It’s All about the Assets

Digital materials and knowledge.

October 6, 2014

Over the last two years, Rice University has developed a MOOC course portfolio of over 40 courses in topics from engineering and biochemistry to religion, energy, and computer science, and we show no signs of slowing down. We have delivered these courses across edX and Coursera platforms, packaged them as stand alone courses, specializations (a series of courses), structured them as open and closed courses, and, in the process, enrolled hundreds of thousands of learners. The costs of this endeavor in time and money have been substantial and the return on investment—at least in dollars—thus far has been negligible to say the least.

So one might well ask, particularly at a university that prides itself on its smarts, WHY? Why do this expensive and difficult thing? And, particularly, why do it if you are committed to delivering top quality residential education to your matriculated students? What’s the value proposition for putting award winning faculty to work on creating digital education assets for the masses? And even more pointedly, aren’t you eroding your own business model by ‘giving away for free’ what students and their families are spending hard-earned money to acquire?

The answer is as simple as the question: it’s all about the assets.  And by this I mean two things—

1) the digital materials (such as short lectures and assessments) that are built slowly, carefully, and with the sweat equity of faculty instructors and the videographers, editors, instructional designers, programmers, and project directors who work hundreds of hours to make the online course material impactful and

2) the knowledge about teaching and learning that faculty and the university gains as a collateral benefit of developing these materials. 

And if you think about these two assets for a minute you will realize what a powerful combination they are and what the benefits might be for creating and delivering to our enrolled students the ‘unsurpassed teaching’ to which Rice commits itself in its mission statement.  

For these two assets are breathtakingly powerful tools in the tool kit of Rice’s top quality educational endeavor. In fact, they are transforming that education. Through digital delivery, Rice now reaches students years before they arrive at college through the nine Advanced Placement RiceX MOOCS that we are developing in STEM areas such as Physics, Biology, Chemistry, Environmental Science, and Statistics.  These RiceX MOOCS level the playing field in college readiness by creating the opportunity for all students to prepare themselves for advanced placement tests regardless of their high school AP offerings. And by creating special personalized study units that target particularly hard-to-grasp concepts, the private preparatory RiceX online short courses that we are developing alongside these MOOCS will give students the extra attention they may need to get that 4 or 5 on the AP exam. And, of course, we all know that coming in to college with credits already accrued is a big leg up in successful time to degree, not to mention a student’s success rate in individual coursework.

Fundamentally, these MOOCS are an ongoing resource for all students contemplating their first college physics or chemistry courses. Regardless of whether or not incoming freshmen have taken the AP course, Rice’s AP MOOCS give them the chance to brush up on the building blocks of STEM college coursework, serving an important college readiness need. And because we are pairing these courses, as much as possible, with Rice’s free OpenStaxCollege biology and physics textbooks, both the class and the book are open access and freely available to anyone who wants to learn (https://www.edx.org/school/ricex/new).

Once they are on our campus, the two assets I mentioned are transforming the education that our matriculated students receive. Faculty ‘blend’ the digital content they develop into their Rice courses in all kinds of innovative ways, creating more opportunities for personalized, high touch learning to happen. They might assign some of their lectures as homework or ask students to do the assessments before they get to class and then use class time for seminar style learning. Or they might have Rice students act as teaching assistants and answer questions that the MOOC learners ask on the online forums. 

All of these classroom methods open the doors for our matriculated students to engage sooner and more fully with our faculty and with the research and teaching mission of our campus. They also give our students intellectual leadership opportunities earlier and more frequently than ever before.  Excited by the digital revolution, students have frequently formed research teams, helping faculty develop online courseware and thereby becoming collaborators in the join endeavor that is learning.

Whatever they decide to do with the digital assets they create in their Rice classrooms, faculty consistently describe the process of creating this digital content as a transformative moment in their teaching careers. “I will never teach the same way again” is a common refrain. The most obvious example of what this looks like off of 6100 Main St can be seen in the tempo of classes. Faculty who have built or taught a MOOC are reorganizing their 50 or 75 minute classes into a series of 8-10 minute lecture ‘shorts’ followed by quick assessments or group exercises. They are finding that, just as online learners need to test their comprehension before moving on, so too do Rice students benefit from more frequent interactive assessments.  There is nowhere to hide if you are sitting in the back of a lecture hall—you have to get actively in the game of learning no matter how far you are from the chalkboard.

Even if you happen to be in Paris. Rice students who took our Rice Online Course (ROC) in biochemistry this summer met in google chat rooms that doubled as classrooms to ask each other questions and interact with the teaching assistant. The Rice faculty member teaching the class spent much more time teaching the class than she would have had it been on campus, but the students were able to engage with her and each other from all parts of the globe. One finished his final exam from Paris. Others worked from their dining room tables at home after finishing the summer jobs that help finance their college years. All of them said that they couldn’t have taken the course if being on campus was a requirement, and all of them begin this academic year with BIOC300 successfully under their belts and the next course in the sequence on their fall schedules.  They will be able to go further, learn more, and credential themselves better in their four years at Rice as a result.

Finally, these assets are generating the professional development and professional education opportunities that make for a fulfilling and robust full life cycle of learning for all of us.  With professional education short courses in energy and healthcare as a start, Rice is engaging with our Houston community as well as with professionals around the globe, offering resources that we hope will equip those who work in dynamic and fast-paced industries with the tools they need to continue to grow as thinkers, leaders, and practitioners (https://www.edx.org/school/ricex/new).

Because that is ultimately what higher education aims to do—make a continuous and dynamic learning environment for the insatiably curious. Two assets—2) digital content that we repurpose, aggregate, and remix to meet the differential needs of our varied learning populations; and 2) deeper knowledge about learning and teaching.   For a research university like Rice, this is a powerful combination that helps to make our campus a place alive with innovation and experiments in learning. And that, in the final analysis, is what a university is—a place of possibility and radical invention. All in all, money well spent.

Caroline Levander is Vice President Strategic Initiatives & Digital Education at Rice University.

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