This week's post is co-authored by Rex Wheeler II, my partner in the Office of Information Technology at the Twin Cities campus.
For years, higher education seemed immune to upheaval. While individual topic areas changed over time, such as the introduction of Computer Science as a new science in the liberal arts, higher education has always been based on an instructor with students in a classroom. But as the saying goes, change is the only constant. This proves true even in today's higher education with the introduction of electronic learning (e-learning) and massive open online courses (MOOCs).
MOOCs offer courses to those who want to learn new subjects in a different, non-traditional way for free. The idea of "distance learning" is not new; versions of correspondence courses have been around since Sir Isaac Pitman taught shorthand by mail in 1840. E-learning has been around for years, and MOOCs extend e-learning to vast audiences. For example, the Chronicle of Higher Education's "Brainstorm" blog reported that in Fall 2011, Stanford University launched three MOOCs, "letting over 100,000 students around the world take their courses, online, for free."
Due to the nature of MOOCs at this early stage in their evolution they suffer from low performance and a high dropout rate. For example, The Atlantic reports in "Overblown-Claims-of-Failure Watch" the first MOOCs had only a twenty percent completion rate. This statistic did not immediately strike fear into the hearts of Universities. But the fact that MOOCs are dramatically less expensive than traditional college courses may stir some concern, and has ignited universities to examine MOOCs, to better understand the impact of this possible future trend in education.
Even the University of Minnesota is beginning to experiment with MOOCs. It's an "ever-growing group of universities in a grand experiment that some expect to remake higher education. The University is partnering with Coursera to produce massive open online courses, or MOOCs, available to anyone in the world for free." For now, the University "will not grant course credit for the classes but Coursera hopes to earn revenue someday by charging for credentials, or related services. The university would share in any future revenue that Coursera gets from the courses. The university will own the presentations, and will be able to use the material in its classes on campus."
Universities are now beginning to leverage the power of MOOCs. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported in September 2012 as Colorado State University's Global Campus became the first university in the United States to recognize credit from MOOCs—in this case from Udacity, an e-learning company that offers MOOC courses. "In order to earn the three transfer credits toward their bachelor's degrees at the Global Campus, students will need a 'certificate of accomplishment' from Udacity showing they passed the course. Then they have to pass a proctored examination offered by Udacity through a secure testing center. The exam, administered by the Pearson VUE testing group, will cost $89."
By recognizing MOOCs as a provider of course concepts, students get a boost in completing their degree. Accepting course credit in this way is a major shift in the business model for higher education, although a similar model has been used previously in industry. In the technology sector, certifications like Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert (MCSE) and Red Hat Certified Engineer (RHCE) have been sought after by employers for many years. These certifications demonstrate that students have mastered concepts of maintaining the operating systems. The students' learning experience might come from a classroom, books, or online learning, but the testing is performed in a secure, proctored environment. For example, RHCE examinations include practical evaluations such as system debugging, installation, and configuration of Linux systems. The proctored certification exam demonstrates mastery in the content area, just as the Pearson VUE exam demonstrates competency in Udacity's online course content.
Having recognized the strategic significance of MOOCs as a disruptive technology, higher education must now find ways to cultivate MOOCs to its benefit. The next step is to determine an initial market. This will require institutions to experiment rapidly, iteratively, and inexpensively to explore new education models. Locating this experiment in a separate unit or college will provide necessary flexibility to take a solid step forward in the quest to discover what customers really want.
But at the same time, we need to be careful. Online courses such as MOOCs are not a panacea for education. As the New York Times reports, online classes face two serious issues: "First, student attrition rates—around 90 percent for some huge online courses—appear to be a problem even in small-scale online courses when compared with traditional face-to-face classes. Second, courses delivered solely online may be fine for highly skilled, highly motivated people, but they are inappropriate for struggling students who make up a significant portion of college enrollment and who need close contact with instructors to succeed."
• Extra: • If you are considering a MOOC, please consult with your technology team to pick the right tool for the job. Course management tools such as Moodle do a very good job of providing online access to resources, including recorded lectures, slides, and study notes. They also allow students to interact and learn from one another using an online discussion forum. As reported in Inside Higher Ed, one MOOC fell apart due to technical issues. The MOOC offered by the Georgia Institute of Technology opted to have 40,000 online students collaborate via Google Docs, which has a limit of 50 simultaneous editors. And what was the doomed MOOC? "Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application." Oh, the irony.