ARLINGTON, Texas -- The story so far: Massive open online courses have yet to live up to their potential. But unlocking that potential could already be a pilot at a community college, state university or private institution.
More than 200 scholars from institutions all over the world have gathered here at a conference hosted by the University of Texas at Arlington to hear preliminary results from the MOOC Research Initiative, a grant program founded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and administered by Athabasca University in Canada. Grantees, who received between $10,000 and $25,000 to examine how MOOCs can be used to change higher education, will compile their findings in a forthcoming edition of the International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning.
The research presented on Thursday was perhaps best summarized by research conducted by the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, which analyzed the study habits of 1 million students across 16 Coursera courses between June of 2012 and 2013.
“Emerging data ... show that massive open online courses (MOOCs) have relatively few active users, that user ‘engagement’ falls off dramatically especially after the first 1-2 weeks of a course, and that few users persist to the course end,” a summary of the study reads.
For anyone who has paid even the slightest bit of attention to the MOOC space over the past year, those conclusions hardly qualify as revelations. Yet some presenters said they felt the first day of the conference served as an opportunity to confirm some of those commonly held beliefs about MOOCs.
Many speakers repeatedly pointed out that the cost of MOOC production -- which can reach hundreds of thousands of dollars -- has created classes of MOOC producing and MOOC consuming institutions. This creates issues for both groups; the former doesn't want to appear elitist, while the latter rejects content not created by their own faculty members.
“Maybe this seems obvious,” said Christopher Brooks, a research fellow at the University of Michigan School of Information. “Lots of things seem obvious in hindsight.”
An earlier session, on “MOOCs and Traditional Universities,” delivered a sobering look at what MOOCs are actually being used for -- and those uses have far more modest goals than revolutionizing all of higher education. Instead, some initiatives show MOOCs are "neither the scourge nor the savior" that the fiercest opponents and proponents claim they are, said Deborah Keyek-Franssen, associate vice president for digital education and engagement at the University of Colorado System.
“I don’t see revenue, and we’re not going to see revenue in Colorado for ... ever -- or for a long time,” Keyek-Franssen said. “We are not ready for Signature Track.... We’re not ready for credit.... We will probably not license anyone else’s content.”
The university system has experimented with MOOCs through Canvas and Coursera, but the results have yet to provide a definite answer.
“What I’ve been trying to is reframe the question,” Keyek-Franssen said. “The question is: Is it worth it? Is it worth it to the faculty? Is it worth it the financial investment? Is it worth it to restructure our support units to be able to provide significant among of expertise that we currently don’t have in-house?”
Keyek-Franssen wasn’t asking the questions rhetorically. “For us, we’ll continue to do them because there are so many enthusiastic faculty members,” she said. “But we don’t have that [return on investment] piece, and without that, you can’t convince leadership or financial planners.”
Other panelists remarked that some institutions are much more limited in the ways they can experiment with MOOCs. In North Carolina, where community colleges are beginning to be evaluated and funded based on degree completion, no one is rushing to embrace a teaching model that retains less than 10 percent of students, said Laura Kalbaugh, dean of academic success and transition resources at Wake Technical Community College.
“We’re not able to open ourselves up for that as much,” Kalbaugh said.
With a $50,000 grant from the Gates Foundation, Wake Tech and Udacity created an introductory algebra review MOOC that prepares students for college placement tests. Although data show only about 3.5 percent of students access the MOOC for test prep purposes, Kalbaugh said more than two-thirds use the material to improve their general math skills.
“We looked at creating [MOOCs] as part of that open door,” Kalbaugh said. “One of the missions of community college is to allow students to come and do exploration, and that’s where we see MOOCs really being a benefit for us.”
Throughout Thursday’s sessions, presenters reminded listeners that their research -- and the search for more uses for MOOCs -- requires more time.
“Universities -- especially state universities -- are facing tremendous budget crunches. So are Harvard, MIT, everybody,” said Akiba Covitz, senior vice president of strategic relationships for Academic Partnerships. “How do we do this amazing thing and get our ideas out the world and not go bankrupt? This is the challenge.”
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