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Do MOOCs point to future of education?

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When Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, were first developed in the early 2000s, proponents predicted the low-cost option would revolutionize education, leveraging technology to deliver knowledge to a global audience.

Freed of travel and other considerations, early promoters predicted virtual classes containing thousands of students. In 2011, more than 160,000 people reportedly signed up for an introductory course on artificial intelligence[MD1]  presented by early MOOC adopter, Stanford University professor Sebastian Thrun.

Since then, a variety of New Jersey institutions, including Princeton University and Rutgers University, launched MOOCs, covering a wide range of topics. They collaborated with organizations like Coursera, an online education company that offers courses, specializations and degrees from more than 100 universities and educational institutions across the globe.

A mixed bag

But are MOOCs living up the hype?

It’s a mixed bag, according to Antonius Bittmann, associate vice president, online programs, at Rutgers.

“About four or five years ago, MOOCs were cutting-edge, and there was some thought that they could generate new revenue” as a complement to traditional enrollment, he said. “For us it was also a branding tool, a way to spread the Rutgers name to a large audience very quickly. We also thought that MOOCs (which are often, although not exclusively, offered as non-credit, stand alone or certificate courses) might drive enrollment to other [non-MOOC] courses we offer. In addition, many educational institutions thought we could learn a lot about student behavior, with a large sample, perhaps in the thousands, instead of the 20 or 30 that you’d get in a traditional class.”

University officials also wanted to study how tech platforms could handle the mega-large numbers of students associated with MOOCs; how these students would respond to video and other content; how long they stay engaged before clicking off a lecture; and whether many participated in discussions.

The results, though, were somewhat of a letdown.

“For the most part, the low fees associated with MOOCs mean they’re not generating significant revenues,” Bittmann reported.

Sidebar 1: Rowan University, MOOC trailblazer

In May 2016, Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine rolled out a first-in-the-nation MOOC focusing on its core subject. Spurred by Timothy Tsai, who was then a fourth-year medical student, the free course soon attracted more than 1,200 students who wanted to learn more about osteopathic medicine’s holistic approach to health promotion and disease prevention, according to the university[MD4] .  

“Before enrolling in medical school, I had experience with MOOCs and wanted to create something similar about osteopathic medicine,” Tsai said. “The course we designed provides an overview of osteopathic medicine. Even if you are not interested in that as your career, the course can be a great resource for learning exactly what an osteopathic physician does and how osteopathic manipulative treatment can help patients.”

The free, self-paced course provides an introduction to osteopathic medicine, using multiple points of view that include a new medical student and a seasoned professional in the field. Students explore the history of osteopathic medicine from its inception to  modern day and learn about modern manipulative medicine and its application in a clinical setting. The course is designed to take an average of four hours per week for up to four weeks.

The fee for a Rutgers course on supply-chain management, for example, is $49 a month (“the faster you go, the more you save,” according to the school’s website[MD2] ).

“Also, the MOOCs typically do not work as a recruiter to drive students to degree programs,” Bittmann said.

Still, Rutgers continues to offer them.

“As long as we’ve got faculty who have an interest in teaching them, we won’t get in the way,” Bittmann said. “As long as the quality of the work continues to meet Rutgers’ standards, it’s fine. But right now, we’re only offering about 10 MOOCs with a total enrollment of about 3,000 people, so the numbers aren’t really significant.”

Reaching more people

Despite that, Bittman said the mass online courses do bridge a gap, “bringing education to masses who may otherwise not be able to afford it or who do not have access to this kind of knowledge.” Still, although “there’s an element of curiosity among students; the completion rate for MOOCs is relatively low.”

That was brought out in a massive study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, which indicated MOOCs “have relatively few active users, that user ‘engagement’ falls off dramatically, especially after the first two weeks of a course, and that few users persist to the course end.”

The Penn GSE study analyzed the movement of a million users through 16 Coursera courses offered by the University of Pennsylvania from June 2012 to June 2013. Among other findings: course completion rates averaged only 4 percent, and across all courses, only about half of those who registered viewed at least one lecture within their selected course[MD3] .

As technology continues to advance, digital offerings like MOOCs will likely become more effective and cost-efficient, even if they don’t replace face-to-face or smaller online classes, according to Bittman.

“The high volume of participants in a MOOC makes it difficult for an instructor to deliver truly personalized instruction to students,” he explained. “If you’re one of thousands of students in a course, there can’t be much interaction with the instructor. In contrast, Rutgers’ fully online courses are very rich in engagement between students and instructors, with a highly interactive environment.”

The digital personalized experience is getting better and better, he added, “but at the end of the day there’s something magical and unique about face-to-face between students and instructors. You see this in meetings, when people are around a conference table and you can read each other’s body language and facial expression and get a better clue about what they’re saying.”

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