Someday you might be able to get a degree from the University of Akron without setting a foot on its well-manicured campus. Or paying UA a single dollar in tuition.
UA officials are looking at ways to extend the school’s reach by embracing massive, open online courses — or MOOCs, in the shorthand of the educational revolution.
University President Luis Proenza wants to make the campus a source of online learning, and as quickly as possible.
“This is the first time I’ve seen a real sense of urgency among university leaders who recognize the opportunities in digital learning,” he told the campus by email earlier this month, referring to a professional association meeting he attended last fall.
While online courses have been around at UA and other universities for decades, MOOCs are different. Unlike traditional online classes, MOOCs don’t cost anything, offer credit, limit enrollment or require students to complete prerequisites.
That means thousands of students can sample prepackaged online courses in everything from solid-state chemistry to game theory to equine nutrition.
While most of today’s courses are offered by elite institutions like Harvard, Stanford, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Berklee College of Music, that is rapidly changing. More and more university officials are showing interest in entering the exploding fray.
“It’s more than just a fad,” said Gerry McKiernan, an Iowa State librarian whose self-described “obsession” with MOOCs led him to launch a blog called Alt-Ed in April. “Very quickly the phenomenon has exploded. It is a moving target. I think it certainly will affect higher education.”
While just 2.6 percent of colleges and universities nationwide offer MOOCs, another 9.4 percent are planning to do so, according to a report by the Babson Survey Research Group. About 6.7 million students took online courses in 2012, with innovations cropping up seemingly every day.
San Jose State University announced this week that it will experiment with offering credit for MOOCs through the for-profit provider Udacity. Another for-profit provider, Coursera, announced last week that students can earn “verified certificates” via software that tracks their typing style. That identifies the student doing the work and gives them something to prove that it was indeed them who passed the course. Coursera offers more than 200 courses from 33 universities.
Ohio State became the first Ohio university to launch MOOCs, with four classes on Coursera this month.
More than 30,000 students — some from as far away as Lithuania, India and Norway — have enrolled in the introductory calculus course offered by lecturer Jim Fowler.
His 15-week course is made up of videos plus an online textbook and exercises with cues to help the stumbling student. Fowler offers weekly online office hours and encourages students to work with others online.
The course “is about doing calculus problems in fellowship with one another,” he says enthusiastically on the introductory lecture.
No formality here: He wears a casual brown sweater, signs his missives to students “Jim” and exudes his love for higher math. His goal, he said, is to make math more accessible to more people.
That is also how Proenza sees it. MOOCs can “improve educational productivity, allowing us to reach more learners at lower cost,” the UA president said in his campus email.
In a paper he presented to the Coalition of Urban Serving Universities, he suggests capitalizing on the promise of MOOCs by “unbundling teaching and learning, assessment and location.”
He says that universities should develop the ability to credential students with course credits — and even degrees — when they prove they have the knowledge, regardless of where they received the knowledge or even took a college course at all.
He wants UA to make available “as many of the world’s resources (about MOOCs) as possible to anyone who might need them.”
Already the university has a web page dedicated to MOOCs.
“The result would be an entirely new business model for higher education,” he said in his paper. Tomorrow’s university would offer wider access to “over 50 million Americans who have only partially completed their baccalaureate degree.”
He presented his ideas to 23 members of the Coalition of Urban Serving Universities at the Association of Public Land-Grant Universities national meeting in Denver in November. Both organizations agreed to form faculty work teams to address the issues.
Part of their conclusion to date: It’s better to have innovations driven by universities than by third-party vendors.
Class falloff huge
Yet how that will take shape remains to be seen.
Fowler, the OSU lecturer, said he would be ecstatic if even a couple thousand students finished his calculus course. That’s because the falloff is huge in MOOCs.
Students don’t pay anything for the course and there’s no penalty for dropping out, so many do. Some do not learn well online; some do not have a sustaining interest in the subject.
“We’re in a transition period,” said Harvey Sterns, a UA gerontology professor who is immediate past chairman of the university’s Faculty Senate. “How this translates into practice on our campus is a major exercise for faculty. It’s very difficult to judge.”
At Kent State, the university is concentrating on conventional online courses for credit for enrolled students, said Valerie Kelly, director of online learning.
“MOOCs may add some value, but they’re not our focus,” she said.
“It’s probably going to be another 30 years before we see this sorting itself out,” Proenza said.
Carol Biliczky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 330-996-3729.