UI is undecided about its online course strategy

UI is undecided about its online course strategy

Issues range from whether to offer for-credit classes to how to count the time spent by instructors

URBANA — A little more than a year after joining forces with the Silicon Valley education startup Coursera, the University of Illinois has made some steps toward developing its strategy for offering massive, open online courses, or MOOCs, but officials haven't made any decisions yet on whether that strategy will include for-credit MOOCs.

Earlier this summer, the Georgia Institute of Technology set the world of academia atwitter when the university, along with AT&T and online education company Udacity, announced plans to offer a MOOC-based professional master's degree in computer science. The cost to students: $6,600 total, compared with about $42,000 for going the traditional, on-campus route.

The news has sparked many conversations about the future of MOOCs and their role as a disrupter in higher education.

Until recently, most MOOCs involved thousands of people signing up for free, not-for-college-credit, online classes on subjects from calculus to poetry. In the last year, many different variations on the MOOC theme have emerged, ranging from the free, no-credit classes to for-credit and for-a-fee degree programs.

UI officials have explored many of these options, but no decisions have been made yet.

"All of this stuff is under active discussion," said Rob Rutenbar, UI computer science professor and chairman of that department. Moving toward a Georgia Tech type of program would be "a big step," he acknowledged. "We are carefully looking at things like that."

The Urbana campus announced in mid-July of last year it was one of 12 universities at the time to sign agreements with Coursera. Since then, more universities have partnered with the company. The private for-profit company was founded in fall 2011 by two Stanford University professors and has since received tens of millions of dollars in funding from venture capitalists.

In this new online world, administrators faced questions such as, if a faculty member teaches a MOOC through Coursera, is it considered part of his or her normal teaching load? A campus committee, dubbed the MOOC Strategic Advisory Committee, was established and its members have been discussing the myriad directions they can take. In addition to considering if instructors should receive extra compensation for teaching a Coursera MOOC, members have debated the process for deciding which UI courses are available via Coursera. The committee is still meeting; a report will likely be issued sometime this fall, according to co-chairman Charles Tucker, the UI's vice provost for undergraduate education and innovation.

"The university has to figure out what our strategy is for delivering MOOCs, how to allocate resources. It's a very challenging question because the future is evolving quickly," he said, adding that as a land-grant institution, the UI's delivery of MOOCs could be a "great way" of engaging in outreach with people who cannot physically come to the campus for classes.

MOOCs, as people know them today, have only been around for about two years, said online education expert Ray Schroeder from the UI's Springfield campus.

"People tend to look at MOOCs as they are today. They don't realize it's a moving target," he said.

Back in the summer of 2011, before Stanford held its now-famous artificial intelligence MOOC attracting about 160,000 students, the Springfield campus held what it said was the largest MOOC at that time, an educational MOOC (called eduMOOC) that attracted 2,700 students, Schroeder said.

Schroeder predicts more universities will roll out programs similar to Georgia Tech's MOOC-based online computer science degree.

And the UI's Rutenbar said the "universe" of professional master's degrees is an interesting one because he believes there are many people with an "enormous appetite" to advance in their careers and obtain post-graduate education.

"Not everybody can turn their day job off, come off campus, or even drive to night school," he said. MOOCs could play a role in delivering "career-changing post-graduate education."

"We're all looking at what everybody is thinking and doing," said Rutenbar, who taught one of the handful of UI courses — a computer chip design class — on Coursera this past year.

Since the advent of MOOCs, universities have taken different approaches for producing and delivering these kinds of online courses. Some have entailed a professor sitting in front of a laptop webcam and delivering a lecture. The UI's MOOCs do not fall into that category.

"At Illinois, there was a conscious decision to try to produce high-quality courses in production value and academic content," said Tucker, the UI's vice provost.

For example, a UI microeconomics class offered on Coursera involved the instructor speaking about supply and demand while on location at Urbana's Market at the Square. The instructor also approached people on the street asking for their definitions of various economic terms before explaining them himself.

"These kinds of things make the courses much more lively and engaging. ... It serves the dual purpose of highlighting the U of I and the community," Tucker said.

Content developed and used in a MOOC can also be used in a traditional course or other blended learning course, he said.

Now into his third time teaching the "Introduction to Sustainability" course on Coursera, UI Professor Jonathan Tomkin said the experience has propelled him into a new area of research — student learning — and he hopes to one day publish results of that new research.

"It has made me much more interested in what motivates and what causes these students to succeed," he said, adding that he has enjoyed figuring out what approaches keep these students (who do not receive grades) engaged in course discussions, assignments and quizzes.

As of last week, over 300,000 people from around the world have signed up for UI classes on Coursera. That doesn't mean hundreds of thousands will complete the assignments or finish the course — a frequent criticism of MOOCs. However, even if a fraction of that number complete the course, such as 1,500 out of 10,000, that's a good thing, supporters said.

Of the approximately 20,000 who signed up for Tomkin's course in the spring, around 1,000 to 2,000 received a certificate of completion. One thing to remember, he pointed out, is how easy it is to sign up for the free MOOCs; usually it's a one- or two-click process.

According to the UI's agreement with Coursera, the university could eventually receive some revenue from the courses, including from the issuance of certificates of completing a class, test fees, allowing prospective employers to contact students about such things as possible job opportunities and more.

The UI Coursera classes "are not yet generating enough income for this to be even a self-funding or cost-recovery program right now. But neither did Amazon make money right" away, Tucker said.

