Conference looks at UI's role as online courses evolve

Conference looks at UI's role as online courses evolve

URBANA — MOOCs. They're kinda like the Internet in 1993, says Rob Rutenbar.

Pretty cool. And probably going to be big, said Rutenbar, professor and head of the University of Illinois' Department of Computer Science, to a crowd of faculty and staff on campus Thursday. The Internet, he added, is good at disrupting business models.

In higher education there's no avoiding MOOCs, or "massive open online courses," and a Thursday conference — called "MOOCs, Coursera and the online ecosystem: Where does Illinois fit?" — attempted to tackle all the utopian and thorny issues associated with offering free online courses to thousands of people around the world.

Although it's hard to figure out exactly where MOOCs will go in the future and it's difficult to avoid making mistakes, Rutenbar said he was optimistic.

"I think it's likely to go some place rather good," he said as one of the panelists.

The keynote address was delivered by Daphne Koller, co-founder of Coursera and Stanford University professor on leave to work at the company. The UI offers 10 classes through Coursera, following an agreement the UI signed with the company in the summer. The University of Illinois joined the venture following other universities such as Princeton, Stanford, the University of Michigan and the University of Pennsylvania.

Coursera, Koller said, offers classes "not to a sliver of the population but to everyone around the world who wants it."

The company's growth has been well-followed by higher education and national media. And it has drawn some criticism following allegations of plagiarism and questions about its students' completion rates. The business model includes licensing courses to other institutions; issuing certificates, for a fee, for students who complete a class; and contacting students about possible job opportunities.

In her presentation Koller reviewed the different ways instructors deliver their online courses. For example, the instructor of a course on gamification (using game design and techniques in non-game settings) once delivered a lecture in the role of a video game character.

She discussed peer grading, discussion boards (and response time) and how students will create virtual or in-person meet-ups and study groups around the world.

Koller also touched on how the Coursera system tracks students as they continue through the course, including tracking movements such as how long they pause a video but also how they submit answers. Instructors can find out what common mistakes are occurring and can then alter class plans to address those mistakes.

"We can break away from the one-size-fits-all model of education," Koller said.

One of the great myths in education is that one model will work for everyone, said UI education Professor Nick Burbules, a moderator at the summit.

Although relatively new on the scene, the MOOC model is evolving, from a video lecture delivered for free to tens of thousands of people to, in one case, a "blended MOOC" that combines some elements of a massive open online course with local institutions and their strategies such as hands-on tutoring and mentoring.

The question is, how do MOOCs fit in with a multidimensional online education strategy for the campus? Burbules said.

"There is a need for more research, into who's succeeding, who doesn't and why," he said.

It's not about not doing, "it's about learning ways to do it better," he said.

Cary Nelson, UI emeritus English professor and former president of the American Association of University Professors, said he planned to take a modern poetry course on Coursera to be taught by a University of Pennsylvania colleague.

"I can't imagine it will be second-rate. If it is, I'll tell him," he said.

Nelson called MOOCs "an extraordinarily rapidly moving target. I can't predict how local institutions will be affected," he said.

Videotaped lectures can be alienating, he said. And lectures may be altered by others in ways faculty may not like, he said. Nelson also raised questions about the trend toward assessing by testing, rather than term papers.

One thing is clear, he said.

"MOOCs are here to stay. It will not be an overnight situation," Nelson said.

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vcponsardin wrote on November 02, 2012 at 10:11 am

The advantage to the University of online courses is that once the course is set up, just one push of a computer button sets it all in motion and the professor doesn't have to do another thing for the rest of the term.  Yes, I know there are many online courses in which the professor interacts with the students online, but that is not necessarily the case.  In fact, courses can be taugh just as I've described--just one push of a button and it sets the whole semester running; the professor never has to do another thing.  Moreover, it doesn't have to be a professor that pushes that button.  Once the course has been created, anyone can do it.  And the course can instantly reach thousands of students world-wide.  Such courses are clearly massive cash cows, with students never having to even show up on campus but still paying full tuition.  Even more importantly, the university can eliminate TAs altogether--which is what they're beginning to do in FAA (this is why the GEO is about to go on strike).  I even see a day when the University can begin to eliminate professorships too.  It's quite possible that at some point the U of I could be teaching to hundreds of thousands of students world-wide with only a tiny core faculty (perhaps just one per department?) operating the buttons that begin each semester...  Thankfully, I'll be long retired by then.

Bulldogmojo wrote on November 02, 2012 at 12:11 pm

Now what we really need is a computer to run the administration side of things since computers don't have political agendas...and can do math.

Sid Saltfork wrote on November 02, 2012 at 2:11 pm

No interaction with others in classes.  Elimination of dormitories.  Elimination of campuses.  Elimination of campus town businesses, apartments, and bars.  Your kid can earn a Ph.D. while living in your basement.  I hope I misunderstood something.