Massive Open Online Courses progress at University

By Carly Noah, Daily Staff Reporter
Published January 8, 2015

Three years ago, the University was one of four founding partners of Coursera, a digital platform that hosts Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, which allow individuals from across the world to take academic courses online.

Though a relatively new idea in higher education at the time, now 15 University professors teach courses on the platform and have reached a collective 1.5 million students worldwide, according to the University’s department of Digital Education and Innovation.

For University students and faculty, MOOCs have been a key example of digital education’s growth and change both on campus and beyond — one that’s been met with both enthusiasm and caution.

University Prof. Scott Page, who teaches complex systems, political science and economics, taught the University’s first MOOC, Model Thinking.

“At the time, no one knew what would happen — how many people would take the course, how much work it would be… (I) did it because I thought it would be a learning experience and because I believe in the material I’m teaching,” Page said. “(The University) wanted a social science course that was easy to decompose into models that did not rely on much copyrighted material.”

Page said he thought the benefits of online courses were vast and could be altered to fit a wide range of students.

“The benefits everyone mentions are retrievability and scale,” Page said. “Once it’s taped, you can access the course anytime and anywhere. And you can have hundreds of thousands of students — I’m nearing three-quarters of a million.”

Page added that MOOCs helped improved his own skills as an educator.

“I found that there was an enormous benefit from going through the process of constructing the lectures,” Page said. “I became a better teacher and thinker. Also, it’s really a thrill to interact with people globally, even if only electronically.”

While many professors and individuals in the higher education community like Page have responded to MOOCs with enthusiasm, research also shows that residential students — those who take classes in-person at a university— aren’t entirely sold on the concept. The primary target for MOOCs are often students who are not currently enrolled at a traditional college campus.

Christopher Brooks, a School of Information research fellow, has done extensive MOOCs-related research and is a member of DEI’s USE Lab, which studies instructional technology. Brooks said while he’s found that a majority of students find value in MOOCs offered by their institution, more than a third still indicate they’re unsure of the benefits.

“There has been significant debate as to the value of MOOCs for students in traditional higher education,” Brooks said. “This uncertainty is reflected in the student body.”

He said the format and structure of these courses remain in an experimental phase.

“(MOOCs) are constantly changing, are being pushed and pulled in various ways — from large public universities like Michigan showcasing the breadth of programming, to private venture capital-backed corporations like Coursera, to quasi-governmental organizations that deal with workplace training,” he said.

However, Brooks predicted that within the next five years, MOOCs will become a regular part of public universities.

Some critics worry MOOCs might lead to the downfall of traditional college campuses in the future. Still, Dan Russell, one of Google’s top researchers who met with the University’s Board of Regents when they traveled to California in 2013, said the courses are not intended to displace four-year institutions.

“Historically, once upon a time, universities were threatened by the introduction of low-cost printed books,” Russell said in a 2013 interview with The Michigan Daily. “They survived that. That seems inconceivable now. When we look back at this time 20 years from now, universities, I predict, will still be around and we’ll have the same sort of ‘you’re kidding’ response. ‘How could they think this could destroy the university?’”

Citing an experiment currently underway where residential MBA students give virtual office hours for MOOCs on finance, he said the University’s ability to incorporate online courses could also provide opportunities for traditional students to both teach and learn.

For University professors who don’t currently incorporate MOOCs in the classroom, like John T. Lehman, ecology and evolutionary biology professor, there’s also caution that MOOCs be created and presented in a way that students find the course beneficial and relevant to their educational growth.

Lehman said for them to be useful, they must be tailored to fit the needs of students.

“Digital education is a term with a cultural meaning that is changing rapidly,” Lehman said. “I think of it as part of the continuum of technologies to aid learning that includes spoken and written language, the printing press, radio, television, etc. The key is to recognize what it can deliver best, such as repetitive low-stakes learning exercises, to many students asynchronously.”