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Universities experiment with their own MOOCs

Early findings suggest that the work and resources that schools invest in MOOCs are benefiting students on their campuses, too.


Some three years after the first U.S. MOOC was launched to great fanfare, massive open online courses are becoming part of the higher-ed mainstream. Some of the largest Canadian universities are expanding their course offerings and applying the lessons they learn to the benefit of paying, on-campus students.

One of the most surprising discoveries universities have made about MOOCs is the benefit to learners of teaching a very large group of students. “We’ve always thought that when courses get bigger, they get less good,” said Gregor Kiczales, computer science professor at the University of British Columbia. “One thing we’ve learned from MOOCs is that when they get big enough, they start to get good again.”

For one thing, getting feedback from several thousand students helps instructors evaluate what works best and can point out flaws in teaching materials that may be overlooked in smaller classes. If an instructor assigns a problem and it trips up a thousand MOOC students, that’s a red flag that there’s something wrong with the question, explained Dr. Kiczales. “All of us had some epiphanies about the way that we were teaching.”

Since Spring 2013, UBC has launched four MOOCs, including a computer science course taught by Dr. Kiczales. The university plans to launch four more courses this fall on the edX platform, a joint venture between Harvard and MIT.

Teaching a MOOC helped Dr. Kiczales improve the on-campus course he teaches at UBC that incorporates some of the MOOC material. When students come to his office for help, he is able to review the online lectures with them so they can pinpoint exactly what confuses them. “We’ve seen the level of discourse go up,” he said.

Peer-to-peer discussions that take place on MOOC online forums are invaluable, say some instructors. “We’ve been very impressed with the level of engagement that students have had and the level of discussion,” said Laura Winer, interim director of teaching and learning services at McGill University. So much so that McGill plans to launch an online, for-credit version of a MOOC on food chemistry exclusively for McGill students. A bonus is that enrolment in online courses doesn’t have to be capped.

McGill’s MOOCs include the one on food chemistry, offered last January, and a second one on natural disasters. Later this year, McGill plans to launch a MOOC by renowned management expert Henry Mintzberg and another on sports medicine. McGill, like UBC, offers its MOOCs on the edX platform. The research component in edX allows McGill to trade experiences and ideas with universities across North America and Europe, Dr. Winer said.

MOOC production costs vary significantly, depending on the length of the course and the production model. McGill spent about $200,000 developing each MOOC, the upper end of the typical range. It adapted its MOOCs from pre-existing courses, completely redesigning them as online learning experiences. The funds come from philanthropic sources and not the university’s operating budget, she noted.

The University of Alberta spent nine months developing a MOOC on paleontology that it offered in September 2013. In addition to instructors and course developers, the staff included graphic designers, editors, make-up artists, even an acting coach. To better understand how MOOCs impact student learning, U of A launched three versions of the same online course: a free MOOC version, known as Dino 101 offered through Coursera; Paleo 200, offered as an online credit course for U of A students; and Paleo 201, a blended-learning course for U of A students that included class time and field work. All three used the same online content but the U of A students were required to write proctored exams, and enrolment for Paleo 201 was capped at 50 students.

U of A researchers were happily surprised by students’ high completion rates in the Paleo 200 and 201 courses, 98 percent and 100 percent respectively. Researchers aren’t sure why but Glen Loppnow, associate dean, learning and innovation in the faculty of science, noticed that several students who were on academic probation and had enrolled in Paleo 200 achieved grades in that course that were higher than in their other classes. They told him they liked the flexibility. They could “binge watch” as many of the lectures as they liked whenever they wished. For some, that meant outside of work hours. For some with health issues, it meant at a time when their medical treatment allowed.

“This is a hugely important lesson for us as a university,” said Dr. Loppnow. “Sometimes some flexibility in student offerings really promotes student success.” U of A is offering the paleontology course again this fall in its three iterations as well as a course on video games.

The completion rate for U of A’s free MOOC version of the course was 17 percent, about three times the rate of most MOOCs but still far below the rate for on-campus courses. But people who enrol in MOOCs tend to be motivated by different goals than on-campus students, said Jonathan Schaeffer, U of A’s dean of science. Many participants sign up just to browse the course content. Some students watch the lectures but don’t intend to complete the course requirements. Moreover, MOOC participants tend to be older, have work experience, and be geographically dispersed all over the world. Still, observers say the lessons gleaned from studying what motivates and engages these students who face few pressures to complete a course could have important implications for campus students who do.

U of A is capitalizing on what it has learned about MOOCs to launch a MOOC production company, which it believes is a first. This past summer, Dr. Schaeffer and Dr. Loppnow, along with Jennifer Chesney, U of A’s associate vice-president, university digital strategy, set up a non-profit spin-off called Onlea (for online learning). Onlea collaborates with instructors to produce online and blended courses for MOOC platforms and learning management systems. The company doesn’t compete with Coursera, edX, Udacity and other MOOC providers.

“We are all about the product,” said Dr. Chesney. “We aspire to be the Pixar of public education products.” Onlea’s clients include an international mix of academic institutions and businesses which Dr. Chesney declined to name.

In Ontario, the University of Toronto is using videos that it developed for a Coursera-hosted MOOC on computer programming to offer a blended-learning course for its first-year, on-campus students. The students watch the videos and complete the quizzes on their own time and spend class time solving more challenging problems. Paul Gries, a course instructor, said they can’t say yet how much this approach improves learning; but final-exam marks were up eight percent from the previous year when the course was taught in a traditional format.

Smaller institutions are also starting to offer MOOCs. TÉLUQ, the distance-learning arm of the Université du Québec network, recently launched two, one on the political history of Quebec and another on work-life balance. The courses are garnering interest from students in francophone countries in Africa and Europe.

“It’s a great way to get our courses and programs known” and to give people a taste of what it’s like to study online, said Martin Noël, TÉLUQ’s director of academic affairs. The courses are offered on TÉLUQ’s own platform, (developed using edX’s open-source code). The university hopes other Quebec universities will use the platform to offer their own MOOCs.

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  1. stophippo / October 23, 2014 at 09:00

    this reads like propaganda – a 17 percent completion rate is an epic fail, but I guess if the goal is selling product that this is a stunning success because 100 percent have paid. Shame on us.

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