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UT-Austin and Cornell U. students question their institutions' investments in MOOCs

What's In It for Us?
February 12, 2014

Cornell University and the University of Texas at Austin may have trumpeted their partnerships with -- and pledged millions to -- the massive open online course provider edX, but to no avail: Their students don't seem to understand why.

“A year after UT began rolling out nine Massive Online Open Courses, the results are in,” The Daily Texan wrote in a Jan. 29 editorial, which appears to have been inspired by a recent article in The Texas Tribune. Among the “results” are completion rates ranging from 1 to 13 percent, the lack of credit granting courses and the $150,000 to $300,000 production costs.

“The university hasn’t laid out long-term goals for the MOOCs, and the numbers don’t bode particularly well for the courses’ overall success,” the editorial reads. “We’re confused as to why an unproven and unused educational experiment that isn’t even aimed at UT students is something the system feels they should continue funding.”

Members of the editorial board did not respond to a request for comments.

This week, students at Cornell voiced similar concerns, arguing that “the administration has not yet outlined how MOOCs will benefit Cornell students.”

“MOOC backlash” has become a common refrain in the conversation as the course delivery method transitions through the different stages of hype, but criticism has rarely come from students at the institutions offering MOOCs. Based on the questions raised, the editorials indicate students may see MOOCs as their alma mater investing millions of dollars in a project aimed at everyone but paying students -- and also that university officials need to improve how they communicate the worth of their experiments.

Administrators and faculty members at UT-Austin acknowledged that questions about completion rates and revenue generation are legitimate factors in the ongoing debate surrounding MOOCs, but with one major caveat: The results are barely starting to come in.

“When we’re doing experiments, you should not expect perfection or even good things at first,” said Michael Starbird, professor of mathematics. “The big-picture question is: Should the university be investing in educational experiments -- and the answer is emphatically yes.”

Starbird is part of the second phase of UT-Austin’s MOOC rollout, and his course, Effective Thinking Through Mathematics, debuts on Feb. 18. The university launched its first four MOOCs last fall and will add another five this spring, all of which are hosted by edX. The University of Texas System joined the MOOC provider’s consortium in October 2012, investing $5 million in the platform and pledging another $5 million to support course development.

Harrison Keller, UT-Austin’s vice provost of higher education policy and research, said about $1.5 million of that money has so far produced those nine MOOCs.

“Let’s say you spend $300,000 to develop one online course,” Keller said. “That sounds like a ton of money -- and it is a ton of money. In principle, you could develop an online course for $10,000, but if you develop high quality materials that ... you’re able to leverage in different ways, that’s not actually not a bad number at all. If all we were going to do was produce MOOCs, I think we would be terribly misguided, but that’s not our view.”

Of course, those sums look like chump change when seen in light of the system’s operating budget, which this year totals about $14.6 billion. UT-Austin by itself is about a “$2.25 billion corporation,” Keller said.

The $10 million also pales in comparison to other investments made campuswide. The system this fiscal year allocated $55.5 million to UT-Austin for recruitment and retention efforts, a spokeswoman said, and Keller estimated that simply maintaining the institution’s IT infrastructure costs a minimum of $40 million a year.

“From UT-Austin’s perspective, we’re excited about what we’ve done with MOOCs, but it’s just one arrow in the quiver,” Keller said. “You can overemphasize a particular mode of delivery or a particular platform in ways that actually locks you in.... Let’s step back and think about how we can deliver high-quality content in multiple modes on multiple platforms.”

The October 2012 announcement tempted “courses through edX that will allow students to earn college credits toward a degree,” which Keller said is likely to become a reality this fall. The university plans to introduce a statistics course that can be taken as a free MOOC through edX, a blended course on campus and a dual credit course through the OnRamps initiative for the state’s high school students.

John Hoberman, professor of Germanic languages, said freshmen in his globalization course this fall are also likely to get a similar treatment.

“There’s a certain sense in which the sky’s the limit,” Hoberman said of the early stages of MOOC experimentation. “There are a variety of pedagogical arrangements that could integrate this MOOC into a credit granting course that really would serve University of Texas students.”

Starbird does not yet have plans to flip his classroom, but said teaching a MOOC has taught him to appreciate how students learn. “It’s interesting from the point of view of the reality of what is involved in people taking steps to come to an understanding of an idea,” he said.

Hoberman also asked critics to consider the potential benefits for students around the world.

“This round of MOOCs is a philanthropic enterprise,” Hoberman said. “It is a gift to the world -- that’s my favorite slogan. I don’t see why such gifts to the world should not be produced by the great universities of wealthy societies. To the University of Texas students, I’m saying, you know what, there is another deserving audience out there that -- for the most part -- does not have your resources.”

 

 

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