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Can MOOCs Rewire Higher Education?

MOOCs allow for a hybrid of educational models, with online lectures and project work in the classroom.

Some colleges and universities are offering credits for MOOCs this fall.

The MOOC, or Massive Open Online Course, might just be the next big thing in education. CU Denver and CSU are getting in the game, and a few colleges are offering real credits. Is this a paradigm shift for education or is the hype overselling the reality?
MOOC is the educational buzz-acronym of the moment.

The Massive Open Online Course holds the promise of reinventing higher education by streamlining, democratizing and otherwise improving it.

MOOCs aren't exactly a new idea. Correspondence courses have been around for more than a century. Long before broadband, radio, film and TV were used as tools for distance learning. But the Internet is inherently a better educational tool, and it has been used as a conduit for educational content since its emergence in the 1990s, thanks in large part to the two-way, interactive nature of the medium.

The term MOOC arose in 2008 as part of the "open educational resources" movement. The key features? MOOCs are typically free or have a nominal tuition fee, open to anyone who's interested, and available online and through a multitude of digital technologies. The massive part of the acronym recognizes the Internet's ability to make the courses available to an essentially unlimited number of students who can learn at their own pace.

Students often connect to the course via social media and can stream lectures and other content when they choose. Quizzes, tests and projects can be handled online and in classrooms. Many students audit the course without finishing much of the work.MOOCs allow for a hybrid of educational models, with online lectures and project work in the classroom.

Stanford University turned heads in 2011 when more than 150,000 students enrolled in an Introduction to Artificial Intelligence MOOC. Several for-profit MOOC providers emerged from this success, including Coursera and Udacity. MIT subsequently launched the nonprofit MITx in 2012 to counter commercialized education.

The rise of the MOOC has enabled concepts like "flipped classrooms" -- where lectures are delivered online and classrooms are reserved for project work -- and connectivist principles of aggregating, remixing and sharing a wide variety of content.

A key component to the openness of a MOOC is the openness, and that often means students need not pay tuition. But how can a school give away the milk and expect students to still buy the bovine that is a college education?

And free courses doesn't necessarily translate to academic results. Coursera has found that students who pay nominal fees ($30 to $90) to cover administration costs were "substantially more likely" to finish the course.

CU Denver's first MOOC

Beginning on Nov. 4, the University of Colorado Denver Business School is offering the university's first MOOC, Fundamentals of Global Energy Business, on the Coursera platform. The course will delve into the nature of demand and supply in global energy markets, and business considerations for participants in those markets. The course's instructor is Dr. Michael Orlando, Lecturer of Global Energy Management at the CU Denver Business School. The five-week course, which is not for college credit, will involve a workload of about five hours a week.

"Energy was a natural for us," says Sueann Ambron, Dean of the CU Denver Business School. She points to the fact that the existing Global Energy Management program is a hybrid program with classroom and online elements, and the Business School's online classes stretches back to the 1990s when it launched one of the country's first online MBA programs.

Ambron isn't worried about the free nature of the classes undercutting the tuition-driven academic model. "We're trying to demonstrate the quality of the content and the faculty to get people interested in our Global Energy Management program," she explains.

The target market for the class isn't just energy professionals, Ambron notes. "Everyone in Colorado should be interested in it," she says. "We're an energy center."

A hard sell

At least seven colleges and universities are currently offering credit for MOOCs, but many institutions reserve credits for students who are paying tuition, albeit at a reduced rate.

Colorado State University made waves in 2012 by offering credits for a MOOC via its Global Campus -- it was touted as the first university in the country to do so. But a year into the program, the university still hadn't enrolled any students in the MOOC -- even though the fee is $89, much lower than the $1,050 price tag it would have been in the classroom.

But CSU is not deterred. This fall CSU OnlinePlus is offering a MOOC called Science of Relationships. Next up, Student Affairs in Higher Education and Water, People, and Nature: Addressing 21st Century Global Challenges are additional MOOCs planned for spring 2014. Unlike its previous foray into MOOCs, academic credits will not be awarded to students who complete these courses.

But CSU officials say the rationale behind MOOCs isn't tied to tuition as much as serving the state's changing needs and connecting with the community. CSU OnlinePlus Interim Associate Provost Jordan Fritts describes MOOCs “as a way to build on the university’s outreach and engagement mission."

Elsewhere in Colorado, CU Boulder has four free MOOCs on the fall calendar, including one on comic books. Regis University is developing a MOOC-like online program for entrepreneurship education.

Early signs for CU Denver's new energy MOOC are good, with over 1,000 students registered for the MOOC at press time. Ambron says that number could easily top 10,000 by the time the course begins on Nov. 4.

Scale is only an impediment when it comes to implementing a for-credit MOOC. "Who's going to grade 1,000 papers?" asks Ambron, noting that proctored final exams are a possibility for future MOOCs offered at CU Denver.

"I think there are tons of opportunities in the future," she adds. "The upside opportunity for people to learn is extraordinary."

On the other side of the academic coin, MOOC data analytics allow faculty and administrators to understand "what works and what doesn't. You'll almost be able to do individualized teaching."

Hype vs. reality?

The New York Times dubbed 2012 "The Year of the MOOC" and the acronym has entered the educational lexicon on a tide of hype.

However, while many other pundits have similarly pumped up the promise of MOOCs, they have a pretty abysmal completion rate. A 2012 Duke University course saw 313 of 12,275 participants earn a certificate -- that's 2.5 percent.

And those completing MOOCs are usually doing so to get to a traditional college campus. A Stanford University study found high school students were by far the most likely to complete a MOOC, and older students were more likely to sample or audit a course.

Once there's an option to earn a free degree from an accredited institution, the dam may well break, and MOOCs could wash away the traditional college curriculum.

But no accredited institution has come up with a workable fiscal strategy and are understandably hesitant to chop the traditional campus model off at the knees. Taking that in tandem with the adoption curve, it might be decades before the promise of the virtual classroom, whether it's known as a MOOC or some other acronym, is realized.

CU Denver's Ambron downplays the criticism. "There's no downside to people learning," she says. "Whether you're interested in energy or jazz, it's all there."

Read more articles by Eric Peterson.

Eric is a Denver-based tech writer and guidebook wiz. Contact him here.
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