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Over the summer, the University of Michigan expanded its academic offering in an unusual aread — one that doesn't involve sitting in an actual classroom.

The University has added two new course specializations to Coursera, an online company which offers Massive Open Online Courses to learners seeking education in a certain field from an established university.

Course specializations are a sequence of several courses that fall under a certain subject. The two new specializations the University is offering are Applied Data Science with Python and Data Collection and Analysis. Once these specializations are completed, students receive an electronic certificate of completion.

In an email interview, James DeVaney, associate vice provost for academic innovation, wrote these specializations were approved by a faculty committee that works closely with the Office of Academic Innovation after first being proposed by the academic unit leadership that oversees the area of specialization.

“These exciting new courses were selected for many reasons as they create new pathways for global learners to connect to the U-M community and level up as data scientists; align with institutional priorities around academic excellence and diversity, equity, and inclusion; and seek to address important questions around opportunities in residential and hybrid learning,” DeVaney wrote.

The University has been partnered with Coursera since 2013 and edX, another online course company, since 2015. Combined, the University has created more than 90 MOOCs with nearly 5 million enrollments.

DeVaney wrote that the students enrolled in these classes are typically prospective Michigan students, current undergraduate and graduate students as well as alumni and learners from more than 200 countries around the world. The instructors do not receive class rosters for MOOCs like they would for an in-person college course so they do not know exactly who their students are.

Jim Lepkowski, a research professor at the Institute for Social Research, is part of the team that created the Data Collection and Analysis Specialization — a specialization the University shares with the University of Maryland.

Lepkowski, who is part of a group that has worked in Survey and Methodology for more than two decades, said the impetus for the specialization came from a course hosted by the University of Michigan and the University of Maryland. Parts of the course are filmed at Michigan and parts are filmed at Maryland, but students at both universities experience the class live. After several years of experimenting with a flipped classroom experience, the team realized they wanted to do more of this kind of teaching and contacted Coursera about creating a course on how to write questions for surveys.

Lepkowski said the course was surprisingly successful, and the team wanted to do more to teach about the science behind surveys.

“We began to view (the success of the first course) as an opportunity to spread the word about surveys, survey research and the science behind it,” Lepkowski said. “Not just anybody can do a survey but if you really want to do it well, here are the basic principles that you could use to write questions or to select a sample or to collect the data.”

It was then that Coursera contacted them about specializations and they decided to create the Data Collection and Analysis specialization. There are six courses and one capstone project under this specialization. While some of these courses have not yet been finished or released, there are already 3,000 people enrolled.

Each course in the specialization consists of units which have exercises that include multiple-choice questions for students to answer, trying until they are correct, as well as open-ended short answer questions. For open-ended questions, students have the chance for their work to be peer evaluated. Each unit also has a discussion board where students can post questions about the exercises and lectures.

Lepkowski said Coursera allows instructors to monitor how students learn and see their progression throughout the course.

“There are numbers we can see about how many students are doing what," Lepkowski said. “We can see what questions they’re struggling with, when they’ve made multiple attempts to answer correctly and we can see their responses to questions on the discussion boards and see what their writing is like.”

Christopher Brooks, a professor in the School of Information, is part of the team that created Applied Data Science with Python. He said after creating some courses with Coursera, he approached some faculty and his dean about creating the specialization around last December.

Brooks created the first two courses for the specialization. Before the first course is released on Sept. 26, Brooks said there will be a beta test that a group of University students will take to see which parts of the course they like and which parts need improvement. Following the first release, a new course will be released each month.

Brooks said MOOCs are beneficial to students because they can learn at a time and place of their choosing.

“It’s anytime, anywhere learning so students can watch in their dorm room, watch it on the bus, watch it at midnight in their pajamas. They can also skip parts that they know already,” Brooks said.

Another benefit of taking MOOCs, Lepkowski said, is that there are more opportunities to see where students are struggling and to make connections between the material and difficult areas, which can be harder to do in a physical classroom settings.

“Sometimes in the courses that you take you don’t get much of a sense of how it all fits together between courses,” Lepkowski said. “I think Coursera helps in being able to see the broader picture of what this is all about.”

Lepkowski said though there are a lot of opportunities to interact with other students and the instructor on Coursera, he does not think it compares to a regular classroom experience where students are face-to-face with an instructor.

Because there is no face-to-face interaction or a degree attached to MOOCs, students taking these courses must use their own motivation to complete the course. However, Brooks said this aspect of MOOCs has helped expand his teaching, and that the diversity of students who enroll in MOOCs has caused him to be more inclusive in his teaching.  

“One of the big (benefits of MOOCs) is it helps us think about students differently because we think about a broader array of students, a more diverse population than we’re teaching,” Brooks said.

The University hopes to continue its partnerships with Coursera and edX as part of its commitment academic innovation, DeVaney wrote.

DeVaney also noted that the data they receive from MOOCs will change the way the University approaches education.

“We look closely at data from each of our courses, and across this growing portfolio of courses, to inform the way we design, deliver and assess learning on campus and beyond,” DeVaney said.

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