University to offer more massive open online courses

Tuesday, December 1, 2015 - 9:12pm

Since the summer, the University has nearly doubled the number of massively open online courses, MOOCs, it offers on both the Coursera and edX online platforms.

This includes 42 currently available courses on Coursera and two courses that will be available in the spring of 2016 on the edX platform, covering subjects ranging from programming and finance to classical music.

James DeVaney, associate vice provost for Digital Education and Innovation, wrote in an e-mail interview that MOOCs not only help faculty members teach larger audiences, but also serve as a testing ground for new educational technologies and strategies.

MOOCs are largely administered through the Office of Digital Education and Innovation, which partners with interested faculty members and helps them in planning and implementing their online courses.

“Our growing portfolio of MOOCs represent two complementary goals: increasing access to high-quality education for global learners, and reimagining residential education for the 21st century,” DeVaney wrote.

In an October interview with The Michigan Daily, University Provost Martha Pollack said there were several institutional priorities for digital education at the University as a whole, including online course offerings like MOOCs.

She pointed, in particular, to enhancing the residential educational experience through programs that track student analytics such as Student Explorer and Art Education 2.0, offering online degrees in a small targeted number of cases and engaging a global audience.

“We’ve been very involved in digital education now — for many many years, but particularly have ramped up the activity over the last four or five years,” Pollack said. “And I think it’s really important when we think about digital education, not just to think about MOOCs but to think about things like Student Explorer and Art 2.0 and all kinds of innovative ways that students and faculty can make use of the technology to have a better learning experience.”

Charles Severance, clinical associate professor of information who teaches a 5-sequence Coursera course on Python programming that was launched this September, said global engagement was one of the biggest benefits of the platform.

Severance noted that his online student roster consists of a wide variety of ages and professions.

“There’s a lot of learners in the world and we’re meeting their demand as educators,” he said.

Pollack said she felt reaching a global audience is strongly in line with the University’s priorities.

“A third goal (of digital education) is to reach out to the world, just like we do when we write papers, or we do performances, or we do op-ed pieces to share what we know with the world,” she said. “And I think that that is just completely aligned with our mission as a public university.”

Severance said as a professor, the self-paced nature of MOOCs is also a significant benefit over traditional in-person classes because they allow him to add optional bonus lessons on interesting topics that would normally be left out in a semester-long residential course due to time constraints.

In his experience, he said, they’ve also proven to be less work during the semester. Aside from the phase where a MOOC’s lectures are recorded and the inaugural session where any errors are resolved, these courses often require no more than one hour per week of the primary instructor’s time.

However, Severance also noted that the self-paced and impersonal nature of MOOCs prevents instructors such as himself from placing the same kind of pressures on students that would be possible in a physical classroom.

“The only real disadvantage (with MOOCs) is that there’s no real time pressure, so we have to come up with ways to deal with this,” Severance said, adding that he typically structures a MOOC to be half the speed of a corresponding university course.

Because the courses are self-paced and many of the participants are not full-time students, time conflicts often prevent enrollees from being able to complete the course. Of the 209,628 visitors to his introductory Python class since September 15, only 18,162 students had completed it as of November 30.

“It’s understandable, because they all have lives outside of online learning,” Severance said.

According to DEI, the University’s MOOCs have attracted more than 3 million users over the past several years.