOOCs. But whether MOOCs in their current form are any indication of what the future holds for higher education is still up for debate.

At what cost?

As of now, there is no direct monetary payoff for offering a MOOC, and producing the courses require huge investments in time.

“I don’t know what will become of MOOCs, since by definition they involve no money and therefore have a weak business model,” Physics Prof. Lou Bloomfield said. “They are also completely dependent on volunteer work by instructors and that seems unlikely to last indefinitely.”

Bloomfield teaches an introductory physics course called “How Things Work,” one of the University’s first MOOC offerings and a student favorite for years before MOOCs were introduced. He said he loved teaching the course online, but it is challenging to find time to make the investment.

“I have really enjoyed creating and running my MOOC,” Bloomfield said. “But I totally underestimated the time it would take me to do things right. I had to use accrued leave … to free up enough time to prepare the videos. It took me about 1,000 hours to prepare 10 hours of video and 60 homework questions.”

MOOCs at the University

The University currently offers most of its MOOCs through the website Coursera. The completion of the courses do not earn students credit.

There are currently 12 University classes listed on the Coursera website — some available now and others upcoming. These include “Buddhist Meditation and the Modern World,” “The Age of Jefferson” and a reprisal of Bloomfield’s course, “How Things Work.”

“We do have a non-exclusive contract with Coursera,” said Kristin Palmer, the University’s director of online learning programs. “The University is also working on the iTunes U platform for delivering MOOCs.”

Palmer said the University is exploring ways to increase the utilization of MOOCs in the future.

“Right now we are investigating the idea of creating a pre-matriculation experience for prospective and incoming students on Thomas Jefferson,” she said.

Palmer added that MOOCs could complement new University global initiatives, while also providing opportunities to incorporate online learning into a traditional in-classroom experience.

“MOOCs are a great way of promoting subjects that are seen as strongholds for U.Va. and reaching a global classroom to incorporate diverse perspectives into our residential curriculum,” Palmer said. “[Also,] materials created for MOOCs can be leveraged for residential classes so students can access the materials asynchronously outside of class. This allows for faculty to design the time in the classroom to be more engaging and building upon the materials viewed outside of class.”

Bloomfield pushed back on this idea of “flipped classes,” which consist of video lectures and live discussions in class. If not done carefully, he said, the level of interaction and the class dynamic that can only be achieved in person may be diminished.

“In courses where an instructor delivers only speech-like lectures and lets TAs deal with the students, flipping the classroom may be an improvement,” he said. “However, I can’t teach that way. I have no TAs, I do everything myself, I love student interactions and I am always doing things and playing with real-world objects in class … If I started appearing only on video at U.Va., [students] wouldn’t be getting their money’s worth anymore.”

Defending MOOCs

Viewing MOOCs as a substitute for traditional college learning may be misguided. Senior Vice Provost J. Milton Adams, for example, likened MOOCs to books.

“If you want to learn about Thomas Jefferson, you can easily go to a public library, check out a book on history or maybe a biography of Jefferson, and learn as much or as little as you want,” he said. “It’s free and you do not earn academic credit. You may check out the book, but never find time to read it, or you may read a few chapters and move on to something else. Or you may really dive deeply, read thoroughly, find friends to debate and discuss, or write a substantial research paper and publish it.”

In fact, Bloomfield’s description of what goes into making a good MOOC has significant parallels to how a book may be judged.

“To be successful, a MOOC has to be compelling enough to make up for the loss of a live experience,” he said. “With no academic credit or grades on offer, a MOOC has to attract and hold its audience through its intrinsic value alone — it must educate, engage and even entertain its students or they will simply leave.”

Adams said MOOCs may be even more effective than books, as they better prompt opportunities for increased engagement in a topic.

“The MOOCs on Coursera may be more focused, offer great lectures, guide activities with other students and enhance learning by writing and engaging with the material,” he said. “That may improve what you get from reading a book, but you have to engage.”

Though the lack of financial payoff and incredible amount of preparation required may deter professors from teaching MOOCs, Adams said the courses are not without merit, even for professors, who can learn a great deal from using the online course structure as a tool to see how a university course might be improved.

But an even greater payoff, Bloomfield said, is the response professors receive.

“I have a grocery bag full of letters and postcards from grateful people all over the world and in all walks of life — 7-year-olds and octogenarians, home-schoolers and retirees, teachers and physicists, business people and homemakers, you name it,” he said. “And I have letters from families — parents and children taking my MOOC together. Is that cool or what?”

A learning experiment

MOOCs can also offer a groundbreaking way to study learning. Graduate Arts & Sciences student Ignacio Martinez is currently researching the use of MOOCs and exploring whether the lack of “certification” diminishes student investment in the courses.

“In an environment like Coursera, the absence of certification or verification may undermine student investment and, in turn, employer recognition,” Martinez said. “In my research, for example, I am providing students chosen at random with information about where they rank in the class and how well students do when they finish the quizzes early rather than late.”

The MOOC format is particularly conducive to researching larger education issues in general, he said.

“MOOCs have the potential to facilitate low-cost implementation of randomized control trials … [because] the number of students is large,” Martinez said. “And while many student behaviors such as time spent on homework and class participation in traditional classrooms are difficult to measure except through self and/or teacher reports, the majority of online learning activities can be observed by the researcher.”

Moving forward

It remains, ultimately, uncertain what the future of MOOCs will look like.

“What I imagine will happen is that MOOCs will evolve and/or merge into online courses that have both academic credit and tuition,” Bloomfield said. “In our current society, almost no one pays for education itself, they pay for academic credit.”

Palmer said, however, that the University has no current plans to monetize or provide credit for these online courses.

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