MOOCs under the Microscope

, Spencer Irvine, Leave a comment

At the MLA session, “Online Innovations: From Distance Learning to MOOC Madness,” professors from Carnegie Mellon, Rochester and Utah addressed a myriad of concerns about MOOCs. San Jose State’s president, Lisa Vollendorf, sat in on the panel to provide feedback on how to improve MOOCs after San Jose State saw its MOOC ultimately fail this past year. Thirty-eight people attended the panel event.

Carnegie Mellon’s Christopher Jones said that the four essential parts of running an effective MOOC are a warm environment, human interaction, instructional materials, and infrastructure. He admitted that there were grant and funding issues and criticized “administrators who think otherwise that quickly destroyed the morale of their instructors.” He pointed out that “you get what you pay for” and that Carnegie Mellon’s courses “have survived because we’ve actually charged for their use.” He claims that their hybrid model works and he would recommend such a model of online and classroom instruction. Jones said that too often, people confuse MOOCs with online learning, which is wrong. Instead, MOOCs are designed to supplement, not replace, technology and online learning.

Fernando Rubio, of the University of Utah, said that administrators have to work with instructors so administrators can “provide the necessary materials up front.” The publishers, administrators and instructors have to familiarize themselves with a blended approach for MOOCs. He pointed out that “sometimes there are marginal savings, but they’re typically related to other areas of the redesign, not directly related to integration.” Rubio said that although online learning has no effect on learning in general, “we have to move past the need to justify the existence exclusively on financial benefits.” The university and professors have to shift their views “from the institutional financial point of view to the student point of view.” And, “even if the institution is not saving any money, the student is saving money.” This has to “be considered an opportunity” for college institutions and whose MOOCs should not compose of simply making materials available online.

The University of Rochester’s Thomas DiPiero admitted that he’s “ambivalent about MOOCs” and said they can be “problematic.” Rochester’s engineering and music theory MOOCs via Coursera are the following:

  • History of rock and roll
  • Engineering- how to build a loudspeaker
  • Astronomy- time and astrophysics
  • Marketing

This selection, by the way, doesn’t differ markedly from offered in many brick-and-mortar classrooms.

DiPiero said that Rochester’s MOOCs have between 3,500 to 5,000 enrollments, and at least 20% are over the age 40, 70% of enrollees are from outside the U.S., two-thirds have a bachelor’s degree and the completion rates are between 3 to 14%. Another survey showed that 70% of students planned to complete their course, but only 3% did. It showed that “everyone planned to buckle down” to complete the course, but believed that “judging MOOCs based on the grim percentage of completion” is flawed. Just as direct ad mail sends out a lot of material, a 4% success rate still meant that they got a return on their investment. The same goes for MOOCs, said DiPiero, and MOOCs should be focused on the audience they intend to reach. It is a great recruiting tool for universities and outreach.

He criticized a course where there is one “talking head” who dominates the discussion, and said that’s a current problem with most brick-and-mortar colleges. With one primary lecturer talking all the time, “you’re holding onto the mastery” and it becomes a “productive” model of failure. Instead, various lecturers and opportunities to learn have to be a part of MOOCs.

Vollendorf doesn’t believe that the “MOOC moment has passed” since there’s still a high level of interest from parents, students and venture capitalists. “The reality is that the venture capitalists are approaching individuals and our faculty,” so MOOCs will go on. She suggested that “MOOCs are indeed the 2.0 version of the University of Phoenix” and that all universities have been affected by for-profit institutions (whether they admit it or not). Referring to San Jose State’s foray into MOOCs, Vollendorf said, “San Jose State jumped into a relationship with Udacity – oops! We should’ve done it with Coursera.”

Even though it failed, she found the silver lining and said, “Failing is what is expected, failing isn’t something to hang your head low [over] and head out of the room.” The problem with partnering with Udacity was that they had this “start-up culture” that did not mesh well with what San Jose State wanted to do. Also, the course took too long to get started to run efficiently, when at “Stanford, it takes three weeks.” All the fear and hype surrounding MOOCs needs to be addressed and requires that universities be “more honest about what our fears and anxieties are.” Saying only “we don’t like it” does not matter if the MOOC sector continues to grow. Instead, Vollendorf suggested better articulation of fears and anxieties and then becoming an active, “sensible” and pro-active participant in MOOCs. She felt that “a lot of us are in this ‘wait-and-see’ action” and said, “It’d be great that people would have more access to education.”