"We're still happy to be in this because we're learning so much about how to do these courses and about all the educational issues and institutional policies," he said.

Last year, the campus called for proposals from UI instructors wanting to offer a class on Coursera. So far, a committee has asked people to flesh out their proposals, and the second round included an audition.

"This is one of the most visible things the campus can do on global scale," said Rutenbar, the UI computer science professor. "We have to make sure the people we're putting in front of the world are good and know what they're doing."

How many courses they will choose will depend on the capacity of the campus to provide resources, such as audio-visual staff, for the courses.

A new unit on campus aims to help those interested in developing MOOCs and teaching in general. The Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning will combine staff from the Center for Teaching Excellence, the Office of Online and Continuing Education and some personnel from the Campus Information Technologies and Educational Services.

"The idea is to have a single place where faculty can go for help with teaching, anything about teaching. If they want to write better quizzes in online or different face-to-face (classes), someone in this group can help them," Tucker said.

On the web:

List of courses currently being offered by the University of Illinois on Coursera:https://www.coursera.org/illinois.

Compilation of massive, open online courses available through the UI's Urbana-Champaign campus:http://mooc.illinois.edu.

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vcponsardin wrote on September 01, 2013 at 9:09 am

Online teaching presents a number of serious issues that are, as yet, unresolved.  The first and most important is whether it is a better way to teach.  It's certainly a more profitable way as far as the institutions are concerned.  But is it a pedagogically superior way for students to learn?  So far, the studies are either nonextant or inconclusive.  There is also the concern about whether the content of the course belongs to the professor who creates it or the university for whom the professor works.  If the latter, then it's not likely that a school's best professors are going to hand over their top material--the knowledge that makes them unique world-experts--to a computer program that anyone can have access to at any time.  More significantly, if a professor does hand over his/her unique expertise, what leverage does she/he have to negotiate with their home institution should they get an offer from another school?  The home school is likely to say, "Fine, leave.  We're not going to pay you more.  We already have all your top classes online."  Lastly, there remains the sticky and unresolved issue of verifying that the student is really taking the class. How long before private companies appear online that will take the course for an online student, posing as that student, taking tests, writing assignments, etc.?  It's hard enough to catch cheating students in traditional classroom settings; the opportunities to cheat online are virtually limitless.  And then is it just the raw knowledge that gets a student a job?  Or is it the personal recommendation that is written by a top professor in her/his field?  And how can a professor teaching a MOOC with thousands of students all online possibly write a valid recommendation for someone he/she has never met that would hold any sway in the real world?  Online courses may be fine for dabblers in introductory courses where content is simple, widely known and largely objective.  But I can't see this expanding legitimately beyond that.  And now masters degrees?  No way. I would never hire someone who never met their professors, never set foot in a library, never worked together with other peers and superiors, but instead stayed home and did everything in front of a screen.  There's so much more to education that merely absorbing objective facts.  (I hasten to add that there are some courses that simply can't be taught online--ever.  Try teacing stage acting, for instance, online.  Can't be done.  Stage acting--Shakespeare trainging, for instance--requires other actors, in person, on a stage.  Acting "virtually" isn't stage acting--it's film acting--a different beast altogether.  And even film acting requires in-person coaching, other actors, etc.  And that's just one of countless examples of why online teaching will never dominate or overtake traditional education.)



Danno wrote on September 01, 2013 at 10:09 am

Well stated perspective. The formerly known 'Sally Struthers School of (insert career objective)' has been replaced with The University of Phoenix, with pop-culture commercial$, guaranteeing a stable income that fits your interests.

SouthSider wrote on September 01, 2013 at 3:09 pm

And now masters degrees?  No way. I would never hire someone who never met their professors, never set foot in a library, never worked together with other peers and superiors, but instead stayed home and did everything in front of a screen.  There's so much more to education that merely absorbing objective facts.

I suggest you look at what Illinois and other good programs are doing with online programs, including Masters' degree programs. Many students have MORE interaction with their professor than in traditional classrooms. They write more. They have more collaborative opportunities with peers. They may not "set foot" in our library, but they are using the biggest library in the world to do their research - the Internet.

There are limitations to online education, but these aren't them. I've been teaching online for more than 15 years, and I know that high quality, innovative teaching is possible. Are there bad online teachers, courses, and programs? You bet -- just as there are bad teachers, courses, and programs on any regular campus.

And anyone who thinks that learning is just "absorbing objective facts" is a bad teacher, no matter what their medium.

vcponsardin wrote on September 01, 2013 at 3:09 pm

Again, how does one know the student taking the course is the person getting the grade?  Until that is settled, I will never trust an online course.  How can an online teacher get to know a student well enough to write an effective recommendation, beyond saying the student did well online and seemed like a nice person on Skype? There's so much more to higher education that the mere transmission of information over a computer screen.  Personal one-on-one mentoring is what a great graduate program does.  Can't be done online.  Can't--no matter how many hours you spend emailing, skyping and texting.  My example of an acting course proves that personal physical presense is an essential part of learning.  I shutter to think of a world full of supposedly "educated" people who've never engaged in a small group discussion (in person--not chatting online), who've never defended themselves in an active and energetic debate (in person--not chatting online), who've never interacted and proven their ability to cooperate, engage and involve themselves with real people (in person--not chatting online).  The world isn't online.  And it never will be.