Classrooms have been changing over the past 20 years as new technologies become available, but they may come with consequences that affect students and faculty alike.
The University of Wisconsin is following the lead of top-tier schools like Berkeley, MIT and Stanford in offering massive open online courses (MOOCs) that any person with a computer and an Internet connection can access for free.
“Right now, we are treating the pilots like an experiment,” said Dr. John Hawks, a professor in social sciences who will be teaching a MOOC in January. “After the first round of courses is done, we will meet and decide whether they have met desired outcomes.”
Some of these desired outcomes include the number of students who follow through the class to completion, how the University is able to support it, and how professors feel about teaching them.
The University has offered distance-learning courses for the past few years that allow enrolled students to take classes online for credit. These students must pay for their education, and get department permission to earn their degree in this way.
What is the difference between a distance learning course and a MOOC? According to Theresa Pesavento, an instructional technology consultant with the School of Letters and Sciences, some of the main differences are scope, audience and the relationship between professor and student.
“The scope of the audience is much larger with MOOCs,” Pesavento said. “In traditional lecture settings, the professor has more leverage because the student is beholden to the professor for a good grade.”
Pesavento also believes that the standard of education may be at risk. “A student cannot earn degree credits by taking a MOOC, and it doesn’t fill any prerequisites toward getting a college degree,” she said. “If someone can get a Stanford education for free online, who decides what the value of a degree is?”
One way to solve this problem would be to assign its value through different kinds of accreditation. “It would be almost like creating another level of college education, but free,” Hawks said. “If you complete a certain set of courses, you might get a certificate or some kind of unpaid accreditation.”
Dr. Christopher Olsen, Interim Vice Provost of Teaching and Learning, hopes that the future of instruction at UW will make use of different teaching techniques depending on where they work best. “In the future, I think that a blend of different components will go into what defines an undergraduate degree,” Olsen said. “Everyone learns differently, but a blended learning environment offers options that would allow a student to customize his or her learning experience based on what works best for them.”
Offering MOOCs comes with other caveats, like a high dropout rate and the potential for students to cheat. When enrollment is make free and open to anyone interested, huge numbers will enroll but relatively few of them will follow through the course to its completion.
“A lot of people are satisfied with just a small amount of content,” Hawks said. “Sometimes life just gets in the way.” Students who study on UW’s campus have a lot to lose if they do not finish their courses, and a lot to gain if they do. People who take MOOCs don’t lose anything, so it is easy for a student to drop it.
Hawks is concerned with the intellectual property rights of professors who teach MOOCs. By making course content available to everyone in the world, anyone can then use a professor’s information and call it his own. “Courses are owned by the departments, but the content is owned by professors,” Hawks said. “If I came up with the ideas, is it mine?”
Hawks believes that students are more likely to cheat where they have incentive, so he does not see the sense in cheating in a MOOC where the only thing a student has to lose is the information itself. “I’ve spent a lot of time trying to foil cheaters,” Hawks said. “With MOOCs, it doesn’t really concern me because I’m not giving them something.”
In spite of the potential problems that may come about as a result of UW offering MOOCs, Hawks is looking forward to teaching them. “It enables me to do things that I’d never be able to do inside a classroom,” he said. “A lot of my work relies on field-oriented research, and with MOOCs I can take them there over the internet.”
Professors are not the only people looking forward to UW offering MOOCs. Students will be able to access a college-level education without cost and regardless of location or schedule.
Sam Hokin, a professor in UW’s physics department, is currently taking a MOOC hosted by MIT. “Honestly I think it’s one of the best things to happen in education,” Hokin said.
Hokin does not think that MOOCs pose a threat to traditional attendance. “The amount of work you can do in online courses toward a degree is maybe 20 percent of what you can do taking classes on campus,” Hokin said. “In order to create learning skills, students need to be in front of an actual person.”
Professor Hawks doesn’t know what the future will bring, but he feels that change is inevitable. “It’s going to look like a different pattern of education,” he said. “We’re going to get better at what we do well.”
Vice Provost Olsen believes that things are changing, but UW has a lot of work to do in order to keep up. “This is an exciting time because we’re in a period of educational evolution,” Olsen said. “We have a lot of work to do in the next few years to come to grips with how students learn in a technologically advanced world.”